By Nolan Peterson
Education is the weapon of choice for an area Islamic leader in his fight against the radicalization of Islamic youth and the discrimination of American Muslims.
Dr. Sabeel Ahmed, 36, is the director of the Gain Peace project, an Islamic outreach program based in Chicago. Ahmed blames misinterpretations of the Quran and Islam for the dual extremes of Islamophobia and violent Islamist radicalism. He sees education as the way forward to both break down stereotypes and counter terrorist groups looking to recruit Muslim-Americans to commit acts of violence.
Ahmed’s organization sparked controversy five years ago after erecting a billboard near O’Hare Airport that asked “Why Islam?” But the Indian-born medical doctor insists education and peace are his goals, not conversion.
Q: What was the inspiration for creating Gain Peace? What are your goals?
A: Gain Peace is a part of the Islamic Circle of North America, a national organization with 26 chapters created in 1971. Gain Peace is an outreach to make sure we educate fellow Americans about the faith of Islam to do away with misconceptions about the religion. We do many projects, including inviting fellow Americans into mosques, to fight the fear of the unknown surrounding our religion. We want to do away with that.
Q: How do you reach the public with your message?
A: A person can call our hotline from 9-5, any day of the week. We want to engage with them. We will also send out Islamic literature free of charge and do advertising campaigns to let people know how they can find out more about Islam. A great deal of people have participated in our programs, showing that Americans have become more interested in Islam.
I believe it is fear of the unknown that gives rise to violence, hatred and discrimination. Lots of groups have been discriminated against throughout history, and we want to try and end that.
Q: How have Americans’ attitudes toward Islam changed since Sept. 11?
A: It goes both ways – the percentage of hate calls has increased, unfortunately, but we have also had a lot more people interested in learning about Islam. Yes, some people have become hard-hearted, but many people have become more curious about their Muslim neighbors.
Q: In December 2011, President Obama announced a plan to improve the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim-American communities. Have any area law enforcement agencies reached out to you for help?
A: They have not contacted us. It is possible they are talking to mosques, but I haven’t heard from them.
The Muslim community wants to help law enforcement. We are of course here to help identify any group intending to do violence.
Muslims have helped to identify many plots in the U.S., including the Times Square car-bombing plot. We have always been willing to help, and we will help in whatever way law enforcement asks of us.
Q: How important is it that law enforcement agencies cooperate with the Muslim community to combat violent extremism?
A: There have been instances where CIA or FBI informants have been found in mosques. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth for certain segments of the Islamic population. They start to distrust the government and feel singled out.
For us to be able to fight the hostile elements we have to make sure that law enforcement works openly with us. It’s a two-way street. Hopefully together we can suppress any elements working against society.
Q: Some claim that Muslims aren’t doing enough to condemn terrorism. What are you doing to prevent Muslim-Americans from turning to violence?
A: At Gain Peace we help organize speakers at the Friday sermons. This is the most important religious service of the week for Muslims. The sermons usually last about 20-30 minutes and talk about spirituality, morality, how to live a good life and how to live life as a Muslim in the United States.
We do discuss how to live in harmony and peace with our fellow Americans. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a part of a minority population his whole life, so when we talk in our sermons, we talk about using his example for living in tolerance and in peace.
Besides working with law enforcement it is important to mention that we are also working within our own communities against violence.
It doesn’t make the news when Muslims condemn terrorist acts or try to educate their people to avoid violence. There are lots of programs to educate people against violence in both mosques and at street level.
Q: Al-Qaida has been decimated during the last 11 years. They have less operational capability but are increasingly turning to online radicalization to recruit terrorists living within western countries. How do you prevent Muslim youth from being susceptible to this new form of recruitment?
A: Show him or her the example explained by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and in the Quran that taking one life is like taking the life of all of humanity, and that saving one life is like saving all of humanity.
The principles of peace are in the Quran and in the words of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. There are certain principles that we must live by, and most important among these is that we are forbidden from killing innocents.
We go over these things with our youth, to condemn acts of terrorism and violence, and to live a God-oriented, moral and spiritual life.
Q: What is the ultimate goal of Gain Peace? What would you like to achieve in 10, or 20 years?
A: Our ultimate goal is to educate our fellow Americans. Right now we may only reach 0.1 percent of the population but I’d like to reach 10, or even 50 percent of Americans.
Our objective is not to convert anyone; the objective is to educate people and to show them the peaceful principles of Islam. These are the essential parts of building a peaceful society.
If people are educated about Islam, we can hopefully extract solutions to violence and other problems within society.
We also want to defend religious freedom and help people to understand Shariah. There are so many misconceptions about Shariah born from fear. This campaign goes against fear; no one should fear Islam.
Q: Is Islam compatible with American culture?
A: Muslims can live side by side with any culture, religion or race. We have done so in the past, and in places today around the world like India and Africa we have been living together for centuries.
So all throughout history there are examples of faiths living in peace. There is nothing in the U.S. right now that prevents us from living in peace. Right now it’s safe for Muslims in America, but in the future I don’t know. If people know about Islam on the human level, they can let go of their fear. We can live side by side with our fellow Americans, be they Muslims, Jews or Christians.
I’ve read the Bible, the Torah and the Hindu scriptures, and that knowledge allows me to better engage with other religions.
Q: How do you respond to concerns about the treatment of women in some Islamic societies?
A: I’m glad you asked that. Seventy percent of Americans say that the treatment of women is their greatest concern with Islam.
Unfortunately, some Muslim cultures do not give women as many rights as they should have. But the religion of Islam gives women every right. The Quran guarantees women’s right to property, to an education, to choose their own husband. All of these rights are in the Quran, but unfortunately because of the shortcomings of some Muslim leaders, women have been denied these rights. I say to not judge the religion of Islam on the actions of just a few Muslims.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Chicagoans interested in visiting a mosque, receiving Islamic literature or even talking with a Muslim can call GainPeace’s hotline at: 800-662-ISLAM.