Transcript for Rami Nashashibi's American Dream

January 31, 2013
Krista Tippett, Host: Rami Nashashibi uses graffiti, calligraphy, and hip-hop in his work as a healing force on the South Side of Chicago. A Palestinian-American, he started his activism with at-risk urban Muslim families, especially youth, while he was still a college student. Now he's the leader of a globally emulated project converging religious virtues, the arts, and social action. And he is a fascinating face of a Muslim-American dream flourishing against the odds in a post-9/11 America:

Rami Nashashibi: I spoke not too far from here, I think, in a university a couple of years ago. And often in my Q&A and maybe even in this conversation, I really beg my students to be very honest and very politically incorrect, if that's what they're thinking. And I had one woman who, you know, God bless her soul, who took me up on that [laugh]. And after 35 minutes of this, you know, talk about human rights and Muslims, she got up and said, "Everything you said sounds so beautiful, but I just honestly want to say I don't believe you."

Ms. Tippett: Hear what happened next — and what Rami Nashashibi has to teach about ethical confusions and spiritual anxiety many of us share: How to apply our highest virtues in a world of disparity.

I'm Krista Tippett. This is On Being, from APM, American Public Media.

I spoke with Rami Nashashibi in the Hall of Philosophy outdoors at the summer 2012 season of the Chautauqua Institution in New York.

Ms. Tippett: I first met Rami Nashashibi not in person, but his voice coming into my head through headphones just a few months after September 11, 2001. I think it was January 2002. And we wanted to put together a program on the problem of evil. And I still so vividly remember Rami just very reflectively and movingly talking to me about the Arabic word for evil that came to him most readily in that the connotations of that word were all about looking inside one's self and then only in that spirit looking outward again. At that time, Rami was working on his doctorate in sociology, which he has since received. He was doing this while he was running the nonprofit organization he founded while he was still a student at DePaul University.

It's called IMAN, the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. That acronym also means faith in Arabic. IMAN's vision cultivates social justice and the arts in its expressions of the core Islamic commitment to humanity, and it's gained attention all over the world. Among his numerous awards, he was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre and Georgetown's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. From the heart of a quintessential American city, Rami Nashashibi is charting a Muslim cutting edge on some of the most important social territory of a globalized 21st-century world. So please welcome Rami Nashashibi to Chautauqua.

[Applause]

Ms. Tippett: So, Rami, you were born in Jordan. Is that right?

Mr. Nashashibi: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Your father was a diplomat. And would it be fair to say that you were raised in a secular Muslim home?

Mr. Nashashibi: I think that's a fair representation. Sometimes I think when you say that, there's the idea of an ideological secularism, and I don't think I was raised that way. It's just my father — and they divorced at a young age — and my mother were just very areligious.

Ms. Tippett: And then would you tell a little bit of the story about how then you discovered Islam on your own and what you discovered there that was magnetic?

Mr. Nashashibi: Well, backing up, I guess, a little, I was born in Amman. My mother, who grew up on the southwest side of Chicago, she was born in May of 1948 in Israel, Palestine, and became one of the first Arab-American families to settle on the southwest side. I was brought up in Europe, actually, before finally deciding to come back to Chicago.

You know, I was brought by a soccer scholarship in one of the colleges on the southwest side of Chicago and there just was confronted for the first time, honestly, about life in America and particularly around issues dealing with race. Chicago is still extraordinarily racially segregated city, so being told where to go, where not to go. And the places that I was told not to go were the first places I went [laugh]. And I became increasingly fascinated and drawn to the African-American narrative and became more and more familiar with those who had encountered Islam.

Ms. Tippett: Right, 30 percent of American-Muslims are African-American. It's a story I think a lot of people don't know.

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah. And it's certainly a story I didn't know either, you know. It's funny people don't know that even though, you know, we know about movies like Roots, and we know that Kunta Kinte was a Muslim from the Mandinka tribe, and we see Steven Spielberg's Amistad. We see Muslims who are praying on the ship after they recover the ship. So we know that Islam is really deeply in the Muslim experiences, deeply imbedded into the American narrative.

