Nashashibi works to relate fully American experience of American Muslims

Rami Nashashibi speaks with Krista Tippett at the Interfaith Lecture Thursday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

At the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, Rami Nashashibi uses religion, art and culture to fight for social justice.

At Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture, Nashashibi sat down with radio host and producer Krista Tippett for the fourth installment of this week’s lecture series based on the Week Three interfaith theme, “Krista Tippett and Friends who Inspire, Commit, Act.” In their conversation, Tippett and Nashashibi discussed his personal faith journey to Islam and the work he does for social justice through his nonprofit organization, IMAN.

Nashashibi’s relationship with Islam resembles that of a convert, he said. Though born in Jordan, Nashashibi grew up all around the world and spent much of his early life living in Europe. The home he grew up in was not ideologically secular but areligious. Little focus was placed on the study or practice of Islam.

When he reached college-age, Nashashibi came to the Southwest Side of Chicago on a soccer scholarship. When he arrived, he was confronted with the reality of American life in a city rife with economic disparity and racial violence.

Nashashibi was horrified by the continued social segregation and inequality he witnessed. The early years of his time in Chicago coincided with America’s first Gulf War. While he still lived on the Southwest Side, he began to receive strange vibes from people in the community, at one point via a hateful note on his door.

He soon decided to move to another college campus on the North Side of the city. The campus he moved to was more racially diverse, and when he arrived, he actively engaged in fighting for social justice issues with the black and Latino communities.

“I became increasingly fascinated and drawn to the African-American narrative, and in the process of doing that, became more and more familiar with — and interacted with those from that narrative who encountered Islam,” Nashashibi said. “The African-American encounter with Islam is truly an American story, and it’s one that’s deeply anchored in the larger American narrative.”

Nashashibi said he soon became fascinated with the stories and people who had participated in movements, such as the Black Panthers and Black Nationalism. Many of the activists and former members of those organizations were devoutly Muslim. They often would ask why he lacked a stronger, more formalized faith, Nashashibi said.

Nashashibi would respond that he was agnostic and did not believe in organized religion. Early on in his activist career, he could not understand how the intellectual social justice activists he admired were also so reverently faithful to Islam, Nashashibi said.

“So for the first time, I really started to read the Quran only to refute these guys,” he said. “And I remember seriously the first year just extracting verses from the Quran only to come back and say, ‘Do you really believe in this?’ ”

Soon a transformation began, and during the course of a few years, he began exploring the Quran and asking honest questions about the Muslim faith. He began to embrace the religion as a vehicle for social justice. At first, his relationship with Islam was based solely in the political and social context, but as he continued his exploration of the religion, he realized he was missing its greater spiritual aspect.

Eventually, he also turned to the faith for his spiritual needs.

In the 1990s, Nashashibi began to work with Muslim youth from Chicago’s Southwest Side, an area plagued with violence, drugs and poverty.

In its early days, the program focused on bringing together Muslim children from the inner city and other groups of Muslim children, such as African-Americans from nearby suburbs.

“When we brought all of this eclectic mix together — middle class immigrant Muslim kids brought up in the suburbs, young immigrant Muslims brought up in the hood, African American Muslims who have generations of experience on the South Side of Chicago — that produced this extraordinary excitement, a sense of possibility, something that had not been done, something whose time had come.” Nashashibi said.

One of the first initiatives of the program was called “Takin’ it to the Streets.” The event was held in the same park the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was stoned, in 1966. The point of the event was to take the work IMAN was doing and bring it out for the world to see, Nashashibi said.

About 900 people attended the event, and the organization raised $20,000. But, it could have been 900,000 people and $2 million judging by the amount of momentum and excitement it inspired, he said.

Photo by Adam Birkan.

IMAN stems from a core Muslim principle, the call for social justice, Nashashibi said. Jesus Christ is often credited with working for and championing “the least of these,” but serving the marginalized was also an action and focus of the Prophet Muhammad, Nashashibi said.

The poor and marginalized sections of society, including women and slaves, were some of the earliest converts to Islam, Nashashibi said.

The disparities of wealth and opportunity based on arbitrary boundaries or uncontrollable events — such as a person’s race or the ZIP code in which he or she was born — motivate Nashashibi to continue to work for change, he said.

“For me, this work is in part a way to deal with the anxiety, the spiritual anxiety of those disparities,” Nashashibi said. “I can’t feel religiously comfortable in simply accepting that type of division in the way we live our lives.”

Nashashibi said he understands how it can be difficult to stay faithful and committed to the idea of social progress, especially when problems can seem overwhelmingly large and the actuality of change distant.

