9/11, bin Laden and Islam: A Pittsburgh Catholic-Turned-Muslim Explains His Religion
Dave McCarthy converted post-9/11.
"The Prophet Muhammad said that God is the most merciful and the most severe in punishment but that his mercy outstrips his punishment. So, we (Muslims) believe that both of those are important in the world. We show mercy, but mercy has its limits. If there's a serial killer loose in the town, we don't just leave him alone … At the same time, punishment and wrath have their limits, and mercy must moderate those.
"Unfortunately, what we're seeing with a lot of these militant groups that make headlines is only the wrath part and no mercy. And this is not how I understand Islam. This is not what the Quran says … If you're not seeing mercy, you're not seeing Islam. If you're only seeing the wrath, you're not seeing Islam."
— David (now Dawud) McCarthy, Baldwin Borough native and Baldwin High School Class of 2001
Dave McCarthy was, by most measures, a relatively normal Pittsburgh kid in 2001, shocked and saddened by the attacks of 9/11. McCarthy was raised Catholic in Baldwin Borough, just outside of the city, and graduated from Baldwin High School the same year that a group of radical, militant Muslims attacked the United States.
One of the planes hijacked during the attacks crashed in Somerset County in southwestern Pennsylvania, less than a two-hour drive from his freshman dormitory at the University of Pittsburgh.
McCarthy was a young marketing major at Pitt on Sept. 11, 2001—an unhappy one at that, as it turned out.
"I started feeling uncomfortable morally, I think, with some elements of big business (around 2005)," McCarthy said during an interview with Baldwin-Whitehall Patch in April, this year. "At the same time, that was when Hurricane Katrina happened."
Already deep into his degree path, McCarthy switched majors to history and said that Katrina caused him to re-evaluate his life's work. And along with a change in academics came a very personal change when he converted to Islam while still at Pitt.
Though, while a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina may have provided the impetus for a change in majors, the catastrophe of 9/11 was certainly not McCarthy's motivation for conversion.
History books, independent reading and the self-survey that he did guided him toward Islam, and not al-Qaida, the group of Muslims who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks under the leadership of Osama bin Laden.
McCarthy says that the members of al-Qaida committed an "evil action."
He also says that he's been able to separate the actions of Muslim groups like al-Qaida and the Taliban, another extremist movement, from the religion that he shares with those extremists, much the same way that many Christians separate themselves from Anders Behring Breivik, who confessed to mass murders in Norway this July.
McCarthy does not apologize for being Muslim, even when he's back home in the United States, donning his long beard and facing Mecca for prayer in unusual places, including Heinz Field at least once during a Steelers game. Instead, he has embraced Islamic culture, relocating temporarily to an Islamic country, Saudi Arabia, to teach English at a Royal Saudi Air Force Base.
His wife, Nawal, or Naya, is a Saudi native, and last year, the couple adopted two children from a Saudi orphanage.
Dawud—his family and oldest friends still call him Dave—and Naya are a study in intercultural communication. Dawud is white; Naya is black. Dawud is a Westerner; Naya is an Arab. Dawud was raised in a country that, at least in spirit, separates religion from government, while that is hardly the case in Naya's Saudi Arabia.
When President Barack Obama announced on May 1 that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. military forces, the B-W Patch scheduled another interview with Dawud about two weeks later, this time on his parents' back patio in Baldwin. Naya was at his side, as both man and wife were visiting Pittsburgh that weekend.
McCarthy, the one-time director of The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, stays true to his Pittsburgh roots in many ways, and sat down for the interview wearing a black-and-gold "Steel City Champions" T-shirt. Not to be outdone, Naya donned a Jerome Bettis Steelers jersey.
The couple was happy to speak about their religion, clear the air on misconceptions and try to find common ground with a Catholic and patriotic reporter from Dawud's same town.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Islam for Westerners, both Dawud and Naya said, is that Muslims worship a different god than Christians and Jews.
"Same God," Dawud said, even pointing out that many people mentioned in Judeo-Christian teachings of the Old Testament, such as Cain and Abel, are mentioned in the Quran, Islam's central religious text.
Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God as passed through his prophet, Muhammad, who spread God's word on Earth approximately 600 years after the death of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be the son of God.
Dawud and Naya said that, while Muslims do not believe Jesus to be the son of God, Jesus is mentioned in the Quran as many times as Muhammad. The Quran also makes many favorable mentions of Moses, Judaism's most well-known prophet.
"(But,) there is no trinity," Dawud said, referencing Christianity's view of God in three parts: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "There is only one god, and Muhammad is his prophet. You have to believe that. There's only one god, no partners, no trinity, and Muhammad is his prophet. You say that out loud in every prayer. That's the first Pillar (of Islam)."
That monotheistic first pillar begins five Pillars of Islam, which Dawud and Naya said are truly non-negotiable if you hope to reach "paradise," or heaven. The second is five prayers per day while facing Mecca. The third is fasting during Ramadan—a Muslim tradition covering one lunar month. The fourth is giving to charity, and the fifth is a pilgrimage to Mecca.