And several of those people who had come from that experience who are now more devout Muslims started confronting me about my lack of religiosity. I was more interested in organizing and connecting and agitating, and they were equally interested in why I had no inclination towards a formalized religious practice, um, but I thought I knew enough to be able to reject them categorically.

Ms. Tippett: And there you all were at a Catholic university also, let's say that [laugh].

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah, I was at the time, yeah. But — but through those set of conversations, though, I really picked up the Qur'an for the first time, honestly, to debate these guys. It wasn't an overnight epiphany. It wasn't one thing that happened, but it was a process of maybe, you know, two years. You know, eventually, I just really was blown away and transformed in the process of thinking about the idea of divine revelation, the idea of prophetic traditions. All of that process opened me up to not only, I think, exploring and then adopting Islam as my faith tradition, but also thinking about all faith traditions very differently from that point.

Ms. Tippett: What was the first thing you did with IMAN? What was the very first initial project?

Mr. Nashashibi: Well, you know …

Ms. Tippett: Mid-'90s are we talking, maybe?

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah. We're talking mid-'90s. I was brought to the southwest side of Chicago really initially around dealing with Muslim kids, many of them who had come from Arab families themselves, but had been growing up on the southwest side of Chicago alongside African-American and Latino families who were dealing with the same issues of violence, poverty, drug addiction.

One of our first things that we did was structuring a program that brought them together with a cross-section of the African-American Muslims who were just a couple miles east of them on the South Side of Chicago, but in many ways living still in very different worlds. And bringing them together was really an extraordinary thing not only for them, but for many of the Muslim. At this point you have to, you know, remember that this point is probably the first or second generation of American-Muslim kids who were now brought up from parents who had migrated to America post-1965.

Ms. Tippett: Right, after that 1965 Immigration Act started bringing non-Europeans and non-Christians into the states for the first time.

Mr. Nashashibi: In large numbers. So you had — you had a — now a large number of Muslim immigrant kids who were brought up often in many kind of surrounding suburbs, in affluent middle-class suburbs across Chicago, who are now going to universities. Now they came across some of our efforts. They wanted to volunteer and get mobilized. So 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 were, you know, 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. You know, there was like this burst of energy. We had to do everything, right? I think we did this massive event called Taking it to the Streets in the same park that Martin Luther King was stoned in in 1966.

For us, it was, you know, get it out of the mosque, get it out of our confines of the institutions, get it out of our segregated spaces. Come together in a public space and let's celebrate a new aspect of coming together. While we brought 900 people together, that seemed like 900,000 to us, and we raised like $20,000. That could have been $2 million because, with that, we opened an office and started nine programs [laugh]. And later regretted that tremendously when we realized we had to — none of us had nonprofit management degrees. We didn't really know what we were doing. We were just driven that something needed to be done that had not been done yet. There was a new coming together and, you know, it was palpable for us at that time.

Ms. Tippett: What is it in Islam? You know, what is that spiritual underpinning in Islam that, for you, makes this work, you know, necessary?

Mr. Nashashibi: I guess there's a couple of things. You know, one is the prophet Muhammad, first and foremost, was among in many ways the most marginalized sectors of that population. And he, first and foremost, galvanized those who were on the margins, those who had been in many ways the most oppressed. So I think that call is real critical.

For me, thinking about living in a city like Chicago where you just — honestly, in a society like the one that we're in and the world that we're in with such extraordinary disparities between those who, you know, if you're in a block in Chicago, you're born in one ZIP code, you are, you know, destined for a school that has over 50 percent dropout rate, you're destined to be four times more likely to be incarcerated, three more times to be, you know, unemployed. So I think, for me, this work is in part a way to deal with the anxiety, the spiritual anxiety, of those disparities that I can't feel religiously comfortable in simply accepting that type of division in the way we live our lives.

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, I'm with Rami Nashashibi, founder and director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago.

Ms. Tippett: You know, what you just said is so important and I really almost forget my notes. It's come up again and again this week that spiritual anxiety is on a lot of peoples' hearts. I mean, would you say a little bit more about — from what you know, from what you've done, from what you've seen? You get out of Chicago. I mean, you've recently been in London and Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. What do you say to people who would ask the question? I mean, because so many people are aware of these — that these disparities are growing, they're deepening.

