Tom Olohan: I’m here with Ibrahim Rashid, founder of “My Muslims Friends”, a campaign devoted to building bridges between Muslims and people of all faiths in this country, as well as combatting common misconceptions about Islam. He has written for multiple publications and is frequently cited by others, including the New York Times.
In this very divisive time, I think your work is very important. I’ve encountered a lot of groups that responded to this election season by lashing out at a particular candidate, I’m sure you can imagine which one, or determining that a quarter or half the country was unredeemable, or perhaps deplorable. At the same time, most Americans have not studied Islam and most likely learned about your faith from the media, frequently hostile media. Could you tell our readers a little more about your group? How do you plan to spread your message to all Americans, regardless of their political ideology?
Ibrahim Rashid: My Muslim Friends was started around last September. I started it for several reasons. The first is that I used to study radicalization, online radicalization of Muslim youths, particularly in the West. That was one thing that I was doing. At the same time, I was observing Islamophobia and the effect that it had on the refugee debate. Let me just break those two down and explain where the project came from. While studying radicalization, I was looking at the issue of foreign fighters from the Balkans, particularly from Bosnia. I was looking at case studies of individual foreign fighters, like, what is it that pushed these young kids, whether they were in Brussels, whether they were in France, whether they were in Bosnia, or so, kids living in the West, to go abroad to fight in Syria, or Iraq and so on, and when we look at the radicalization process, its not linear. Its very different in each individual case, but one thing you find particularly amongst western foreign fighters, not kids who were in battlefields, its very different in that situation. One thing you find there is that there is a sense of victimhood, that is exploited by extremists, this idea of victimhood based on whatever social dislocation you have faced, whether its economic discrimination, or social unease in a situation.
The extremists tell you that is the result of your identity, this idea that because you are a Moroccan, a Belgian or Moroccan descent, you can’t integrate into society, or because you’re Arab-looking in France you’re not really French. This feeling of being other, that identity crisis, that these two identities are irreconcilable is something that extremists will exploit, the victimhood thing. They will say to these French kids, “you can’t be French because you’re Muslim.” Then they’ll take this idea further and they’ll go on and us their narrative. They’ll say, “We’re going to show you that your economic anxiety, your feelings of desperation, frustration, and so on, its because your Muslim.” They’ll take that further and say, “its because of your western values, the Judeo-Christian West corrupting Islam.” They’ll take that further still saying, “It’s the west, the Christians who are killing your Muslim brothers in Syria and Iraq and so on.” So they take this, they racialize this, Muslim identity thing and they say that you don’t belong in your community. They try to dehumanize the other, the people who supposedly committed an injustice against you, that’s one thing. The second thing is that they say, because people in the West have been dehumanized, “they’re not your people and its okay to harm them.” They say that, “You don’t have to find a community with these kids in the West. Your real community is with those in Syria and Iraq and so on.
So I think about this theory and this radicalization a lot and at the same time I have the My Muslim Friends campaign going on, and there’s and there’s rising hate crimes against Muslims, Mosques are being burned down, Muslim Women are being stabbed. There was in instance in Britain where a Muslim woman who was pregnant was beaten up and her babies died. Myself, I’m feeling this tremendous fear, fear for my own family. This was during Ramadan which is our holy month around July of last year and this was also the day of a terrorist attack in Dhaka. Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent, stormed some ex-pat café in the capital, Dhaka. That night, I remember we went to a mosque to celebrate the end of Ramadan, for the prayers, and I was sitting there and the Imam was doing the whole sermon and everything. He calls up about seven kids from the back to come to the front of the Mosque and say, “These kids did charity. We want to support them and empower them. We should honor them. Everyone clap for them. They did great this Ramadan.” These are nine or ten year old kids. And he points out, he makes a remark that made you think. He said, “We’re going to need to empower these kids, because no matter who wins in the election, the Muslim community is going to be on its own and its going to need to be strong.”