"With the pillars, every Muslim must do them, or he is not a Muslim," Dawud said.
Beyond the pillars, Muslims look toward scholars of the Quran for advice on how to live as Muhammad did and to reach paradise in the afterlife. Both Dawud and Naya agree that interpretations beyond the five pillars are what drum up much of the controversy surrounding their religion in the United States.
"Sometimes, people get the wrong idea that, since Saudi Arabia is a great Muslim country, what works in Saudi Arabia is going to work here in America," Dawud said. "And that's not the case. Even the disciples of the Prophet (Muhammad) didn't all dress the same way ...
"Islam is new in America. We don't have a lot of leaders yet. We don't a have a lot of people to really guide the Muslim community over here. Unfortunately, a lot of the leaders are from places like Saudi Arabia ...
"We are just starting to get indigenous, African-American and white Muslims, like me, to come to the forefront and say, 'This isn't going to work for us in America.' The norms here are different.
"We have the five pillars. We have to stick to that. Beyond that, let's find ways to interpret the verses of the Quran to suit us here in America."
Dawud admitted that members of al-Qaida, like bin Laden, have probably interpreted the Quran in such a way that justifies their actions on 9/11, pointing out that Muhammad once led an army into Mecca to kill people in defense of his own people.
Naya said that God allowed Muhammad to be aggressive for a short period of time, "a window" as she called it.
"(However,) I find nothing in the Quran that justifies killing innocents," Naya said.
"Everything just condemns what they (al-Qaida) did," Dawud said, "everything in the Quran."
"Islam is very strict when it comes to 'battlefield' and 'soldiers,'" Naya said. "You can't assassinate people. The Arab culture does not look well upon people stabbing in the back. To do such a mass murder (as 9/11) and cause such pain on people is not just un-Islamic; it's un-human.
"The Quran tells you that if you kill just one person, you kill the entire mankind.
"The Prophet Muhammad said that whoever you kill, a Christian or a Jew, I will be the one to prosecute him on the day of judgment. The Quran said that the first thing that you will be judged on on the day of judgment is blood, so if you meet your lord with no blood on your hands, you are actually in a good place."
A commonly cited motive for al-Qaida's attack on 9/11 is retaliation for American presence in Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia—also, the United States' support of Israel in its ongoing conflict with Palestine, and U.S. sanctions against Iraq.
"Some people, like (members of) al-Qaida, say that if you come to fight against me, I will fight against you," Dawud said. "This is our self-defense.
"Do I believe that? No. You are not to kill women and children like al-Qaida did. Is that self-defense? Absolutely not."
"And even when you fight," Naya said, "you cannot fight in revenge. The way they (Islamic militants) are talking is vengeance. You cannot kill anybody because you want to take revenge and you are angry."
Along those lines, Dawud and Naya were asked if the killing of bin Laden by the U.S. equates to merely revenge by the Americans or if the killing of bin Laden was a justified, wartime action of self-defense.
"I don't know," Dawud said. "It's so confusing. The fog of war they call it. What is right and what is wrong in a given circumstance?
"In an ideal situation, I want to see him (bin Laden) on trial, like a Nuremburg trial that was done with the Nazis. What happened? Was that possible? I don’t know if it was possible or not because nobody really knows the real story. Did they just kill him or try to capture him?
"I'd say, 'OK, let's focus on what we do know.' He is dead. So, what's the consequences of his death? Let's end these wars that have cost America trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars while so many people have been left dead. Let's please look at this as some sort of closure to what we started after 9/11 and say that we need to refocus our energies on our economy, getting back to work, reopening schools instead of closing schools … helping people out with their mortgages.
"So many entities are declaring bankruptcy, but we're spending so much money on wars. This should be a place to close that chapter, bring the troops home and improve America right now.
"We accomplished what we needed to accomplish with our war on terror, so let's bring our energies back to America."
Did bin Laden deserve to die?
"The only one who determines if someone deserves to die is God," Dawud said. "He's the only one who knows for sure. A lot of Muslim scholars are actually against the death penalty in all cases unless someone admits to his guilt in a court of law."
"The death penalty needs to be executed by law," Naya said. "Nobody should take the law into their own hands. There's no exception to that, whether you're a soldier or not."
Was bin Laden evil?
"I think it really depends on his intention," Naya said. "God, only, can tell what's in his heart. Human beings only see the action. If someone did an evil action, he did an evil action. Regardless of whether he was misguided or evil at heart, it does not change the evil action."
"We're all human beings," Dawud said. "We all have a soul ...
"With anyone, I can't judge. Only God knows the intentions. What I can say is that, generally, I lean toward people being misguided other than being pure evil because I just think that that's more in keeping with the nature of human beings.
"Everyone has a conscience. Everyone has a voice in their head that tells them right or wrong. We believe this. So, is it possible to corrupt that? Yes. Is someone born in a state of pure evil? I don't see any support of that notion in any of the things in Islam that I have been taught.
"I think that people do bad things because they were misguided by something that happened in their life."