Mr. Nashashibi: You know, my wife and I talk about this often. I have three children. I have two young girls. You know, I walk around my block and it's a typical block on the South Side of Chicago, particularly in my neighborhood, which is low-, middle-income African-American, Latino, and some Arab families. You know, 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, and it's another thing when, you know, you're walking a four- and six-year-old girl down a block where, you know, two days earlier there was a gang shooting. There's that kind of floating whiff of the marijuana that's coming off a stoop.

You know, how do you reconcile dealing with that? Um, and for me, part of the community work that I do is an attempt to begin to adjust to that, to speak to it. And even on my block, I know I go home and I agitate what should I do. Recently when I had one of those situations, I walked right back out and I went right to the stoop where there were six or seven brothers sitting on the block and I went right to one of them and I said, "Listen, man, could I holler at you for a moment?"

Ms. Tippett: Can you what? What did you …

Mr. Nashashibi: Could I talk to him for a moment.

Ms. Tippett: OK, yeah, yeah.

Mr. Nashashibi: Holler at him is what I said. And I took him aside and I said, "Listen, man, with all due respect, my brother," I said, "it's just, you know, I got a four-year-old girl and I just don't want her to smell that next time I walk her down." We had a real good conversation and it was, you know, he put his arm around me at the end of the conversation and said: "Listen, man, I want to grow with you. I want to learn from you. I've been watching you. And don't worry. You know, you won't have to deal with that next time you walk down in front of us."

And I felt and I went back and it was those moments, it's those micro-moments because there are moments in the community where you could just be overwhelmed with the enormity of that problem and simply accept and become adjusted to this extraordinary dynamic that exists. But I find myself, you know, just in those moments, just so desperately yearning for one experience that can confirm that it doesn't have to be this way, that you don't have to accept that, that you can engage those who sometimes you are told to fear. And, you know, that one moment, I went back to my block and it was just as if the weight of the world had just been lifted as I was walking back to the block. And I just reminded myself it's important to do this.

Ms. Tippett: Talk to me about how you bring the arts into what you do. I mean, like here's one of the big defining sentences on your website that "IMAN works for social justice, delivers a range of social services and cultivates the arts in urban communities." So I want to hear a little bit about how spiritually and practically the arts and justice work together for you.

Mr. Nashashibi: Well, you know, for me, that tradition again and, I think, for our organization, and while now we host artists from the subcontinent who are performing Qawwali alongside an opera singer, along a spoken-word poet, alongside a traditional hip-hop artist. A lot of that honestly started with hip-hop.

Ms. Tippett: You're really critical of people who condemn hip-hop as part of the decay of culture and ruining our young, yeah.

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah. I mean, because I think hip-hop's origins have been extraordinary. I think hip-hop — and that's because there is an aspect of hip-hop culture that was extraordinary in bringing together the most disconnected, the most marginalized and disempowered sectors of urban young people both in the Bronx and then in other urban centers and found just extraordinarily creative ways of expressing not only a search for a commonality, but a common cultural experience that was both universal and particular at the same time. So you found for the first time young Latino, black and white kids in New York coming together around a cultural creation that both allowed them to celebrate their Aztec traditions as well as their shared New York experience. And that model, that formula, you know, became global.

So, you know, across the world, you can go into every urban center from, you know, the West Bank to Morocco to India, and find Indian kids who are using samples of, you know, kind of classical sitar and Ravi Shankar tracks on top of, you know, these funky hip-hop verses and blending the new and the old. So the way we kind of gravitated towards it was very organic. It became the most powerful and useful way of bringing together young kids in Chicago who were totally disconnected from one another while still living and sharing the same kind of urban experiences.

So, for example, one of our first projects we did was on one big side of the wall where there was a well-known graff writer — and graffiti writing is one of the four elements of hip-hop in Chicago. His name was Zore, a Puerto Rican guy. You know, I got a hold of him and I showed Zore traditional Islamic calligraphy. And there's a verse in the Qur'an that some people have heard. It's an oft-repeated verse when talking about kind of this universalistic aspiration that is even in the Qur'an about we created you into nations and tribes so that you may get to know one another, not hate one another, that the most dignified among you is the one with the most consciousness of the divine.

