William Rivers Pitt | An American Imam Lights a Candle of Hope

Where our politicians fail us, our shared values lift us all up.Where our politicians fail us, our shared values lift us all up. (Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

“Better to light a candle,” reads the old proverb, “than curse the darkness.” Easy enough to say, but far more difficult to do in these grim and trying times. Whole swaths of the American public — Muslims, African Americans, Latinxs, LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, Indigenous people — have been targeted by the wrath of the new Know Nothings in the White House. Every day brings a new travesty, and candles are in short supply.

Imam Ibrahim Rahim and his fellow Muslims at Yusuf Mosque in Brighton, Massachusetts, were profoundly affected by the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, and it was in this crucible that I came to know him. With a steady hand and an unwavering voice, he preached peace and understanding in an atmosphere clouded by fear and anger, serving as a beacon to guide the community back to the light.

Once again, Imam Rahim is tasked to cherish that light for us all. In our shared darkness, this man holds a candle.

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Imam, I cannot begin to fathom the emotional and mental journey you have been required to undertake since November’s presidential election. My first question, therefore, must be straightforward: How are you doing? How are you feeling? How is your family?

Imam Ibrahim Rahim: I want to thank you for the bond of friendship that binds us and I offer my prayers to (God) for you and your family and for an unsure nation. These days, much of my time is spent in work and reflection. Much of what I have seen from the executive branch has concerned me, but the most unexpected blessing of all has been the outpouring of support by Americans from all walks of life for the American Muslim community and for our fellow brother and sister immigrants to the nation. And the icing on the cake has to be the international support seen and felt upon every continent of the globe by millions of onlookers who encourage us to rise up and speak truth to power.

I have the distinction of being African American, and my people’s long history of institutional abuse is something that has prepared me for this renewed hate agenda executed from the Oval Office, and which is clearly based in religious, race, gender and social-status supremacy. I feel tested. And I know that I am not the only American that feels this way.

My personal fear is tempered by my optimism that my neighbors see me, they see my family, they know me, they trust me, and they have judged and assessed that my humanity and that of my family is sacred and most worthy of their faithful advocacy and protection. It is people like you, Will, and those reading along with us that make up this nation. And where our politicians fail us, our shared American values lift us all up.

Our friendship began in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. As a spiritual and community leader, it falls to you in such times to be the face of Islam not just for your own community, but for the non-Muslim community as well, some of whom may have succumbed to hatred and fear. When faced with such challenges, how do you address them?

Thank you for bringing up the marathon. I recall those chilling moments in our beloved Boston in which we all became gripped with a very uncertain fear that “radical Islamic terrorists” had taken down our city. Boston mosques fell under severe scrutiny, but cooler heads prevailed, and critical dialogue began to temper our fears and reservations. When we learned that two immigrant brothers known as Tsarnaev were the perpetrators, we focused our attention upon their apprehension and we turned to one another for healing and understanding.

And while our beloved marathon burned before our eyes, we did not burn down our mosques, we did not arrest and deport all immigrants Muslims, we did not form a Muslim registry, and we did not blame the 100,000 Muslims in and around Boston for the awful crimes of these two brothers from Europe. And nearly four years later, our marathon is being run again with greater participation than ever. My beloved Boston has recovered.

So, to see the outpouring of Americans from all walks of life into the streets, the airports, state capitols etc., this is an affirmation for the American Muslim community that we are seen as neighbors, not enemies. Hate doesn’t require creativity, but the work of understanding via interfaith dialogue and activism — this is the tough work, the work of engagement by which we are able to see one another’s true humanity.

The election of Donald Trump has sent a jolt of fear and uncertainty through the Muslim community all across the US. We will address his Muslim ban, which he campaigned on vigorously, in a moment. Tell me, in a larger or more general sense, what the election of Trump means to you.

President Trump’s election means the country is divided in critical life areas. I represent two of these areas as an African American and as an American Muslim. President Trump ran on a “law and order” platform, meaning that my communities (African Americans) do not respect the police; so, deeper enforcement of the law in African American communities is the perceived and promulgated solution.

President Trump’s policies have been a great agitation in the world. The current public pushback response and reaction is a thing I do not believe he anticipated. Something amazing has stirred within the consciousness of the American people as a result of his divisive politics. As such, these are very interesting times. Where the call from the Oval Office has been to close ourselves off, exclude others and put America first no matter how destructive such a thing may become domestically and abroad, the overwhelming opposition by the people is a beautiful thing to behold.

The world has witnessed the after-effects of the immigration ban imposed by Trump’s administration on seven majority-Muslim nations, the scenes of panic and anger at airports, the stories of innocent lives turned upside down. How directly has this ban affected you and the community you serve?

The immigration ban was extremely hurtful to the American Muslim community. We agree that ISIS, AQAP, Boko Haram, et al. must all be defeated. However, we push back regarding being lumped in with these terrorists because of their claim to be Muslims. The overwhelming majority opinion of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world is that these people are not Muslims and that they are a poison upon the entire world.

The ban makes no such distinction between radical Islamic terrorists and everyday Muslims: there is a huge night-and-day difference. The ban also excludes Christians from these seven nations.

This is simply unconstitutional. As such, legal, lawful Muslim American immigrants are extremely unsure regarding their rightful status to stay in their country. This mustn’t ever be the impact of policies upon any demographic of Americans issued from the Oval Office.