So its this idea of insulating yourself and recognizing that in your identity you don’t have allies. So its an idea of turning inwards, that’s what Islamophobia caused. So I’m looking at these two things, and I’m like wow. This feeling of fear of the other. Fear of the other communities of Americans, of Jews, of Christians, Islamophobia, so on, its driving my community inwards. And let’s say there is someone who is already on the edges of society, who just so happens to be Muslim. That Islamophobia could be the thing that pushes him even further, into the hands of the extremists who say, “Your feelings of desperation and hopelessness and anxiety and so on are because of your identity. You can’t find a community with these guys, so you come to us.” So the idea with My Muslim Friends is twofold: its one, to fight that narrative, fight that narrative that Muslims and non-Muslims can’t get along. I’m photographing non-Muslims on the page speaking positively about Islam. I’m Photographing non-Muslims working with refugees, talking about their work, how they’ve been inspired by refugees and so on.
And the second one is fighting the narrative by creating a network of Muslim allies, each person who is on the (My Muslim Friends) page, each person on their entire network sees them, so they’ve been identified in their immediate network as an ally. Their inclusion says, “Hey, despite our color, despite our identity and so on, I am here to support you, you can come out to me and we can talk. So, it’s about building community resilience through awareness, as well as fighting that narrative.
Tom Olohan: Its certainly interesting how the two problems feed off one another. I’ve heard about a few groups that are somewhat similar. I know a group called Go Forth was started at my alma mater, Notre Dame. I hope you’re able to get out there sometime. Now I’ve also noticed that there’s a second problem with Islamophobia where people will say that Muslims are welcome in our society only so long as they are not very faithful to their religion. Some draw a correlation between religiosity and terrorism or religiosity and incompatibility with being an American citizen. How, and this has happened with other faiths in our history before, so perhaps there is an important comparison there, but what would you say to those that argue in favor of this correlation?
Ibrahim Rashid: Those who make this argument are operating under the assumption that religion is a precursor, is a driver towards extremist violence, terrorism, however you want to define it. First, as an academic, you have to recognize that religion could be one of twenty-five to forty risk factors or causes of extremist violence. So to draw that association between religion and violence particularly between Islam and violence is incredibly disingenuous to the entire field of terrorism studies. As an academic, I find that just preposterous. The second thing I would say is that if people are going to say that religion is the cause of this violence, that because someone is faithful that this is a tendency towards violence. Then you should also be willing to give credit to all the good that religion is doing in society. We focus on the thousands of Muslims committing Jihadist violence, while ignoring that there are two billion or 1.8 billion Muslims out there in the world, many of them doing good every day.
Tom Olohan: I did good twice and no one noticed. I did wrong once and no one ever forgot.
Ibrahim Rashid: If you’re going to say that it is religion that is the cause of the violence, then you must also say that it is religion that is the cause of the good in the world. And then, weigh proportionally, and that’s how you treat it.
Tom Olohan: Certainly, we’ve seen with Bill Maher, who has about an equal amount of respect for Islam and Christianity, by which I mean none. (Both laugh) What you’ll see there is, and granted there are great differences between the experiences of faithful Christians and faithful Muslims in this country, the disdain that certain segments of American society have for faith. As a Catholic, as the oldest of eleven kids, and as a former homeschooler as well, I’ve very often seen that a very large segment of our society rejects all three of those identities. They ask why we have so many children and criticize this method of education. Increasingly, my faith in particular has been subjected to government demands that conflict with my church’s teachings. Our country has had several recent struggles over this. Now, people disagree about these issues, but many Catholics feel very strongly that their identity is under attack.
Ibrahim Rashid: Right
Tom Olohan: So do you see any potential for comparisons between Muslims and Catholics who are faithful to their religion and how that can be used to help people understand the position of Muslims in the United States?
Ibrahim Rashid: Using faith to bring people together…yes, I definitely would say I think there’s a tremendous amount of capacity for community-building with faith. Speaking to…Catholicism and Christianity are two different things.
