I've been thinking a lot about Fawaz Damra, the Imam of the Islamic Center of Cleveland. He is currently in the process of being deported for, according to the Associated Press (via the Akron Beacon Journal), "concealing ties to three groups that the U.S. government classifies as terrorist organizations when he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1994."
Imam Damra has previously been in the news because of 1991 videotape that surfaced after 9/11 in which he spoke about Jewish people in hateful terms and spoke favorably of terrorism. He publicly apologized for his words, blaming them on his youth.
I met Imam Damra in the fall of 2000 (if my memory is correct). He is the person from whom I learned about Islam. When I was a religion minor at Kent State, I took a colloquium related to the Harvard Pluralism Project centered on religious diversity in Northeastern Ohio. We visited all sorts of religious centers, including a Shiva-Vishnu Hindu temple in Parma, a Laotian Buddhist temple in Akron, and the beautiful new mosque in Cuyahoga Falls. Imam Damra came prior to our visit at the mosque to prepare us for the trip. I remember sitting next to him around the Honors Library table, taking notes on his ruminations about the Five Pillars of Islam. At the time, Islam was the faith that perplexed and intrigued me the most - the one that I least understood, and yet most respected. It didn't have the smells and bells, gorgeous renderings of divinities, and mid-worship date & nut snacks of Hinduism. It didn't have the stoic yet sage mysticism of Buddhism. In my mind, Islam simply had God - and in comparison to the sensory experiences anchoring the other faiths, that seemed painfully spare. The Muslims I met that semester radiated a resolute passion for obeying a God they were forbidden to see or touch or eat or paint, and that was more foreign to me than any ecstatic dance or holy meal.
I hope that Fawaz Damra really is the man of peace that I met at Kent State. I hope that the conversion he claims is real, just as I hope that the conversion claimed by Stanley "Tookie" Williams is real. I hope that people can be redeemed, that the light of nonviolence and love is strong enough to compel people out of violence and hate.