You know, we use that verse. And I showed him traditional Islam calligraphy and it was done in this really ornate, circular style. And he said, "Let's throw that up on the wall." I said, "Yeah, that'd be great." He said, "But I'm going to make it contextually relevant to urban graffiti," you know [laugh]. I said, "That's fine, but you need to do that" because this was a neighborhood where, you know, some of you know the Arabic language. If one of those words, one of those dots are put in the wrong place. It could totally transform the meaning of the verse. So I said, "You can do whatever you want, Zore, as long as you retain the core elements of this piece." And he said, "That's fine, and it's speaking to me. I see this piece. It's speaking to me." I remember what we did was literally we gathered over 250 kids in the neighborhood.

I remember an old Palestinian immigrant who was just in the country was kind of observing him. He asked me how long this guy had been studying calligraphy. I said, "He's not even Arab. He doesn't know Arabic." He refused to believe that. And when he came down, we had this unveiling of it that brought these, you know, hip-hop artists together, and it was both something that connected, it was relevant, it celebrated a core aspect of Muslim tradition. So we saw the power and that was as early as 1995. And since then, we've used the art as a way to tell our stories, as a way to connect our stories. The festival that I'm talking about that I mentioned, Taking it to the Streets, has now grown to become …

Ms. Tippett: You do that every year? Taking it to the Streets?

Mr. Nashashibi: We do it every other year, so the next time is next summer. Now it brings over 20,000 people with huge celebrities, artists, politicians from all over the world. The arts have become the real factor for us in both humanizing each other's stories, connecting our stories and, you know, I think revealing to one another the possibilities of what a better world can look like.

Ms. Tippett: I'll also say that, in my encounter with Islam, my conversations with Muslims these last years, that reverence for beauty is a holy thing, also, as really a central thing, Beauty as a moral value.

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: I don't know that people know that. I mean, that's so wonderful. And to me, this is also really — this whole way you're talking about this is resonant with that, that essence of Islam.

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah. There's in fact a tradition (speaking Arabic) that God is beautiful and loves beauty, you know. And, of course, that kind of core tenet had permeated the Islamic tradition for centuries. And, unfortunately, you know, it is probably the least associated thing with Islam in the 30-second sound bite that you get off the media, you know, but is definitely there. And part of that beauty is in our stories, in our narratives, you know, and storytelling.

One of the amazing stories that has lots of analogies with the Judeo-Christian tradition is the story of Yousef, Joseph, and it's unique in the Qur'an out of the 114 surahs, chapters, because it was the one chapter that was almost revealed in its entirety. And it begins with the verses in Arabic, (speaking Arabic), which means we reveal to you the most beautiful of stories. And the idea of God and the divine as a beautiful storyteller is also really at the core of our tradition. And I think we try to capture that through even in our organizing. IMAN does a lot of community organizing, and the community organizing tradition in America places at the center our stories and better connecting, understanding our stories and, through that process, building power.

(Sound bite of "Letter to My Countrymen")

Ms. Tippett: You can listen again, download and share this conversation with Rami Nashashibi through our website, onbeing.org. There you can also find out how to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes. You'll also find a link to my 2002 interview with Rami Nashashibi on "The Problem of Evil." Again, that's at onbeing.org. On Facebook, we're at facebook.com/onbeing. On Twitter, follow our show @beingtweets. I share my thoughts, too, @kristatippett.

This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being, today at the Chautauqua Institution in New York with Rami Nashashibi. While still in college in Chicago in 1995, he founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, IMAN. It's become a globally admired project converging religious virtues, social action, and the arts.

Ms. Tippett: Somewhere, I know, I remember reading that you wrote about the Community Café, which is another place where music and all kind of artistic expression happens, spoken-word poetry, right? It's time for us to tell our own stories without others telling them for us.

Mr. Nashashibi: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: I wanted to read — I was looking at something a blogger wrote about the Community Café, and the title was "Why I Drag My Family to Community Café": "I have come to believe healthy human civilizations need to share dreams. When we enter a darkened concert hall to hear music or watch a play or a movie, we are entering an artist's dream space. … I want my children to experience the collective dream of our American Muslim culture. I want them to understand that being a Muslim doesn't only consist of listening to Friday khutbahs, going to Sunday school, and not eating pork." I wonder, um, that phrase, the collective dream of our American-Muslim culture, what does that phrase hold for you?

