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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Transcending America’s Faith Divide to Address Social Injustice

by Altaf Husain, guest contributor

Ms. DiaMs. Dia performs at a Community Café: Just Food event organized by the Inner-City Muslim Action NetworkIMAN Community Cafe events.

As Americans pause today, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it is worthwhile to reflect on the culture of service and social justice that were part of his teachings.

While the values King espoused could be internalised by anyone who is passionate about improving the human condition, his teachings resonate especially with faith-inspired people. Muslim Americans, for example, have a profound appreciation for King because he dedicated his life to addressing societal injustices — a central tenet of the Islamic tradition.

Of particular relevance from King’s teachings is the concept of a “world house,” comprised of peoples of different faith traditions. He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”

The concept of a world house is especially relevant when applied to interfaith collaboration on social justice initiatives today. Such interfaith collaboration is an American tradition, and Muslim Americans are integral to it. In fact, social activism among Muslim Americans is at an all-time high.

Inspired by their own faith tradition and responding to invitations from other traditions, Muslim Americans have been noticeably advancing the concept of a world house, especially by focusing people’s attention on hunger in America.

Consider the Interfaith Hunger Initiative (IHI) in Indianapolis, of which the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is a partner. The IHI reports that 16,000 children die from hunger each day throughout the world. In Indianapolis alone, a total of 18,000 children are frequently hungry. With the active involvement of Muslim Americans, IHI aims to end child and family hunger both at the domestic level in Indianapolis, and internationally in Kenya.

Muslim Run leaders at Payless-1Participants of Muslim Run in Action discuss food choices at a local market.

While hunger is an issue nationwide, in inner-city neighbourhoods, a related issue is the disproportionately large number of unhealthy food options being sold in stores. This issue, conceptualised as food justice, is being addressed head on by a Chicago-based organisation, Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN). IMAN is located in Chicago’s south side and was founded by young Muslim Americans. IMAN is unabashedly targeting “food and liquor” stores (including ones owned by Muslims) in inner-city black neighbourhoods, challenging them to take responsibility for the food options they offer. IMAN recently sponsored a forum entitled “Food For Life, A Human Right: Food Justice, Corner Stores & Race Relations in the ‘Hood.”

Muslim Americans are also represented both by ISNA and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an American membership organisation of 300 religious communities. NRCAT asserts that “torture is a moral issue” and aims to end torture in our own backyard. A declaration regarding prisoner treatment, torture, and cruelty states that NRCAT members “agree that the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American.” As active and vocal partners in NRCAT, Muslim Americans are exerting tremendous energy in organising campaigns to educate community members about the adverse psychological and physical impact of current practices on prisoners, such as 23-hour solitary confinement; they advocate prohibiting torture outright for mentally ill prisoners, as well as certain interrogation techniques.

As these examples indicate, there are sufficient members of the world house, among them Muslim Americans, who are not only putting into practice the teachings of their own faith and cultural traditions but also exemplifying the continuing relevance of King’s teachings to contemporary social issues. King’s life was cut short nearly 45 years ago; however, his teachings remain relevant today, inspiring Muslim Americans and others to uphold social justice through interfaith collaborations.


Altaf Husain at ISNA 2008Altaf Husain is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Society of North America. He is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, DC.

A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on April 3, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Talking about Islamism

Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

We’ve just completed our program in which Krista interviews British activist Ed Husain. Ed Husain spent several years in the 1990s in ideologically radical Islamist groups in the UK, where he was born and grew up. He wrote a book about these experiences, The Islamist, which has generated some fierce debate in Britain. (Check out our Particulars page to find links to some of that criticism.)

In his book, he makes a case for banning radical groups that he was part of, and makes causal links between those ideological groups and other, more violent groups that encourage terror tactics and violence. All of this has come in the wake of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London that, like the terror attacks here in 2001, have been emblemized by two numbers: 7/7.

(Photo by Jan van der Crabben/Flickr)

Much of the debate has spun around whether or not such causal links do in fact exist, and whether or not his own experiences can speak to any sort of trend responsible for radicalizing youth in Britain’s Muslim communities.

It’s a sensitive topic, one that is difficult to remain objective about one way or the other. One thing I’ve experienced in reading the bubbling blogosphere is the cynicism the Muslim community feels toward the media. We’ve seen all sorts of talking heads and policy experts on the airwaves, telling us why terrorism has become a tactic used by Islamist revolutionaries. In fact, they rarely even frame it that way. The whole focus on terrorism — to the exclusion of positive developments — is problematic. Instead of opening up discussion, it paints people into corners, puts them in boxes, labels them as somehow different to “us.”

It’s this sense of “us” and “them” that Ed Husain talks much about in the show, particularly in the uncut interview. Having grown up in Britain, he has some quite pronounced views on social stratification and class segregation there.

But — and this is a big but — it seems to a cynical Muslim audience that it’s a short leap from calling something Islamism to stripping away that –ism, and just blaming Islam. The search for “moderate” Muslims by the media is held up proof of the media’s ignorance and complicity in framing how Muslims are portrayed. We’ve even had discussions here about what words we use to promote this show: do we catch the ear by offering insight into suicidal terrorism, or do we say that a radical has turned to a deeper spirituality?

In some sense, the whole usage of the term “moderate” reflects to what degree we view everything, in the US, through the lens of politics. Moderation is stressed repeatedly in the Qur’an as something to strive for, but no one within the Muslim community comes out and says, “Hey, world, I’m moderate!”

People do split into broad camps of conservatives, traditionalists, progressives, liberals, secularists, or what have you, but there’s a lot of debate over the terminology of these various shades of experience. Terms like conservative, moderate and progressive, having no real scriptural basis, seem borrowed from American media parlance. They can be useful shorthand, but sometimes obscure the nuance and complexity of today’s intellectual ferment. They can turn real people into distant intellectual constructs.

Some want to call this period of Islamic history the “Reformation,” borrowing again from an outside frame of reference. It honestly doesn’t matter what we call it. What matters is the substance, the story of our time in history, the opportunity, and the stakes we play for. People will criticize someone like Ed Husain for focusing on radicalism and calling for more discussion, for associating the Muslim experience with some problematic social malaise, or some violent ideology, when the daily lived reality is so far from that.

I myself find the issue of identity boring, because it doesn’t satisfy the real weighty questions that I wrestle with, things that are light-years away from the questions the media focuses on. I’m more concerned about purpose in my life, about goodness, about the music inside language, about if I should play PlayStation for another half-hour or start making dinner.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean that someone like Ed Husain doesn’t have a story to tell. One can be self-critical without being self-hating. And I can’t say firsthand what it’s like in the UK, because I haven’t lived there. But Ed Husain talks about the North American Muslim community as a source for direct inspiration for him — there’s a strong streak of civic and social engagement in the Muslim community here. Just look to Krista’s interview with Ingrid Mattson or a recent interview on Altmuslim with Zaid Shakir. A great, high-profile British blog, Pickled Politics, seems to have a good pulse on the same reality in Britain.

That’s why Ed Husain has not abandoned Islam nor found it to be somehow inherently broken. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have criticism to offer about people who preach violence “in our name.” And nor does it mean, because he stakes out a claim, that he has the final, definitive answer. He doesn’t claim to, either, but he is part of a larger conversation. And if you have stories that inspire you, why not share them, and keep us honest?

(Photo by Chan’ad Bahraini/Flickr)

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