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Imam's 'American Crescent' Sheds Light on Muslim Culture


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, it's Friday and the barbershop guys are in the house. I hear they'll be talking about a civil rights march on Washington and troubles in the sports world. But first, it's time for our weekly conversation about matters of faith and spirituality.

Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Police decided to drop a plan to create a database of the city's Muslim population after protests by Muslim and civil rights groups.

Police official said the plan was only meant to help them develop better relationships with the Muslims while identifying potential extremists. But in many Muslims, it was a further sign of a degree to which they are targets of distrust and fear in the wake of 9/11.

Imam Hassan Qazwini is one of the people trying to change that. He is the head of what is believed to be the largest Shia Congregation in the U.S., the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan. He's a 7th generation Muslim cleric and regularly speaks at congregations around the country. And now, he's authored a new book, "American Crescent." It's kind of an Islam for beginners. Imam Qazwini spoke with us from Detroit and I asked him why he wrote this book.

Imam HASSAN QAZWINI: The main reason was to educate American people about my religion. There were many books that were written about Islam and they were all great and informative. But I thought that there is one thing lacking in many of these books. That these were abstract text offering an abstract understanding about Islam. I thought if I can humanize and personalize the history of Islam, the story of Islam through my own life, it can be more engaging to the public American readers. And that was probably the most compelling reason behind writing this book.

MARTIN: And it's a very intimate book. You talk a lot about your childhood and your family. I understand that you represent the 7th generation of religious scholars in your family. Your father was highly respected Imam, in Iraq. Two of your brothers are spiritual leaders in California. Was there ever - how can I put this - a time when Islam was separate from you? I mean, it's so much a part of your life. Is there any way you can even conceive of yourself in any way other than as a Muslim?

Imam QAZWINI: No. Indeed, the history of Islam runs through the history of my family. My father is an Ayatollah. My grandfather is an Ayatollah. And I come from a family of prominent Imams and religious leaders in Iraq and in the Middle East at large. And my father, as I mentioned in the book, has been my role model and my teacher. And therefore, I think that my family's history and Islam's history are intertwined.

MARTIN: May I just stop you briefly and ask what is the difference between Imam and an Ayatollah?

Imam QAZWINI: An Imam is a title for any active Muslim religious leader who'll lead the congregation, whether a big congregation or small congregation. Ayatollah it's an academic status. It refers to the academic achievement of a religious Muslim leader who have reached in a level of Ijtihad. Ijtihad means reinterpretation of the Islamic laws.

MARTIN: Imam, why did your family leave Iraq?

Imam QAZWINI: My family left Iraq when my father felt that his life was in danger. When the Baathists came to power in 1968, They were determined to go to war with the religious establishment. My father was a very active preacher and religious leader in our hometown, Karbala. My father received a tip from the governor of Karbala and basically the governor told my father that if he stays in Iraq, his life is in danger. This prompted my father to leave in early 1971. The interesting that my family and I had no chance to go back to Iraq until year 2003, after the collapse of Saddam Hussein. For almost 32 years, my family lived in exile. Finally in 2003, my father was able to go back to Iraq and resides now there in Iraq.

MARTIN: What drew you to the United States?

Imam QAZWINI: The main reason for my immigration to the United States was the golden opportunity I have received in working in this country to disseminate the message of Islam among non-Muslims. That was the, probably, a primary driving force that's brought me to this country. I knew that in this country, I can teach many non-Muslims about my religion, as well as some Muslims. I always thought that if Americans are given the opportunity to know more about Islam, they will definitely have more positive views about Islam.

MARTIN: You tell some funny stories about how shocking it was in some ways when you first came. Just the culture is so different. The - well, you tell it. You tell it. What was it like when you first came?

Imam QAZWINI: Well, I - yeah. Obviously when you come to this country after living for so many years in a totally different environment, you will end up in certain shocking and yet funny situation. For example, when I was studying in the ESL class, when I just came to this country that was back in 1993 in California, I would find myself sitting next to certain ladies who were not dressed very well according to my own code of ethics. This would put me in a very awkward position. And I had to talk to this woman in the class because our teacher would instruct us to have the casual conversation so we can improve our English.

MARTIN: You couldn't do that or is it just that it was awkward for you if somebody were wearing a tank top or something of that sort? What would you do?

Imam QAZWINI: It wasn't that I couldn't do it. It was just awkward for me. It was something new that I had to push myself and force myself to do. America is, truly, a great melting pot in which we can learn from each other and we can live in peace with each other, and that's a great system. And in fact, the followers of all religions can live in peace in this country. So, I'm glad that I came to this country. And I'm glad that I was able to understand the American culture and to be able to interact with it.

MARTIN: What would you most like Americans to know about Islam or to learn from Islam?

Imam QAZWINI: Honestly, the one that I like Americans to know the most about Islam is we are normal people. We are not violent people. We are not weird people. Muslim's like any other people, any other nation. These are peaceful, hardworking people.

But obviously, there are questions when it comes to Jihad, for example, to Muslims believe in Jihad. What does Jihad mean? Jihad basically is something that even Christians and Jewish believe. Jihad means that you struggle with yourself to be a better person. That's the original meaning of Jihad. But then ultimately, it was used to refer to the defensive wars that Prophet Mohammed had to endure, and I underline the word defensive wars. And that's probably the most appealing desire I have to make other people, to make Americans understand the nature of my religion.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Imam Hassan Qazwini. He is the author of a new book, American Crescent. Imam, I think the question that many people have, and I know you've had this question many times is, is Islam, as religion of peace, how is it possible that so many people are willing to kill in the name of the faith even other Muslims, which is the case as we see right now in Iraq and also elsewhere?