Mr. Nashashibi: It's a powerful term, and I remember that blog. For me, part of that at least is this idea that we can make a significant impact. I think it was in part the dream of Malcolm after this extraordinary moment in his life who, of course, he was a polarizing figure on some level, but …

Ms. Tippett: Malcolm X.

Mr. Nashashibi: Malcolm X, yeah. But in that very famous letter he wrote to his wife after he returned from Mecca explaining that he no longer subscribes to race-based theories of segregation and kind of that version of Islam that he had both preached and learned was something he was rejecting. And this vision of Islam and the Muslim tradition as being a powerful conduit, the way he described it, in reconciling some of the great tensions of his time, of our time.

I think that's the dream, and I think the fact that we can begin to be seen as a community that both reflects some of the spiritual values and principles that I think are very common, but also seen as a community that can provide a unique contribution. And I think the thing about what makes the dream so unique here within the context of America, honestly, as a person that still loves to travel and loves being Muslim in many other parts of the world, 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.

Ms. Tippett: You know, I remember speaking with Muslims in those immediate months after 9/11. I remember talking to people who felt like American-Muslims are right on this cusp of really entering the mainstream, you know, that it was just this progression. And then there was this incredibly traumatic event. And when I talked to you in 2002, you were in pain. So I do want to ask you this hard question. You know, how has what it means to be Muslim in America, I mean, how has that event changed you? And what has it added to this story, this narrative that you're helping unfold?

Mr. Nashashibi: I think many of us went from the initial shock of the horror of that experience …

Ms. Tippett: Which you experienced as an American?

Mr. Nashashibi: Right.

Ms. Tippett: I mean, your first experience of that was as an American.

Mr. Nashashibi: Oh, I think all American-Muslims' first experience of that was like 99 percent of almost every other American. I had — my father, who was still alive, calling my brother frantically and me frantically, convinced my brother was under the World Trade tower. I mean, I think many Americans could talk about those calls of parents and anxieties and what had happened. So we experienced that, but, of course, the immediate right alongside that experience was, oh, my God. What does this also mean for our community in terms of the way we're seen here? I think at one point, for me, as a person who was very involved in just the minutia of basic community work on the South Side of Chicago, at one point, I started to resent the even American-Muslim leadership proclivity to continuously get up ad nauseam and proclaim how distant they were from these horrific acts.

I just didn't feel that was actually useful or helpful because I felt what was more needed at that time and now then and even now was more living examples of Muslims who are imbedded in the realities of the American experiences trying to improve that experience. You know, I've had conversations with our mayor, both the new one and the old one. We don't have to talk about Muslims and Islam and violence. I mean, we're out there praying on the corners of where people have been shot and killed, where — in homes trying to deal with the violence of very violent neighborhoods.

I spoke not too far from here, I think, in a university a couple of years ago. And often in my Q&A and maybe even in this conversation, I really beg. I need my students to be very honest and very politically incorrect because I think, if that's what they're thinking. And I had one woman who, God bless her soul, who took me up on that [laugh]. After 35 minutes of this, you know, talk about human rights and Muslims, she got up and said, "Everything you said sounds so beautiful, but I just honestly want to say I don't believe you." And then the exchange that she and I had both publicly and after the forum, really I ended. I mean, she ended with hugging and kissing me and asking me to run for, you know, office …

Ms. Tippett: Untrustworthy as you were.

Mr. Nashashibi: And we had a great conversation, but the reality is that there's still vast parts of the this country where a lot of Americans have not had honest, real conversations with Muslims. And I think that can go a long way in assuaging some of those anxieties. But those anxieties are there and there's an anxiety for me even about when to kind of 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. So I sometimes vacillate between those two feelings.

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in the Hall of Philosophy at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, I'm with Rami Nashashibi, founder and director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago.

I want to open this up for your questions or comments.

Participant: I have two questions. One is how in your day-to-day life do you relate to the divine aspect of justice as it's portrayed in the Qur'an and how do you bring that into real application, into your existence and your work? And the second is you talked about the collective Muslim experience in America and my question is since the Muslim community is so diverse, ethnically, theologically, spiritually, how do you build a unified identity within that experience?

