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'Ask a Muslim' event seeks to deepen understanding, allay fears

by Tara Giles
Sports reporter - Coos County Democrat and Berlin Reporter

Robert Azzi of Exeter addressed a crowd that gathered at the Congregational Church in Lancaster on the evening of Jan. 10. Azzi answered questions as part of his 'Ask a Muslim Anything' event. (Photo by Tara Giles) (click for larger version)
January 15, 2018
LANCASTER — A group of curious people gathered inside the Congregational Church in Lancaster on the evening of Jan. 10 for the 'Ask a Muslim Anything' event. The man at the podium has been dubbed a peacemaker, and has been traveling around New England in hopes to bestow more knowledge upon American citizens regarding the religion that is most making negative headlines in current times.

The friendly yet determined Robert Azzi is from Exeter, and refers to himself as an Arab American Muslim. He is a well known photojournalist and columnist who touches on issues of identity, conflict and Islam. Although Azzi was born in the Granite State, he has lived in Athens, Beirut, Cairo, Jeddah and New York.

His Web site highlights his many hats and achievements, stating "Azzi has been a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, a member of the Leadership Council of the Harvard Divinity School, an advisor to Tufts University's Fletcher School committee on Islam and South-West Asia and recently became a board member of ACLU-NH. As a photojournalist his work appeared frequently in such publications as Life, Time, Newsweek and National Geographic, Fortune and other domestic and international publications."

Of the event, Azzi said, "People don't know what they don't know, I want to open up new perspectives for my audience especially for those who don't often agree with me, and expose them to points of view I believe are important and which they might not have previously considered."

Azzi answered the first question from the crowd which was about the divide between the Sunnis and the Shiites. These are the two divisions of Islam, the Shiites being from Iran mostly and the Sunni's everywhere else.

Sharon Vanderlaan, the Church's Reverend, explained, "The Shiites are more like Catholics, in that they have a hierarchical structure nine the ayatollahs of Iran and the Sunnis are less structured with no central authority. The enmity of these two groups and the hatred of the west have more to do with of colonialism, recent independence, and things like Bush's war [the Iraq War launched in 2003]."

As far as Jihad, Azzi said there were two definitions. In an article from the Islamic Supreme Council of America it states, 'The concept of jihad as a struggle for self-improvement is little known among non-believers. Yet Noha Aboulmagd-Forster, who teaches Arabic at the University of Chicago's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, stresses that it may be the most common interpretation of the term.

"Something widely quoted by the Muslim 'man on the street' is that the most difficult jihad is the one of the soul," she said. "The biggest trouble is not with your enemy but with yourself."

While inner struggle is one meaning of jihad, many others evidently use it to describe engagement with external enemies. It is there that the concept encounters the notions of other faiths.

"Religiously, jihad is the expending of utmost effort in upholding and defending justice," said Sheikh Jaafar Idris, of the Saudi Arabian Embassy.

Idris explained that he recognizes two kinds of jihad because there are two kinds of violations of justice: jihad with words against false beliefs, and jihad with the sword against acts of injustice.

"The first is the basic and continuous jihad," Idris said. "It was mentioned in the Qur'an very early in the history of Islam and at a time when Muslims were weak and even persecuted. God said to His Prophet, 'Do not obey the kafireen (those who reject the truth) but wage jihad with it (the Qur'an) against them. [25:52].'"

Azzi also said that there are mosques in America, where men and woman worship together and there is one located in southern California that is just for women.

Another question was for Azzi to explain what the five pillars are, or the things one must do to become a Muslim. To be a Muslim you have to say there is no God but Allah, pray five times a day, give to the needy, fast during Ramadan, and go on the hajji (Pilgrimage to Mecca) if possible. He also said that the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, the Psalms, and some of the Christian scriptures are considered holy books as well as the Koran) Jesus is a respected prophet in Islam and Mary is highly revered.

Azzi, who grew up in Manchester, is the son of Lebanese parents, his father was a Syrian Eastern Rite Catholic and his mother was a Congregationalist. He converted to Islam when he moved to Beirut and realized there were so many more variations.

When asked what the discussion is like within the Muslim community in regards to extremism, Azzi explained that no Muslim has the right to tell another Muslim, that they are not a Muslim. He compared it to Christians involved with the Wesborough Baptist Church, in that they're extreme views do not compare to the majority. Unfortunately the extreme Muslims such as the Taliban are killing millions of people.

To that, Azzi explained that the Taliban has such a hold on the poor that those who have been forced to live under their regime play along just to survive.

"They are promised new roads and schools and buildings, so they follow suit," he said.

In a statement prior to this event, Azzi said, "On 9/11, America was attacked by people they didn't know speaking the language of a religion they knew nothing about … by terrorists who claimed to be acting in the name of God. In the aftermath of that horror, many Americans became, with some justification, fearful and distrustful of the Other and it took hard work and belief in the fundamental goodness of humankind for Americans to find commonality of interests and be able to move beyond that tragedy. Muslims and non-Muslims, religious and secular, together worked to build community; interfaith projects were initiated and common ground was established. What we're witnessing today, however, in the public square in 2016 is different than what we saw in 2001. Today, America's being swept up in a virulent wave of Islamophobia that has nothing to do with religion, it's about demagogues manipulating public sentiment for personal power, privilege and profit, and for the presidency."

Islam arrived in America around the same time as the Mayflower did in 1619, when 20 African slaves were delivered to Jamestown by a Portuguese slave ship. Azzi said that it is estimated that roughly 20 percent of the slaves from Africa were Muslim and were sold into slavery by other Muslims.

"Those slaves, delivered to Christian slave owners so that their labor could be exploited to work the land that white Europeans had stolen from the indigenous peoples of the hemisphere, were the first of generations of Muslims who came to these lands we today inhabit," he explained.

Azzi went on to say, "Islam is one of the world's three great Abrahamic religions, all of which worship the same one God. Today, America embraces more than three million Muslims, among whom are descendants of African-Americans and immigrants who've been peacefully living, assimilated, among us for generations. Muslims did not just happen, like 'Topsy,' on 9/11."

Lastly, Azzi said, "I know that most Americans aren't haters, even those who are still fearful. I know most Americans aren't responsible for the ignorance and invective that today resonates in so many public spaces."

Lucy Wyman, who was instrumental in bringing Azzi to town, said this after the discussion, "Listening to Robert Azzi, it is clear that he believes profoundly in the benefits of conversation, that the sharing of ideas and beliefs not only help bridge understanding between people of different cultures and faith, but brings into focus what is shared. Ultimately, the world religions are built on people supporting one another, honesty and respect. Because it is true that extremists may be found on the fringes of every group, it be hooves us all to broaden that conversation and expand the moderate middle."

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