Attending mosque has become very uncomfortable for American Muslims in such a hate-filled reality. We look at Quebec and wonder quietly when will the next massacre of a mosque occur and which of us may be the next grouping of innocent Muslims to perish. No one should have to attend their place of worship under such pressure. The president had an opportunity to balance the “radical Islamic terrorist” claim with the Quebec incident simply by acknowledging that an act of terrorism was exacted by a white supremacist against innocent Muslims in Canada. Instead, he tweets about a knife-wielding person at the Louvre in France and pivots to use that incident to reinforce the need for a Muslim ban and to get tough on radical Islamic terrorists. Meanwhile the entire Canadian government attends the funerals of their six Muslim countrymen lost to a senseless act of white supremacist terrorism. And they called it what it was: terrorism!

Any promise to eradicate terrorism from the face of the planet is ridiculous. It is too elusive as a poison upon us, and what we can chiefly hope to do is reduce and contain it as best we can via a commitment to cooperate with one another around being better people and to protect our common humanity from a place of common love and understanding.

The world has also witnessed the storm of protest that has erupted all across this country and the world over this ban. Do you take any solace from the fact that so many people who are strangers to you have been willing to take to the streets in order to try and put a stop to this thing? Does the fact that the courts, for now, appear ready to push back against Trump? What, if anything, does that tell you about this country?

Our country is a very beautiful place. We lay no claim to perfection, and we know our history. I lived in the Middle East for nine years. I have met people from all over the world. When I compare my experiences abroad under the rules of different governments as a guest to their nations, I am comforted by the freedoms I enjoy here as an American when I consider the severe restrictions set up by their governments there. We are not entirely perfect, and neither is any other country for that matter, but we are free.

The America I come from teaches me that all human beings are endowed with the capacity to love, to seek understanding, and to honor life and strive and struggle for our most basic liberty, to envision what our happiness might look like and to freely run after the things that make us happy carefully, so as to harm no one. This is who we are as Americans.

Americans are standing up for Americans. It just so happens that it is not only the rights of African Americans being advocated today in these moments of civil disobedience, but Americans are also standing up for the rights of American Muslims, Native Americans, immigrant Americans, women, and LGBTQ Americans. Our politics may very well be different, but our shared values are very much the same.

The American Muslim community owes a great debt of gratitude to our fellow American supporters whose advocacy has cast a protective veil upon us akin to an American hijab, constructed by the sweat and dedication of our non-Muslim neighbors. We will not forget what you have done to shield us, and we pledge to stand with you in your times of need.

If you had an opportunity to spend 10 minutes with President Trump, what would you say to him?

I really mean what I am about to say, and I might catch some flak for saying this, but I say it as a patriotic American: I hope President Trump can turn things around and succeed. In a sense, if he fails, the country fails, and so I want him to succeed, so that we all can succeed with him. If the President would allow me ten minutes, here’s what I would say:

Mr. President, I urge you to slow down and consider the wide-ranging impact of your decisions upon the innocent; those you actually intend to help and not harm have been pulled into a politicized abyss of agony. Mr. President, look beyond those around you into the public square. There, you will take note of Americans from all walks of life, some who may have voted for you, others who may not have. However, Americans are marching the streets in wide-ranging protests against the brashness of your policies.

Mr. President, radical Islamic terrorism is indeed a threat upon the world. The ban makes no distinction between the 20,000 bad guys and 1.6 billion Muslims who also abhor them. Please set up policies that distinguish between the two. The Quebec Mosque massacre was an act of terrorism, Mr. President; don’t limit the word “terrorism” to one religion or class of people to the exclusion of all of the “other” kinds of terrorists that exist in the world. Muslims are not essentially terroristic and Islam is not a religion of Jihad and hate.

How is a young man enlisted in the military from a Muslim background supposed to feel knowing that country he’s dying for sees him as being no more than a terrorist simply because of the religion he practices? What will you say to these patriotic young men and women, Mr. President?

At this early juncture in your presidency, re-declare and reaffirm to all of the people what we learned from Abraham Lincoln. Declare once again that your government will be a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” And recall the wise words of President Roosevelt who proclaimed: “The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us.” Lastly, call upon your fellow Americans from all walks of life to help you, and our common spirit of cooperation will lift you to the heavens. This is your moment. What you do with it will ultimately shape your legacy.

Being the focus of such incoherent malice and hate is a profound and terrible burden to bear. How may those of us who share your passionate desire for peace and understanding best serve those causes in times such as these? How can we help those directly affected by what is happening? What can we do to share that burden, to make sure you and your community know that, without equivocation, we stand with you?

The best way forward for the like-minded seekers of peace among us is to cling to our shared core values. Americans help one another and we help others in the world; it’s who we are. I am so proud of our people. We are active, we are vocal, we are passionate, and we are reclaiming the discourse and protecting our shared legacy.

We have seen the outpouring of compassion and support from everyone, and it is a proud moment for the American Muslim community. Our gratitude goes out to all of the moms and daughters who marched for us and all of the other impacted citizens of this great nation. We are forever indebted to those who stood up for us at the airports, at our mosques, and other institutions of excellence around the country.

A very special debt of gratitude to the lawyers that volunteered their services to protect us and to the ACLU for being in a position of foundational support for us. The spirit of the generous nation is what will finally carry us all forward.