Imam QAZWINI: You know, I always say in my lectures and I mentioned that in the book as well. That religion, any religion, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. Religion is a powerful tool and it could be misused as well. Christianity was misused. Hundreds of thousand of people were killed during the Crusades in the name of Christianity. And throughout the history, we'll always see that certain people who had certain political agenda use religion for their political gain.

There are people who use religion, I don't deny that. No one is saying that the Muslim world is a perfect world. If we need to understand what Islam says, I believe that the best way to do that is to go to the Koran itself. The action of certain people does not necessarily represent the faith of certain people. We always have certain people who spoke in the name of certain religions. In the United States, we had people like David Koresh, Jim Jones, even Timothy McVeigh who believe that he must kill people in the name of Jesus.

So, would I hold Christianity responsible for their actions? Even Hitler has been reported having his priest every Sunday in his mansion, would I hold Catholicism for his atrocities? We have to be very careful by distinguishing the genuine teaching of certain religion from a certain propaganda and agenda -certain agenda. We always have, throughout history, people who use religion and there are still people who use religion. In some Muslim countries, there are certain rulers who use religion just to enforce their own popular base or their power.

So to say that there are certain Muslims, I believe these people could be brainwashed like any other person. We know the power of brainwash. These - I have no doubt that these people who killed themselves and killed many other innocent people - whether in Iraq or in Pakistan - these people are brainwashed.

I gave many examples, particularly from Iraq, when someone goes inside a mosque, willing to kill himself as well as many other people thinking that he will end up in heaven and he will be dining with the holy prophet Muhammad. I have to also allude to the role of certain extremist Muslims. I have to, particularly mention the Wahhabists who have a very extremist agenda. Wahhabism is the mainstream sect of Saudi Arabia.

The funny part is we see that our country is having strong relationship with the Saudi government yet not being able to reign in these extremists. And the Wahhabist sect, they basically believed that any other Muslim who disagrees with their doctrine is not Muslim basically.

MARTIN: What would you most like Muslims around the world to know about America - the America that you have come to know?

Imam QASWINI: Well, unfortunately, most Muslims around the world, they look at America from abroad, many Muslims disagree with many of our foreign policies particularly to the Middle East, our stand towards the Israeli, our conflict, the situation in Iraq.

But the fact is, as Muslims have the chance to come to this country and to see life in the United States and how people have the freedom to practice their faith, they probably will change some of their views. America is a country in which all citizens are protected by the constitution, their right and their freedoms are protected.

The Muslim community - now we can talk about to almost six to eight million Muslims living in the United States - they all go to mosques, to their worship centers without any intimidation. I know there are certain issues here and there and I allude to them in the book, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, Muslims have suffered a great deal of discrimination, being singled out, that's very true.

But in general, I believe that Muslims abroad also, if they have the chance to look at America and see that Muslims and non-Muslims live in peace, I'm sure they will change some of their views.

MARTIN: I wonder if you think that these tensions can be eased or resolved in your lifetime if in your lifetime you will see the United States return to or at least develop a level of respect and - what's the word I'm looking for -accord, friendship even, with Muslims around the world?

Imam QASWINI: I hope it will happen within our lifespan, but I believe this is a very long process. The problem is America has good relationship with the government of the Muslim countries, but not with the Muslim nations themselves.

Meantime, Muslim nations are bombarded with the media that sometime focuses on the negative side of the American foreign policy, which is not very popular. But I think that if there are sincere efforts by both - by the Muslim leaders and the Muslim world, and our country - whether as political structure or by the intellectuals to bridge the gap that exists between the two worlds.

I always believe in the co-existence of religions. I believe in dialogue among religions and civilizations. I do not embrace clash of civilizations as some extremists in our country believe. I think if we do that and if we know - it's a huge PR backup that both need to take. Muslims need to work harder to correct the image of their faith, especially after 9/11. I believe Islam has been hijacked by certain people. The Muslim leaders need to speak up; they need to clarify many of the misconceptions that exist about their religion; they need to speak thoroughly and courageously about their religion that has nothing to do with these extremists.

In the meantime, I would like to see Americans, especially the American government and the American media, being more receptive and reaching out to the Muslim community. I had great hopes in the past that, for example, with this particular administration to reach out to the Muslim community, to enable the Muslim community to be a normal part of the American fabric.

But, unfortunately, some of these dreams have collapsed after 9/11, as we see the sharp turn that took place after the attacks and…

MARTIN: And you say that's the person who endorsed George Bush for president initially?

Imam QASWINI: In the beginning…

MARTIN: In the beginning…

Imam QASWINI: In the beginning of 2000. Indeed, I was not the only one who endorsed him. The majority of Muslims endorsed him simply because we heard some encouraging comments from him when he spoke about our grievances. And he indicated that he will work hard to integrate the Muslim community in America.

But unfortunately, that was not the case. Many of us feel that we have been betrayed. And I believe that if there are certain sincere efforts by both sides, the media plays a major role. I mean, I always give these two examples -Fox News here in America and Al-Jazeera in Qatar - two contrasts that both transmit a certain incendiary rhetoric that's not helpful.

And I believe that we need to be mature enough to understand that it is in our best interest to have a dialogue between the two worlds - the Muslim world and and America.

MARTIN: Imam Hassan Qazwini is the author of a new book "American Crescent : A Muslim Cleric on the Power of His Faith, the Struggle Against Prejudice, and the Future of Islam in America." He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Imam Qazwini, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Imam QASWINI: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity.

MARTIN: Coming up, there's a march on Washington today led by some icons of the past.

Unidentified Man: And I'm so grateful for the young people and all the people in this city who are today going to lend their body to hundreds of thousands, indeed, millions of people who wish they live close enough to the Justice Department to say enough is enough with our marching feet.

MARTIN: But is this the right strategy for the future? We'll find out what the Barbershop guys have to say. That's next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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