Mr. Nashashibi: So the first question about justice, there's an interesting — not only do certain categories get described in the Qur'an, one of the categories that's considered the worst type of human being is described as the hypocrite, right? And there's almost a spiritual science in Islam about the idea of hypocrisy. There's more outward, blatant signs of hypocrisy and then there's the more inward signs of hypocrisy. And in the Muslim tradition, you're actually agitated to constantly engage in a self-examination about those inward signs.

Because so much of my public life is engaged in a pursuit for justice and around education reform, housing, criminal justice, food justice, because I'm so immersed in the public aspects of justice, the way I think about the tradition in my own life and in those own intimate moments with the divine, I am constantly thinking about justice from a more internal perspective. Am I just with the privileges and benefits that have been given to me? Am I just with my family? Am I just as a father? Am I just as a person that has been given a tremendous amount? So that's how I see justice.

But the second question about the diversity of the Muslim community, you're absolutely right. Like most religious communities in America, and it shouldn't be surprising to those of us, you know, who understand American history that the American-Muslim community as it stands now is the most diverse Muslim community that has ever existed in the history of Islam.

Ms. Tippett: And also, we should say that Islam is the second-largest religion in America at this point, you know. And this would have happened without 9/11 and maybe nobody would have noticed. But it's huge. Christians are the largest group and then it's Muslims in all its diversity.

Mr. Nashashibi: Right, in all its diversity. But in having said that and diverse understandings, diverse experiences, diverse backgrounds, there is a really interesting confluence, um, around American-Muslim, both spiritual practice and identity that I think even from a sociological perspective allows us to talk broadly about an American-Muslim experience.

So, for instance, I just talked about the African-American underpinnings. I always say this. I don't care if you're Bangladeshi, Palestinian, Indian, you as a Muslim in America have been informed by and almost privileged in some extent by the African-American Muslim experience. Even the name Muhammad, for instance, right? Which is, you know, when my families were coming to America in the post-1965 kind of moment when, you know, living in America in that era, many immigrants, the first thing they did like many other immigrants was it went from Muhammad to Mike to Mickey to Moe, right [laugh]?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Mr. Nashashibi: You know, now at the same time, you have this extraordinary experience in the African-American Muslim community that was coming from …

Ms. Tippett: People changing their name to Muhammad.

Mr. Nashashibi: From Mike to Mickey to taking on Muhammad, to taking on Ali. You had Muhammad Ali in the ring saying what's my name? Say it, right? And lifting and elevating the Muslim identity to a point where immigrants started thinking a little differently about both their names, their ability to practice, and since then, there's been an interesting intersection and confluence that I think allows us to talk about that American-Muslim experience, of course, with all the caveats about its diversity. You know, thank you.

Ms. Tippett: We don't have any time to go into this, but I also just have to say 'cause people don't know this history. People think African-American, Islam nation of Islam. Lewis Farrakhan still gets all the press. He represents a tiny sliver of African-American Islam. At some point, there was a dramatic turning point really in the spirit of this conversion that Malcolm X had at the end of his life.

Mr. Nashashibi: On that note, I would say probably the least appreciated and perhaps most influential American-Muslim figure absolutely of the late 20th century and perhaps even now is a person who has recently passed and that is by the name of Imam Warith Deen Muhammad who was the son of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad who, in 1975, publicly precipitated the break from the nation and led perhaps to the largest single moment of, if you will, mass conversion, but it was real more mass migration of African-American Muslims from an earlier encounter with Islam into this more universalistic kind of expression. So you're right.

Ms. Tippett: That's worth an hour on its own. OK, we can only have two more questions.

Participant: Hi. I want to thank you, first of all, for lifting up the concept of the Muslim community feeling like they had to apologize. I mean, persons of color always feel like we have to apologize for what other people do who are of the same complexion. So I appreciate that. The question I have is, in your community organizing, how easy or difficult has it been to engage the houses of worship in your efforts?

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah, thank you for that question. You know, Chicago's an extraordinary city for that in terms of having, for instance, a really powerful black church tradition. You know, for a long time, our traditions I think were very disconnected and only connected around, you know, short-term campaigns and goals.

