When Osama Idlibi, president of the Muslim American Society of Charlotte, N.C., spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte on February 22, he drew standing ovations at both services. Idlibi joined the church’s senior minister, the Rev. James C. “Jay” Leach, in leading the services, entitled “Wisdom from the World’s Religious Traditions: Islam in Charlotte.”
Leach, who had invited Idlibi to speak after the two began a friendship in recent months, said the service and ongoing efforts to build bridges with the local Muslim community are especially important given recent events, including the murder on February 10 of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, N.C., which many believe was a hate crime.
After opening with the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, Idlibi gave a moving, often-humorous talk, sharing his dramatic personal journey from Aleppo, Syria, to Charlotte. Idlibi, whose wife and three children attended the services, discussed the challenges of being Muslim in American society. He condemned “in no uncertain terms any act of violence” committed in the name of Islam, said Leach. (Listen to Idlibi’s talk; MP3. This link has been updated.)
Introducing himself, Idlibi said, “My name is Osama,” pausing as the congregation laughed, “Idlibi. Don’t be scared. I wouldn’t harm an ant.” He added, “I am your brother in humanity.”
After noting that there “are literally millions with the name Osama,” Idlibi said that President Obama’s “father just probably misspelled his name. I want to see his birth certificate!” As the congregation again laughed, he added, solemnly, “Ignorance is vast and we must continue to educate.”
Noting that there are approximately 15,000 Muslims in Charlotte who worship in 10 mosques, Idlibi talked about growing anti-Muslim sentiment as a threat to all people. “What people like ISIS are doing is completely un-Islamic,” he said, adding that ISIS is “neither Islamic nor a state.”
“He talked about why he’s a Muslim, and his piety came out,” said Leach. “He’s a deeply faithful man who’s deeply, deeply committed to and shaped by his Islamic faith.” Idlibi closed with a “beautiful personal credo,” Leach said, that expressed his devotion to justice, equality, “helping those in need,” and “the power of smiling.” As he finished, the congregations in both services “leapt to their feet with thunderous applause,” Leach said.
Leach said the warm reception for Idlibi demonstrates his congregation’s commitment to overcoming barriers that divide people from each other. He was “equally impressed and proud” of the congregation’s openness to Idlibi’s explicit religious language, he said.
“It said a whole lot to me about this congregation and its spiritual depth that they could hear through those words—words I know some found challenging, and a piety I know some felt challenging—and they could hear what was at the core of that,” said Leach. “We not only learned about Islam but the way this faith works in someone we found compelling, and that it motivates him in the same way our values motivate us.”
Idlibi, a graduate of University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is vice president at Carolina Medical Lab, a multimillion-dollar medical testing company launched in 1998 by his father. When Idlibi was a boy in Syria, his uncles and grandfather were murdered for their religious faith. His father, a physician, escaped first to the United Arab Emirates, then to the U.S., where Idlibi, his mother, and brother soon followed—poor “but rich in belief and ambition and hope.” As his father’s medical career developed, they moved eight times in the U.S. before landing in Charlotte.
Leach and Idlibi first connected several months ago. In September, a number of leaders in the Muslim community of Charlotte held a press conference to denounce the violence of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terrorist group, and to emphasize that violence against civilians is against the teachings of the Qur’an.
“They were making exactly the kinds of statements we often hear people say Muslims never make,” said Leach. “It impressed me. It saddened me they felt the need to do it, but they did it without equivocation and they made a very clear statement.”
One young speaker at the September press conference, who turned out to be Idlibi, made a particularly strong impression on Leach. Leach reached out to Idlibi via email, and they eventually met over lunch. For almost three hours, they discussed their respective religious lives—Idlibi had never heard of Unitarian Universalism—and personal journeys. “I was struck by how spiritually grounded this guy is,” said Leach. “He’s a deeply, deeply faithful person.” Leach also enjoyed Idlibi’s sense of humor.
Leach asked Idlibi to be a guest speaker at the Charlotte UU church, which he felt was especially important after the Rev. Franklin Graham convinced Duke University to withdraw its approval for Muslim students to use the Duke Chapel for their call to prayer.
Idlibi accepted. Then, on February 10, three Muslim students, Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad, and Yusor’s sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were murdered in Chapel Hill. Idlibi asked Leach to join a vigil the next day in Charlotte for the victims, and Leach and the Rev. Robin Tanner of the Piedmont UU Church in Charlotte attended the vigil, at which Idlibi was a speaker.
Leach said he will continue to find ways to build bridges with the Muslim community.