Lifestyle & Belief

This imam from Louisiana survived the Dallas shooting. He doesn't think America can wait to deal with race.

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Imam Omar Suleiman, top center, helped lead prayers at a memorial service for five policemen killed last week in a sniper attack in Dallas, Texas. Suleiman shared with the stage with U.S. President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, former first lady Laura Bush and President George W. Bush, first lady Michelle Obama, Obama and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings. 

Credit:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters 

Imam Omar Suleiman was invited to help lead prayers at Tuesday’s memorial service in Dallas for five police officers shot and killed in the Texas city last week. 

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But he had a few reservations. 
    
Apart from the anxiousness anyone would have about stepping into the national spotlight, Suleiman found out that George W. Bush and Ted Cruz would also be taking part. That made him uneasy. 

After all, President Bush led the US into war in Iraq. And Cruz once proposed, as a presidential candidate, special patrols for Muslim neighborhoods. To put it mildly, these two men are not popular politicians among American Muslims. 

“I’m an advocate [for] peace and justice,” Suleiman says. “I don’t believe in many of the things that were done in [Bush’s] presidency.” 

“That was a conflict,” he says. And with Cruz, “Unfortunately, his campaign was very much … based on xenophobia and pitting Americans against one another.” 

Suleiman sought advice about participating from people close to him. In the end, he decided to do it. And he was glad he did.

“The greater good necessitated that we put all those differences aside. So, as much as I spoke out against the war in Iraq and other wars, as much as I felt the hatred that came out of the campaign that was run by Senator Ted Cruz, it was important that we stood there together.” 

“I was there for my city, my faith, and my country,” he says. “I was there because I love Dallas. … My faith requires me to speak out against hatred and injustice of all sorts. And I was there for my country, because this is not the path that I want to see my country go down.” 

Recent events hit close to home for Suleiman, an imam at the Valley Ranch Islamic Center outside of Dallas. He was at the demonstration against police brutality last Thursday night when the shooting started. He fled for his life.

“I went out there to support a cause that is near and dear to my heart. I think there’s no doubt that black lives have not mattered, or have not been treated with the same dignity as other lives, for a very long time,” says Suleiman. 

“Baton Rouge is where I got married. I’m from New Orleans, Louisiana. My wife is from Baton Rouge. My mother’s grave is actually right behind North Foster Drive where Alton Sterling was shot.” 

Suleiman emphasizes that protesters were demonstrating against police brutality, not police officers. In fact, he says he shook hands with police at the end of the march and thanked them for doing a fine job. That was right before the shooting started. 

“It seemed like an eternity of gunshots,” he says. “Hours and hours of gunshots.” 

As the crowd started to flee, Suleiman says he locked eyes with his colleague, Pastor Michael Waters. They got off the street and found a ride to Waters’ church. “We sat together. We reflected. We prayed,” Suleiman says. “I was quite numb. I don’t think it hit me that I had just been running for my life until somewhere around Friday evening.” 

“Seeing what I saw, my thoughts were, ‘I hope that this does not set off a battle on the streets of Dallas. We don’t need any more of this.’” 

Suleiman has good things to say about the Dallas police. “Their hearts were with us for that demonstration,” he says. “They get it.” 

“Sadly, it takes hatred at times to teach us how to love. It takes adversity to bring us together,” he adds.

The question now is, what comes next?

Suleiman names some of the big challenges facing America right now, highlighted by recent events, as gun violence, racism, xenophobia and police brutality.

“What I said in the beginning of my prayer is that as a city of Dallas, we were heartbroken. But as a country, we’re soul-searching. I truly do believe that as a country, this is a pivotal moment in the history of country,” Suleiman says. 

“Are we going to be a pluralistic, tolerant, accepting nation that is guided by a unifying principle that everyone has the right to live with the same level of dignity, and be treated equally by the law, and be free to worship in a way that they please, and live their lives in the way that they please?” he asks. “Are we going to be united by that principal?”  

Here's a video of Suleiman's prayer.