We invested over the last 10 years, led by a Pentecostal preacher who's been an extraordinary mentor to me, an effort called the United Congress of Religious and Community Organizations. And that effort has brought together black Pentecostal churches, the Muslim community, Latino, you know, Catholic churches, with other community organizations, around a shared — what we talk about is a kind of a grassroots human rights framework in which we both celebrate our religious traditions, our lack of traditions in some cases, connect them very intentionally, speak to our stories.

And I can say that it's really had a profound impact in the last 10 years in this city. You know, as a result of that, we've elected a Cook County Commissioner. Patricia got elected as State Senator. You know, Muslims and Christians really coming together along with the Jewish community in some really profound powerful ways. And we're also privileged to have a history of extraordinary Jewish community organizing in the city of Chicago.

A mentor of mine by the name of Rabbi Marx, again a person who is not appreciated or as well understood outside of Chicago as I think he should be, was a pioneer in marching with King and forming those types of alliances around work like housing. So I think in Chicago, you know, I'm one of those very Chicago-centric people even as I go across the globe. I think both within Chicago there's, you know, extraordinary challenges, but there's a model I think that we're very, you know, conscious of trying to build for that type of work. Thank you. I'm sorry. I saw the red light.

Ms. Tippett: Another question?

Participant: I was going to ask you a question about the Chicago Jewish community, but you just answered it [laugh].

Mr. Nashashibi: And I should say something about — just a quick caveat point about that. You know, my family is Palestinian. I always tell this, because I do speak to synagogues a lot and I often get asked the question when I'm in a very honest conversation, did you grow up hating Jews, right, or having any hatred towards Jews? And my honest response was, you know, I didn't really live in Palestine, but I experienced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an eight-year-old being strip-searched at a border.

I honestly grew up absolutely fearful of Jews, and that sounds bizarre. But I could hear Hebrew. I didn't speak a word of it. It could be just 15 languages being spoken at the same time. I could pick out Hebrew. So I grew up very anxious of engagement with the Jewish community, because I constantly associated it with this conflict. Organizing, working in the context of what we do in Chicago, our organization not only received mentorship, we received strategic planning. And people like Rabbi Marx and others, um, really can walk along with us in the trenches today.

And I could call that Rabbi Funnye, who's on the South Side, call him my rabbi, could call him at any time of night and he will have his congregation on the block on the corner. We have stood in the face of abandoned homes, foreclosed homes. We've prayed together on blocks where people have died and been killed. And I think we're hopeful that that's a model for a different type of Jewish-Muslim engagement that I think many still have not had the opportunity to be involved in.

[Applause]

Ms. Tippett: Do you have a really quick one?

Participant: What engagement have you had outside of Chicago where there are very conservative Christian speakers? Like I heard somebody on the radio the other day saying Muhammad never even — I was looking for the NPR station and I must have turned the dial …

Ms. Tippett: Good job, good job.

Participant: … to a Christian speaker on the radio show, and he was saying Muhammad never even existed and Islam is a fiction. How do you interact with those — with that far to the whatever?

Mr. Nashashibi: Yeah, you know, I haven't really had many opportunities, we'll call it that, to engage with, but I do sometimes really again attempt to find those types of conversations and moments. I think people like there are now increasingly important conversations and engagements with people like Sheikh Hamza Yusuf and other big American-Muslim scholars and activists with broader sectors of the more conservative Evangelical movement to begin to agitate one another. And I think that's, again, what the American experience provides.

I mean, you can rail on with that type of rhetoric in isolation, but do it at the same table with a Muslim, right? Do it at the same table with a person from the Jewish community and something begins to break down. You need to confront the sometimes lunacy of that rhetoric. You need to confront the irrationality of that rhetoric. And most importantly, you have to confront the human story that's sitting in front of you that is just absolutely aghast and offended by what you're saying.

And I think, again, America, with our ongoing challenges and difficulties — and God knows, we continue to have them — still is the best place on earth for that type of opportunity. And so, as much as we still have these kind of, you know, that rhetoric that you'll hear on the radio, I think there's still moments and corners across the country that even the most unlikely people are having these types of conversations. And we constantly have to hope and pray that we can continue to agitate to make them happen.