“It’s one thing to aspire towards those type of parities in our lives that we think are more reflective of the spiritual calling that we all attempt to implement into our lives and implement into society,” he said. “It’s another thing when, you know, you’re walking 4- and 6-year-old girls down a block where, you know, two days earlier there was a gang shooting.”

Recently, Nashashibi was walking down his block on the Southwest Side with his young daughters. As they passed a stoop, the smell of marijuana smoke wafted in their direction. After dropping his children home, Nashashibi left his house and returned to the offending stoop and walked up to one of the men seated there.

“Listen man, can I holla at you for a moment?” Nashashibi asked.

The man listened, and Nashashibi expressed to him that he did not want his  daughters to smell marijuana every time they walked home. Within moments, the man had his arm around Nashashibi, apologizing and promising that it would not happen again.

“I want to grow with you, I want to learn with you, I’ve been watching you, and don’t worry, you won’t have to deal with that next time you walk down in front of us,” the man had said.

When the enormity of the world’s problems becomes overwhelming, micro-moments such as that human-to-human interaction reaffirm his belief that change can happen.

“You can engage those who sometimes you’re told to fear, who you’re told to write off,” he said.

At the heart of IMAN is a dedication to art — visual and musical. The incorporation of art in the program reflects the Muslim understanding of God as beautiful. There is a Muslim tradition that says God is beautiful and loves beauty, Nashashibi said. In Islam, God is also referred to as a beautiful storyteller. In one of the Suras of the Quran, the story of Yusuf is told. The chapter about Yusuf begins, “We reveal to you the most beautiful of stories,” Nashashibi said.

“The idea of God and the divine as a beautiful storyteller is also really at the core of our tradition,” he said.

IMAN brings musicians from all around the world to perform at its events, including opera singers and spoken-word artists, Nashashibi said. The use of art, specifically hip-hop music, began organically as an effective tool for bringing together those Muslim youth from diverse backgrounds.

“It became the most powerful and useful way of bringing together young kids in Chicago who were totally disconnected from one another while living and sharing the same kind of urban experiences,” Nashashibi said.

One of the earliest uses of hip-hop culture and art happened in 1995, when Nashashibi asked a well-known graffiti writer in Chicago to write a phrase from the Quran on a wall in graffiti. The phrase said, “We created you into nations and tribes so that may get to know each other, not hate one another, and the most dignified among you is the one with the most consciousness of the divine,” Nashashibi said.

The artist did not write in ornate Arabic calligraphy, but his transcription and artwork was so perfect that a Palestinian man walking on the street stopped to ask how long he had been training.

The unveiling of that project showed Nashashibi art’s strong, uniting force. Since then, it has been a fundamental aspect of the program. Today, the biyearly “Takin’ it to the Streets” celebration has more than 20,000 attendees each year, with huge celebrities and artists in attendance, Nashashibi said.

“The arts have become the real factor for us in both humanizing each others’ stories, connecting our stories and, I think, revealing to one another the possibilities of what a better world can look like,” he said.

The idea of a collective American-Muslim culture is one Nashashibi holds dear and tries to spread through IMAN’s programs. It stems from the work of Malcolm X, following his trip to Mecca. After returning from Mecca, Malcolm X wrote to his wife that he no longer believed in race-based segregation within Islam. He had an image of Islam as a “powerful conduit in reconciling some of the great tensions of his time, of our time,” Nashashibi said.

“Nowhere is that dream, that broader dream, more possible, more relevant, more germane and, I think, more urgent than it is here within the context of the American experience,” he said.

Sept. 11 changed the lives of Muslims living in America, Nashashibi said. There are still vast parts of the United States where strong traces of fear of Islam and Muslims remain. For example, legislatures in states such as Oklahoma are introducing bans on Sharia law, he said.

Following Sept. 11, Nashashibi said he began to begrudge the eagerness with which Islamic leaders would frequently make statements distancing American Muslims from the attacks. He said he felt and feels Americans do not need to hear about how American Muslims are not this, or not that. But, he said, they should be exposed to American Muslims living the American experience.

In Chicago, Nashashibi does not have to tell people he is not from a religion of violence, because people see him holding prayer sessions on street corners where violence takes place, and they know he is fighting violence.

“There’s an anxiety for me even, about when to be OK with talking about the very basics and when to say: ‘Hey, damn it, we’ve been here, we’ve been doing great things, we shouldn’t have to convince you that we are part and parcel of the American experience.’ ”