Tom Olohan: Of course
Ibrahim Rashid: So, I’ll try to speak to my experience with Christianity. I hope this is appropriate. I never really thought too much about Christianity. I read the Book of John and a bit of the Old Testament in school and for fun. I found that you can treat all of these books, whether it’s The Old Testament, The New Testament , The Analects of Confucius, or The Koran, not as ideas that are ideas that are opposing to my own way of life, but as just another framework of looking at the world. You could just change your mind and say “okay I’m going to read the Koran and say that this is wrong or different from how I read the Bible or vice versa.” However, if you just look at it as, “here are ways we can look at the world from a different perspective and just be a little more open about it,” I think there’s a tremendous amount of value and insight you can gain from scripture. For me personally, I’ve learned so much from reading the Hindu text, the Jewish and the Christian Bible and so on, but in terms of faith, I think just sharing experiences does so much to bring people together and help them build empathy. I was in Israel this past December and I went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , which is I think, that’s where Jesus is buried, supposedly.
Tom Olohan: Yes, until Easter Sunday at least, in our tradition.
Ibrahim Rashid: Correct me, I don’t know the whole lore, but there is a slab on the ground, supposedly where Jesus was crucified. He was washed on the slab and there were people there, there were couples who were holding their hands in prayer, crying and praying for fertility. There were people who were there and praying for their grandparents and other things. And I remember I was standing there and I’m wearing my Pakistani clothes, as part of my Muslim identity. I went down and I put my hand on the slab as well. Jesus Christ is a prophet in my religion, but he doesn’t mean so much to me in terms of my own spirituality. Yet to sit next to a couple, and feel their spirituality and watch them cry and pray to Jesus…I broke down in tears. I just, I might not agree with what they’re saying it or understand it, but I could feel the emotion. Its just very powerful, having these common experiences. I think with faith, especially as we are also intellectuals, we try too hard to intellectualize and rationalize and embattle faith. We try to do comparative religion between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, pointing out where they are different or inferior and that’s what brings us apart oftentimes. But I found while at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just putting aside the whole intellectualism, you know, and just like immersing yourself in the faith and just putting yourself in their perspective, you develop a very strong appreciation for why people hold these historical or religious figures in high regard. And I’d say that’s how I was able to come closer to Christianity and understand it. And the same can be said for any other religion. You know, if you can see the other person as a human being and see where they’re coming from and why they hold these figures in high esteem. If you see why we look up to Mohammed, peace be upon him, with such high reverence, you know, you don’t have to agree with that, but if you can see that then the conversation changes about is it okay to criticize him or attack him.
Tom Olohan: I can see that. I know that for me the large families was an important link. Its important to notice what we have in common, to focus on what we have in common.
Ibrahim Rashid: Yes, of course.
Tom Olohan: There are also points of Islam that are frequently discussed in the United States, although few people know a great deal about your faith, that may be misunderstood by a majority of Americans. In particular, the word Taqiyya, which is understood in the United States as the permission to lie, as long as it advances the cause of Islam, at least that is how it is described by activists like Pamela Geller.
Ibrahim Rashid: Who is that? Who is Pamela Geller?
Tom Olohan: She is best known for hosting a “draw Muhammed” contest. I can’t recall if she’s been involved in some of cases where people have threatened to burn Korans and then decided against it at the last moment.
Ibrahim Rashid: I see.
Tom Olohan: But are you familiar with that doctrine and what Islam actually teaches about Taqiyya? It made me think about a common discussion about lying and morality. Have you heard of the famous question about the predicament of those who hid Jewish people in their homes but were then questioned by Nazis? If you say yes, those hiding in your home will die, telling the truth in this circumstance has horrific consequences. If you attempt to mislead them without lying or tell a half-truth, you will die along with those hiding in your home, since very few people could manage to fool the Nazis without lying. In this case, the only moral option is to say that there are no Jews hiding in your home.
