Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Chicago Muslim activist fights urban ills

Expand Messages
  • World View
    Chicago Muslim activist fights war against urban ills By Margaret Ramirez May 2, 2006 The Chicago Tribune, Front Page
    Message 1 of 1 , May 5, 2006
    • 0 Attachment
      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
      in Iraq.

      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
      immigrant rights.

      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
      Muslim-American activist.

      "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
      physician's office.

      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
      lifeĀ—his 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
      daughter, Jenah.

      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



      To subscribe to this group, send an email to:

    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.