An intercultural diversity consultant and hip-hop activist held the rapt attention of a lecture hall audience last week as he rapped his way through an introduction to the dangers of Islamophobia.
“I see no friends/ as the media sends/ the myth of the truth/ to fear my brown skin,” said Dr. Amer F. Ahmed, a Indian-American Muslim born in Springfield, Ohio.
Currently the director of intercultural teaching and faculty development at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Ahmed flew here last week to present two sessions of “Islam: Beyond the Myths, Breaking Down the Barriers” at Clovis Community College as part of the school’s three-part social justice series.
“This is a very critical time when it comes to issues of Islamophobia in our country,” he said, referring to a dislike or prejudice against the religion of Islam and Muslims, its followers. “There’s a lot of violence, a lot of hate crimes toward Muslims ... It also impacts those who are perceived to be Muslim.”
Ahmed noted that the American Sikh community has suffered a disproportionately high number of hate crimes, likely because Islamophobes think that their turbans indicate they’re Muslim. “Actually, very few Muslims in the world wear turbans,” Ahmed said.
It’s important to distinguish what a religion teaches — and what people do. People do all different kinds of things in the name of religion.
Intercultural activist Dr. Amer F. Ahmed, an Indian American Muslim who spoke at Clovis Community College’s social justice forum
That’s just one of the several myths he aimed to dispel about his religion during the hourlong presentation.
“I’m not here to speak on behalf of the 1.7 billion Muslims who live on this planet, what I’m here to do is to give you social, cultural, historical and political context on issues related to islamophobia and the religion of Islam, because what I’ve found in speaking with people all over the country is that there’s a lot of misinformation and misconceptions,” Ahmed said.
Myth 1: Muslim women have fewer rights than men — or no rights at all.
“There are plenty of places in the world in which people are doing things in the name of Islam that are undermining women’s rights,” Ahmed said, noting that what must be asked is, “To what degree is it political, to what degree is it cultural and to what degree is it religious?”
In the Quran, the Islamic holy book, Ahmed explained, women have the right to vote and own personal property, and a marriage is seen as an agreement between two equals.
“After our scripture, we look to the life of prophet Muhammad,” Ahmed said, as to how they should live their own lives, much like Christians follow the life and teachings of Jesus.
“Prophet Muhammad was married to Khadija, who was the wealthiest woman in all of Mecca, she had a trade business, she was his boss,” Ahmed said. “So the idea that a woman shouldn't be able to fully participate in society, to own her own business, to get an education — when our own prophet who we revere and think is so important had this very different example in his own life — it flies in the face of his very example.”
Myth 2: Islam is a violent religion and jihad means “holy war.”
“Islam actually means peace through the submission to God,” Ahmed said. “In our media they say that jihad means holy war. It means ‘struggle’ or ‘to strive.’”
A greater jihad is a spiritual struggle to be God-conscious while navigating through life, Ahmed said, while a lesser jihad justifies the right to defend yourself, your family and your community against attack.
“What is not justified is attacking non-combatants,” he said, comparing it to the difference between self defense and premeditated murder. “The idea has been manipulated by extremists in different parts of the world.”
Violent acts by Muslim extremists don’t correctly represent the religion, Ahmed said, but Islamophobes don’t realize that.
“When one distorted individual does something horrible, we hear about it all day long and that person gets grouped in with all the rest of us,” he said. “It’s important to distinguish what a religion teaches — and what people do. People do all different kinds of things in the name of religion. People have a subjective lense, their interpretation and they have their rationalizations — but then there’s the core teaching.”
Myth 3: Muslims are anti-semitic.
“Islamic societies consistently throughout history protected Jewish people from persecution, typically by European Christians,” Ahmed said, noting that even today, during a wave of anti-semitism across the country, Muslims are coming to the aid and defense of Jewish Americans.
Those who point to the Israel-Palestine conflict “don’t have any idea what they’re talking about,” Ahmed said. “[They are] inflaming Arab and Muslim as if they’re the same thing ... it’s a conflict between a nation-state and people of that region.”
Myth 4: Muslims are anti-American.
“You hear about ‘sharia law’ — it’s simply Islamic law, and like all law, it is contested, it is debated among scholars,” Ahmed said. “I have been living among American Muslims my whole life. No one is sitting around saying we need to impose Islamic law in the United States.”
Islam’s egalitarian principles — that we’re all equal in the eyes of God — aligns with American democratic principles that we all have a voice, Ahmed said.
“I was born in this country — I have no desire to pick between being American and being Muslim,” he continued.
Among the standing-room-only crowd during the 2 p.m. session was Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. He said attending sessions like Ahmed’s is important because it teaches cultural literacy.
“We’re all part of this one big human family,” he said. “The more we get to know about others and their culture and what drives them and what makes them them and what’s important to them, then we’re able to come together and able to overcome any of these ignorances and biases that exist in all of us.”
Islamophobia was amplified post-election, Nekumanesh said, which makes it more important for people to understand their Muslim neighbors.
“We have 15,000 or so Muslims living in Fresno and they’re serving our community as home builders, as farmers, as educators, as doctors,” he said. “We see them every day, but to understand who they are and what makes them them and the values that they cherish, I think we can defeat whatever pains come about from that rhetoric.”
The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno received a letter in November threatening genocide against Muslims and praising then President-elect Donald Trump. The same letter was sent to three other mosques in California and one in Georgia, news outlets reported.
“We received one piece of hate mail. But since then, still today, every single week we’re receiving love letters from Americans across the country, even people in Japan, I got a letter from China,” Nekumanesh said. “People are writing in saying ‘You’re loved, you’re welcome here.’ I think we’re up to about 600 love letters off of that one hate mail. The human spirit is beautiful.”
What makes someone a Muslim? They follow the Five Pillars of Islam:
1. Have faith and the declaration that God is one, and Muhammad is his prophet. “Allah is simply the arabic word for God. If you’re an Arabic Christian or Jew, you still use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God,” Ahmed said.
2. Pray five times a day.
3. Give charity to the poor and needy. “You have an obligation to your fellow human being,” Ahmed said.
4. Fast during the month Ramadan. “Experience what it’s like to deny yourself the ease of access to those items that give you life and sustenance.”
5. Make a pilgrimage to Mecca at some point in your life.
“Jesus is considered to be a prophet in Islam,” Ahmed said. “Moses, Noah, Isaac and Ishmael are all prophets in our holy book, the Quran.”
Muslims, like Christians, also believe in a virgin birth and “there’s a whole chapter about Mary,” Ahmed said. “There’s a belief in the day of judgement, in heaven and hell.”