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There is an old Arabic maxim that describes a particular remarkable person as “a nation in a man.” Such men and women are rare in history. But this description is truly the best portrayal of Dr. Jamal Barzinji, who passed away on September 26, the second day of the Muslim feast of sacrifice, at the age of 75.
I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing Dr. Barzinji since 1976. He left his native country, Iraq, in the late 1950s as his life was threatened by the regime because of his student activism. He subsequently received his Bachelor’s degree from England in 1962 and his MS and PhD degrees from the U.S. in 1968 and 1974 respectively. Dr. Jamal was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever encountered. He was an intellectual, an educator, a community builder, a brilliant strategist, a humanitarian, a loving family man, and for countless others a problem solver. His personal attributes of intellect, spirituality, compassion, patience, kindness, generosity, and decency endeared him to everyone who knew him.
As an intellectual Dr. Jamal co-founded in 1981, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), an institute dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge, high quality research, and serious dialogue between Muslim and Western scholars. During this period he oversaw the publications of over 600 titles including some of the best books and manuscripts ever produced in the last three decades in the fields of Islamic disciplines, social sciences, and the humanities. As an educator, he served for many years as an academic dean at the International Islamic University in Malaysia.
As a senior officer in IIIT, he raised millions of dollars establishing endowed chair positions and centers in some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. and around the world including Georgetown University, Harvard University, Hartford Seminary, George Mason University, Cambridge University, California State University, and many others. He also oversaw the sponsorship of thousands of educational scholarships for deserving and committed students regardless of race, gender, or faith.
In 1983, I witnessed first hand when Dr. Barzinji and IIIT offered full university scholarships by sponsoring over one hundred and fifty Palestinian students who had scholarships from the UAE that were cut off after one year of study in the U.S. when a new minister of education in the UAE was appointed and abruptly withdrew the support without warning. These students who became successful professionals and have been serving the Palestinian people in Gaza, the West Bank and the diaspora for over 30 years, would not have been able to complete their graduate degrees had it not been for the compassion, commitment, and foresight of Dr. Barzinji and his colleagues at IIIT.
As a community builder, Dr. Barzinji was involved in the establishment of every major Islamic organization in the United States in the past four decades, where he either headed the organization, served on its board, or helped in building its programs and outreach, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), the North American Islamic Trust (NAIT), the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), The World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), The American Muslim Council (AMC), the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS), The Fairfax Institute, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), as well as many other organizations and institutions from all over the world, big and small, Muslim and non-Muslim, who sought his counsel and support because he was a resourceful intellectual, a brilliant strategist, and an effective leader, who cared deeply about education, justice, humanity , women’s rights, and empowerment of the weak. He counted among his many friends and colleagues hundreds of scholars and clergy including Christian, Jewish, and people of other faiths who loved his company and respected him deeply.
Upon hearing the devastating news, my wife Nahla sadly but reflexively said, “Today, the American Muslim community has been orphaned.” This comment truly summarizes the void that is left by, and the impact of, the departure of Dr. Barzinji, who spent over fifty years in the West to empower his fellow Muslims and integrate them in the society at large with full recognition and respect.
My last meal with Dr. Barzinji on February 2, 2015, two days before I left the US for Turkey.
But the state of the American Muslim community before and after the tragic attacks of 9/11 could best be illustrated through two powerful but contrasting events, with one of them involving Dr. Barzinji.
In June 2001, leaders of the major American Muslim organizations were invited to the White House to discuss former President George Bush’s faith-based initiative. The Muslim community at the time felt empowered, as it stood united and firm against the use of secret evidence employed against Arab and Muslim immigrants by President Clinton’s justice department.
Even though by the end of 2000, all victims of secret evidence were freed through the collective and sustained efforts of many individuals and organizations, the American Muslim community supported Bush during the 2000 presidential elections based on his promise to oppose and ban this unconstitutional practice. When Bush won Florida and with it the presidency, due credit was given to the American Muslim community, which demanded that the political establishment fulfill its promises as this meeting at the White House was taking place in recognition of the community just few months before 9/11. However, the meeting was disrupted when a high level Zionist in the National Security Council at the White House asked the Secret Service to eject my son (because of his last name) who was 21 year-old at the time and who was also interning with Congressman David Bonior (the Minority Whip in the House at the time.) Within seconds the leaders of the American Muslim community immediately ended the meeting in protest and were united in their stand against this exclusionary politics utilized by some government officials in their attempts to divide American Muslims. They held an impromptu news conference in front of the White House and demanded an official apology. Within hours, the White House press secretary apologized in public, the Secret Service apologized to my son and offered him a guided tour of the West Wing, and President Bush personally sent a written apology to the family.
Contrast this event with another one in the fall of 2010 under supposedly a friendlier White House, where a delegation of American Muslim leaders was invited. This time another individual was also excluded from the meeting and not allowed to enter the White House, though sadly the other members of the delegation shamefully proceeded as if nothing had happened. The person who was excluded this time was none other than Dr. Barzinji, who could be fittingly called the father of the American Muslim community. So when the American Muslim leaders stood with a 21 year-old intern, the community was respected and admired, but when they abandoned a 71 year-old intellectual and leader, the community is disregarded or worse insulted with impunity. After 9/11 Dr. Jamal and IIIT were targeted by anti-Muslim and racist government prosecutors for many years in order to silence them, marginalize their accomplishments, and break up their institute. But they kept fighting, building institutions and alliances, and expanding their efforts until the government finally abandoned its futile pursuit, even though at a great cost to their families, friends, finances, and work.
Leaders like Dr. Barzinji and Dr. Agha Saeed (who led the efforts to unite and empower the community for many years) represent the best examples of Muslim leaders in the West who built institutions across cultures, races, and ethnicities, that were based on shared principles and common interests without compromising core values or sacred causes such as Palestine. The American Muslim community, but especially, its youth, who have since 9/11 been suffering enormously from societal alienation, government overreach, Xenophobic attacks, and Islamophobia, must follow in the footsteps of Dr. Barzinji, and learn about his life and sacrifices. They must look up to his example for inspiration and hope. When they do that they would learn that they need to seek knowledge to free their minds; that they must fight ignorance and Islamophobia with education and outreach; that they must stand up for their rights and speak out against injustice to be respected and empowered; that they must unite and stand for high principles and moral values against false promises and easy access to power. To honor the legacy and life of Dr. Barzinji is to live by his values and example.
We offer our deep condolences and sympathies to Dr. Jamal’s family, his kind wife Souzan, and his children Suhaib, Fadwa, Iman, Firas, Zaid, Ghaida, and his many grandchildren, his brother Fakhri and the rest of the Barzinji family, his IIIT colleagues, and countless friends across the globe. May God’s mercy, grace, and blessings be on his soul. He was truly loved and will be terribly missed.