Chicago Muslim activist fights war against urban ills
By Margaret Ramirez
May 2, 2006
The Chicago Tribune, Front Page
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
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
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 not been 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 health clinic for the low-income Latinos,
African-Americans and Arabs in Marquette Park on the
Southwest Side. As Nashashibi's influence grows, many
observers say he is redefining what it means to be a
"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
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 my battles 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 the family 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 saw similarities 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 Marquette Park, purposely choosing a name
whose acronym, IMAN, means faith in Arabic. Working on
a shoestring budget of donations from the Muslim
community, the group started with small projects like
a food pantry, GED and computer classes, and a free
weekend health clinic that operated out of a
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 drug offenders.
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
lifehis ability to reach out to all sectors of
society, whether they were Muslim or not. I'm trying
to 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 Memorial Hospital who is also
Nashashibi's wife. Together, they have a year-old
Securing the new IMAN building was tricky, because
Islam prohibits paying interest. The Greater Southwest
Development Corp. purchased the property and will sell
the building to IMAN under a $625,000 lease-to-own
"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
"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, drug addiction 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
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."
maramirez @ tribune.com
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