Ibrahim Rashid: Right
Tom Olohan: After I heard about Taqiyya, this seemed to be a possible reason for the doctrine. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Ibrahim Rashid: When people throw out terms like Taqiyya, Jihad, and some others, I find that I have never heard of these things in my life. I had Islamic instruction growing up, in college I participated very heavily in Islamic study, going to a lot of Koranic studies and events and trying to like learn more about the faith. I criticized and I learned. And within my own value system, I’ve never come across Taqiyya until people bring it up in cases like this instance. And I was like, oh, what is this thing, what are you talking about? Also, when people will say Jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, I’m just like, “What? It is?” That’s not what I was taught. This is what I was getting back in my original point. People try way too hard to intellectualize faith and to think that there is one line or a certain tenant in a book that is put out of context. That we can disagree with other faiths based on our modern interpretation, using our frame of reference. That if its barbaric or wrong from our modern perspective, then the entire people or the entire faith must be wrong.
Tom Olohan: If you took a line from the Old Testament during a period when every tribe had to choose whether to annihilate others or be annihilated themselves and you mistakenly attributed that line to Jesus, it would sound very different.
Ibrahim Rashid: I’m sorry, but the Old Testament is really gruesome.
Tom Olohan: That’s what I’m referring to.
Ibrahim Rashid: Exactly, exactly
Tom Olohan: If you take it out of context, in that way, you will get something like what you’re referring to, this demonization of faith.
Ibrahim Rashid: A lot of faith involves how we personally interpret the world, using our own value system that comes both from our culture, which is part of faith, and also our upbringing and our surrounding and so on. This is why, as a Pakistani-American Muslim who grew up in South Africa, how I saw Islam and the doctrines and the values that I was taught, might be different than how a Pakistani in the tribal areas might have seen it. Do you know what I’m saying?
Tom Olohan: Yes
Ibrahim Rashid: This never occurred to me in all honesty, but in terms of what I understand, I mean, I can speak to Taqiyya, like what I understand it to be. Do you want that?
Tom Olohan: Yes, our readers would appreciate that. Its often discussed in this country, but likely poorly understood.
Ibrahim Rashid: From my understanding…this description comes from someone who wasn’t taught it, from someone who had to look within the text, look within the context of time, alright? Taqiyya was very much a term used to describe times of warfare, especially when the Muslims were under siege in some place in the eighth century or so and people were being killed for saying they were Muslim. If you announced that you are a Muslim, whether by brandishing the clothes or reciting the Koran, you would be killed. The idea was that to protect your faith, you don’t have to tell people that you’re a Muslim. You may lie about it so you can stay alive. That’s what it was about. But then, these terms Taqiyya, Jihad, and so on, have been misappropriated as the years have go on.
Tom Olohan: Okay, I see. Yes, I initially came to hear about the term in the same way as you did, unfortunately, but yes, thank you for letting us know about its origins. Now is there anything you would have liked me to ask about that I did not ask about or anything you would like to leave our readers with?
Ibrahim Rashid: I’m thinking very hard about that, actually…Just because I’m a Muslim doesn’t make me less patriotic than my fellow countrymen. I want to go into the foreign service. I want to serve this country and use my international language skills to make America stronger. And that’s the case for most immigrants, that’s the case for most people here. They care about this country. That’s why they’ve been here for generations. We might disagree on ideas, ideology, religion. We might look different, but at the end of the day, we’re still American, and we care about this place and we need to work together.
Tom Olohan: And that’s an important part of what makes our country great. I refer to this often, but I really think that Prime Minister Modi of India summed it up very well when he came here and he began his speech before Congress by saying, “Greetings to the world’s oldest democracy from its largest,” referring to the fact that we were the first country, or at least the oldest country still in existence, founded upon a philosophy rather than founded for an ethnic group, the power of a certain ruler, the benefit of one family, all the reasons for which nations were founded in the past. So, due to this history, we should be welcoming all religions, all ethnic groups, and I’m really glad you’re doing this great work to help us achieve that in a better way
Ibrahim Rashid: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Tom Olohan: Thanks for coming