Heavy rains and winds did not douse the interest of over 125 people who braved the elements last Sunday for the opportunity to ask Arab-American Muslim Robert Azzi, a longtime photojournalist, newspaper columnist and former Middle East advisor to Phillips Exeter Academy, “anything.”
The event, hosted by the First Church in Salem, a Unitarian Universalist church, is the kickoff in a series of events the church is sponsoring to foster interfaith dialogue and engagement.
“We are at a crucial time in modern U.S. history as far as understanding other faiths — especially Islam,” said Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, a pastor at the church. “It is crucial that we develop some rudimentary understanding about different faiths.”
Barz-Snell admitted that the title of the question and answer session — “Ask A Muslim Anything” — was deliberately provocative to “invite questions and produce dialogue.” And for over an hour and a half, the crowd of mostly non-church members complied, asking about everything from why women wear hijabs (head scarves) to the origin of violent jihad.
Two young Muslim women, Zoha Qumar, a Columbia University student and Phillips Exeter graduate, and Tan Nazer, a Saudi Arabian senior at Phillips Exeter, accompanied Azzi and were available to answer questions. Neither wore a hijab.
The first question, asking about the distinctions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, drew a chuckle from Azzi, who joked, “I love it when we start a forum with a softball.”
Salem resident, Jeff Cohen, asked Azzi whether it is difficult to encourage children to continue to wear traditional clothing in the current American climate of Islamaphobia. “It should break our collective heart that women are shedding the head scarf because of intimidation.” Azzi said.
He later noted, however, that a lot of women here and abroad are covered not by preference, but because their families and, in the case of patriarchal Saudi Arabia, where men are in control, their governments impose it. “This is wrong. It should be a personal choice,” he said, adding that the definition of modesty in Saudi Arabia has changed in an oppressive way that burdens women.
The questions turned to contemporary American life when Nat Carpenter of Beverly asked how an observant Muslim, who desires to pray to Mecca during the day, can also work in an environment that might not accommodate that desire, as recently happened to a group of Somali workers who wanted to convene for prayer during their work shift in Colorado.
“I don’t see a reason why employers couldn’t make accommodations for workers to exercise religious rights and freedoms during lunch or coffee breaks as they would for any other American,” Azzi said.
Perhaps the most pointed question of the forum, and the one on many people’s minds judging from the nodding heads in the audience, was asked by Paul Marquis of Salem.
“Does the Quran (the principal religious text of Islam) advocate violent jihad?” he asked.
“There are a lot of Muslims who misunderstand jihad,” Azzi said. “Those who believe in violent jihad have not read the Quran with an open heart.”
Azzi suggested several times throughout the Q&A session that poor, illiterate Muslims are recruited by political factions, like ISIS and the Taliban, that distort religion in order to gain a military and economic foothold. “Who is it that profits from this kind of rhetoric? We can’t yield the playing field,” he warned.
On the domestic front, Azzi described recent one-on-one conversations he had with several Republican presidential candidates, including Jeb Bush, who has advocated bombing and putting American boots on the ground to defeat ISIS. Azzi said the American obsession with ISIS could be traced to the fact that we did not get the success we wanted after 9/11 when we invaded Iraq.
“ISIS is a cancer. We have elevated them way out of proportion in terms of their capability, threat and theology. We love to have villains,” he said, adding, “We have never come to terms with having Muslims in our midst in this country.”
Azzi’s comments about mainstream American press and the role it plays fanning the flames of anti-Muslim rhetoric met with loud applause. “Radical Islamic terrorism sells,” he said. He then challenged the audience to turn away from Yahoo, the New York Times, NPR and other Western media sources and read the English Al Jazeera instead. “Take a look at the world the way the rest of the world sees it.”
He believes that it is possible to put a “stake through the heart” of the religious debate that polarizes people in this country.
“There is common ground. The question is how many people are willing to challenge the orthodoxies of their religion to get back to the scripture and look at the similarities in messages among all religions,” Azzi said, citing the prophetic traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which all have a version of the “golden rule.”
Asked what questions he wishes he had been asked, Azzi said that he would have liked to talk more about the connections between faith traditions and also the history of Islam in America going back to the days of slavery. Nonetheless, he was pleasantly surprised by how knowledgeable and interested the questioners were — and how respectful everyone was.
“I believe that as long as people keep talking to each other — to host forums where opinions and information can be exchanged with respect for each other — then there is hope,” he said.
Pictured at top: Robert Azzi, an Arab-American Muslim, answered questions at the First Church in Salem’s forum, “Ask a Muslim Anything.”
For more information about future programs, go to firstchurchinsalem.org or call 978-744-1551.