By Amer Taleb
1. What religion, if any, did you follow before Islam? How and why did you decide to convert?
I grew up in a very liberal protestant environment. My journey to Islam is a long story. The short version would be that after studying some Arabic and being introduced to the Quran in college, I became really engaged. Then I studied in Yemen for a semester. I was there during Ramadan and it was the first time I had seen anything like what every Muslim knows Ramadan to be. The more I saw the more I realized I believed in the teachings of the Quran and Islam. I wanted something that would bring me closer to God and a way to express gratitude for everything I’ve been blessed with. After college I went back to Yemen a second time, was introduced to a wonderful teacher and the time was right for me to embrace Islam. Alhamdulilah.
2. Since 9/11 many Muslims Americans (or Western Muslims) have tried to distance themselves from Muslims around the world involved in wars and conflicts. People have found the need to identity themselves as “moderate.” What are your thoughts on that?
People referring to themselves as “moderate Muslims” is a reactionary response to the situation we live in. And sometimes a prudent one because the general assumption is that Muslims are extremists. Muslims have to put people at ease, I guess. I don’t know if that convinces people, it certainly sounds better than “extremist Muslim.” It’s a reaction to a very tense political climate.
As far distancing ourselves from Muslims killing civilians, there is no need for a debate on that issue. Islam is crystal clear on not harming, much less killing innocent people. Now, if all we do is condemn Muslims in public, that is not very helpful. Sometimes it seems like all we do is apologize. We need to focus on how we’re contributing to society and how we can continue to do that. We’re making tremendous contributions to America. But you never hear about them because we’re only invited to speak on the news when something bad happens.
3. How and where do you see the future of Islam in America?
I think it’s in Muslim institutions, not just mosques, being built in America. For lack of a better word, “seminaries” or somewhere where you can train imams. That is a massive problem that we have in this country. Very few imams have been trained to understand and handle America, which is not the easiest thing to deal with. If these institutions develop and more Muslims become trained imams, the future is actually very bright.
4. How can the Islamic Center of Tucson do more to help the Muslim’s in the state prison system? Would you like to tell them anything?
That is a challenge and to be honest, I wish I knew more about this situation. The least we can do is respond to their letters, and that is the bare minimum. I don’t know much about the how the ICT handles that, but ideally you’d have a group of people that could visit them and offer classes in the prisons regularly. I’d imagine it’s very difficult volunteer work so you definitely need committed people.
There are a fair number of brothers and sisters behind bars that are not getting the type of outreach and support they deserve. I don’t know if we can pay someone to handle that, but generally it’s easier to hold people accountable when you pay them.
If they’re reading this, I’d like to tell them that Insha Allah we’ll get our act together. The worst thing about promises is when they don’t get fulfilled. The weakest form of faith is feeling it in your heart, so we should all at least do that. I guess we have a sister who’s taking the initiative (Victoria Trull), but the community in general is not meeting their responsibilities, me included. Many people are aware of that and some of use are even ashamed, and we should be. Maybe by you asking me that question, we’ll get more people involved to help. After I read Jamil’s interview, I almost wanted to start doing stuff again.
5. What’s your opinion about voicing criticisms and concerns over Facebook?
There’s a rich tradition of criticism in Islam, it’s not some Western innovation. In Islam, there’s been ruthless and polite criticism and I tend to prefer the polite kind. If there’s no criticism, nothing changes and nothing gets better. But if it’s ruthless, that can sometimes make the situation worse. There has to be a place where people can voice their opinions and feel like they have a say in solving problems. Yelling, making a scene or writing in ALL-CAPS is not productive. There has to be some form of communication between the elders and the young folk. Facebook is definitely better than the angry bulk emails I used to get. As long as it’s constructive and respectful, there is nothing wrong with voicing criticism on Facebook. Offering actual solutions is helpful too. It’s easy to point out problems, but coming up with answers is extremely valuable and what we need.
6. What would you like to see happen during Ramadan in the ICT?
It’s a beautiful time because there’s so many people in the Masjid. I hope we can put our differences behind us for at least this month, remember that we’re all in the same religion together and be extra polite. If we can have good adab (manners, etiquette) for this month, maybe we can carry it over for the rest of the year as well.