Ms. Tippett: I told you I was on your Twitter feed, and I love this. I think it was really recent. You wrote: "My four-year-old discovers the spiritual power of her name as she looks over and seriously asks, 'Daddy, do you have the right nia?'" What does nia mean?

Mr. Nashashibi: So nia — in kind of Arabic-Muslim parlance — is spiritual intention. And oftentimes — it's both the Swahili and Arabic word. And oftentimes, Muslims are always asked before they pray, before they do any act of service, before they engage in anything that has any kind of sense of worship associated with it, is it being done for the right nia? Is it being done for the right purpose? Are you attempting to get fame or credit?

I think, yes, there was a song that had used her name in that way and the light went off in the middle of it and turned over to me on the couch and asked me that question. Honestly, I looked at her and I didn't have an answer for her for I think a good 20 seconds. She nodded her head and she said, "No, probably not." [laugh] And I said, "What?" We then had a conversation. I said, "Well, at least keep me in your prayers that I have." [laugh]

Ms. Tippett: Well, there's just this one final question following on that. I mean, I think the first time I talked to you, maybe you had one baby, I'm not sure. But you have three children now and they're the next generation of American-Muslims. How does having children then continue to shape and change this vision and passion that you bring to the work you do, the life you lead?

Mr. Nashashibi: I mean, for me, I think, relating to the story I told earlier, just makes everything that much more urgent. You know, it's, um, you know, I want my daughter — I'm acutely aware. I have a seven-year-old too. She's the eldest now, you know — acutely aware of how she thinks about herself in relationship to the larger society. And I don't want her to feel both apologetic, marginalized by associating with the spiritual tradition that is, you know, challenging her to connect to the divine.

I want her to feel proud of that. I want her to be in spaces where that is nurtured. I want her to be in spaces where that's validated. So, um, and I also want her to think of that tradition as a tradition that applies beyond kind of any provincial circle of one group of people. So oftentimes when I'm with her, my wife's a physician and she works at Cook County Hospital and she sees, you know, deals with the realities of people who are uninsured and undocumented. And she, you know, also attends to this situation, I think, from a different perspective.

For me my young — my, uh, Jenah, is her name, the eldest, when I take her on rallies or when she's asked what she, you know, wants to be right now, it's a veterinarian and an activist, right? [laugh]. So the activist is still in there. I always tell her you can do everything else, but you have to be active. You have to be engaged. You know, I think she gets it. I mean, she's out — I've taken her to corner stores where we're working on food justice issues. I've taken her to abandoned homes, you know, and part of what I do in the spaces that I work and live is the Muslim greeting both to Muslims, but it's also extended to everyone is as-salam alaykum, in a very kind of — it's peace and blessings be upon you. And I say it to most everyone to the annoyance of my wife [laugh] who walks down the street or is with us.

And my daughter, you know, has kind of picked up on that and was rolling down the window driving with my wife and there was what looked like — she connects everyone with the Muslim tradition and, in fact, we drive down a road in the winter that has a nativity scene in front of it and she's like, "Look, Dad, Muslims!" [laugh] And I said, "You're right, you're right!" I always tell the mothers of that Holy Cross Hospital, I said, you know, and the ability to kind of connect with traditions in that context, whether it's from the Jewish and the Muslim community, to see ourselves in others is something that I think is just critical for my children and I hope that they continue to have that.

[Applause]

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Rami Nashashibi, thank you.

Rami Nashashibi is Founder and Executive Director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, in Chicago.

Ms. Tippett: To download a free copy of this show or to listen to my unedited interview with Rami Nashashibi onstage at Chautauqua, go to our website, onbeing.org. You'll also find all of our shows through our podcast on iTunes.

On Facebook, we're at facebook.com/onbeing. On Twitter, use the hashtag "onbeing" to converse with other listeners. I'm there @kristatippett. Follow our show @beingtweets.

On Being on-air and online is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell.

Special thanks this week to Maureen Rovegno, Joan Brown Campbell, and the Chautauqua Institution.

Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I'm Krista Tippett.

[Announcements]

Ms. Tippett: Next time, a veteran of the civil rights movement with a long lens of wisdom — Vincent Harding. Please join us.

This is APM, American Public Media.

Voices on the Radio

is founder and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN).