Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Activist Muslim Profile: Rami Nashashibi


Muslim confronts needs of cityActivist sees poverty, gangs
as top threats to urban brethren–and he won’t stand for it

By Margaret Ramirez
Tribune religion reporter
Published May 3, 2006

He is one of Muslim America’s rising young activists, yet he is reserved in his comments on caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the Mideast conflict and the war in Iraq. Instead, Rami Nashashibi speaks out against Muslim-owned liquor stores, protests on behalf of Latino workers and denounces mistreatment of blacks by the criminal justice system. On Monday he joined Mexicans, Koreans and Poles in a massive march for immigrant rights.

Such issues are not commonly associated with Muslim activism, but Nashashibi, 33, believes Islam calls on the faithful to focus on gritty problems in urban areas. For him, waging a war at home against poverty, gang violence and other modern plagues is key to uniting Muslim Americans. “Muslims have been absent and aloof about the problems in the inner city,” he said. “We’re seen either as victims or villains. We have notbeen part of the larger story in transforming communities. But now we have a unique opportunity to bring together the diverse elements of our community to effect change.”

Muslim leaders and scholars agree that one of the most pressing problems in Muslim America today is the divide separating Arab and Southeast Asian immigrants, such as Nashashibi, from the growing number of African-Americans and Latinos becoming Muslims. As executive director of the Chicago-based Inner-City Muslim Action Network or IMAN, Nashashibi is one of the few Muslim activists nationwide connecting wealthy, suburban Muslim immigrants with largely working-class Muslims in the city. As a Palestinian-American educated in Chicago, he bridges both worlds, mixing Islamic beliefs with street culture like spoken-word and hip-hop music. This month, IMAN moves into new offices that include a free healthclinic for the low-income Latinos, African-Americans and Arabs in Chicago Lawn on the Southwest Side.

As Nashashibi’s influence grows, many observers say he is redefining what it means to be a Muslim-American activist. “Rami has been able to do what others have not been able to do. He bridges the gap,” said Imam Seth T. Ibrahim, spiritual leader of the Mosque of Umar, one of the oldest African-American mosques in Chicago.“Others have tried to do this and failed. Rami is the key.”

Sherman Jackson, professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, said that although there are other Muslim leaders working in poor urban areas, Nashashibi stands out for his efforts to make local activism a natural part of American Islam. This interpretation of the faith represents a shift in the Muslim-American community from insulated immigrants to socially conscious activists, Jackson said.“The plight of poor people in America, even poor Muslims in America, has not been on the radar screen of the immigrant Muslim community. They have been much more interested in monument-building,” said Jackson. “With Rami, he’s trying to reconfigure our thinking, particularly as Muslims, so that these needs appear more obvious to us. “He’s trying to change the mindset. In that regard, Rami’s a pioneer.”

At the same time, Nashashibi’s brash personality and outspokenness have riled some of the community’s elders. He speaks out against Muslim-owned businesses that sell liquor, which the Koran forbids. He has also been criticized for allowing rap music and break dancing at IMAN events and for promoting too much interaction between men and women. “Yes, IMAN walks a fine line sometimes and I have to choose mybattles wisely,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes I don’t choose them well.” Nashashibi was born in Jordan to Nancy Daoud and diplomat Maher Nashashibi. They raised him in a secular Muslim home, where thefamily spoke English instead of Arabic and never went to mosque or read the Koran. Because of his father’s occupation, he moved frequently and attended high school in Rome.

After graduation, the young Nashashibi searched for a college in Chicago, where his mother grew up. He enrolled at St. Xavier University and later transferred to DePaul. There, Nashashibi got to know African-American and Puerto Rican students on campus and began to see Islam in a different way. He sawsimilarities between the black struggle for civil rights and Palestinians in the Mideast. His mentor, an “old Black Panther”whose identity he will not reveal, helped him see how activism could be integrated with Islamic beliefs. Soon, his religious devotion took hold. “It’s strange but I guess you could say my path to Islam is similar to a convert,” he said.

In 1995, Nashashibi and other students formed the Inner-City Muslim Action Network to address social problems in Chicago Lawn, purposely choosing a name whose acronym, IMAN, means faith in Arabic. Working on a shoestring budget of donations from the Muslim community, the groupstarted with small projects like a food pantry, GED and computer classes, and a free weekend health clinic that operated out of aphysician’s office. Two years later, the group formally introduced itself by organizing Takin’ It to the Streets, a festival that included music, art exhibits, a kids’ carnival and lectures on Islam and activism. The event drew hundreds of people, mostly young Muslims. “That’s when things took off,” he said. “People had never seen anything like that before.” As Nashashibi and IMAN grew in prominence, the group developed relationships with other community groups. One effort focuses on establishing a forum for Latino day laborers. Nashashibi has also begun lobbying for alternative sentences for low-level drugoffenders.

The notion of using Islam as a basis for activism stems partly from one of the pillars of the faith, known as zakat. Many Muslims satisfy that charity requirement by sending money to their home countries. Nashashibi is trying to extend that idea to include charity and activism in the U.S., even if the needy are not Muslim. “I started thinking about this when I studied the prophet Muhammad,” he said. “I saw that quality in his life–his ability to reach out to all sectors of society, whether they were Muslim or not. I’m tryingto get Muslims to understand that.” Nashashibi’s most ambitious project is the May 20 opening of IMAN’s new offices, which include a permanent home for the health clinic with three examination rooms and a medical lab. The director of the clinic is Dr. Sherene Fakhran, a physician at Northwestern MemorialHospital who is also Nashashibi’s wife. Together, they have a year-old daughter, Jenah.

Securing the new IMAN building was tricky, because Islam prohibits paying interest. The Greater Southwest Development Corp. purchased theproperty and will sell the building to IMAN under a $625,000 lease-to-own contract. “He has passion like you wouldn’t believe,” said James F. Capraro, the corporation’s executive director. “Next to the word `passion’ in the dictionary, they should just put Rami’s picture.” Still, that passion has sometimes landed him in trouble. At a fundraising dinner for the Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview, Nashashibi caused a stir when he criticized Muslim immigrants who own liquor stores in poor Chicago neighborhoods. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the foundation, agrees the issue is important but said attacking business owners without providing an alternative plan is counterproductive. “At the Mosque Foundation, we’ve been trying hard to change this. But it’s very difficult. So, we’re trying to do it gradually in a way that doesn’t turn people off,” said Sahloul.

Nashashibi said he won’t back down. He also feels it’s his duty to remind the Muslim community that urban problems like alcoholism, drugaddiction and gang violence are becoming worries for Muslims too. “We have Palestinian-American kids with drug problems,” he said. “Arab kids are out there in Chicago gangbanging. These are our issues too.” Nashashibi is most in his element at IMAN’s monthly Community Cafe, held in the Spoken Word Cafe in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The event started two years ago to provide a hip social gathering spot for young Muslims. On a recent Friday, aspiring poets took the stage to rap about religion and racism. A disc jockey spun hip-hop beats for a diverse audience of African-American, Latino and Arab Muslims. “Yo, yo, everybody. … What’s up, my brothers and sisters?” Nashashibi told them. “I’m happy to see so many of you here tonight. This is what it’s all about. It’s time for us to start telling our own stories, without others telling those stories for us.”


Blogger Edward Ott said...

Thank you for sharing this great article. We all can try to be more active.


10:25 PM  
Blogger peace said...

How sad that Nashashibi has the time and desire to engage in the events described, but not assist or speak to his ailing family members. His Grandmother is currently in a hospital and alone. The hospital is only 5 miles away from him.
Charity should begin at home.

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