Ask a Muslim...(Khurram Responds)

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I’m thrilled to share Khurram Dara’s response to your questions about his Islamic faith as part of ourongoing interview series

Khurram is an American Muslim from Buffalo, New York, and the author of The Crescent Directive:  An Essay on Improving the Image of Islam in America. Khurram graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, and is currently studying law at Columbia University in New York. If you frequent CNN’s Belief Blog, you may recognize him for his recent post there defending TLC’s “All American Muslim” against Muslim complaints. You can follow Khurram on Twitter and find the Crescent Directive on Facebook.

From Khurram: Before I answer these great questions I wanted to thank Rachel for inviting me to join this wonderful series and also thank the readers for such intelligent discussion. I’m accustomed to seeing distasteful comments and allegations, so this was a nice change of pace.

I do want to point out that I am NOT a religious scholar or an expert on Islam. I’m by no means a perfect Muslim, and my mother is quick to remind me that I don’t go to mosque enough! My work focuses on Muslim imaging, particularly, how to combat negative perceptions about Islam. My belief is that forums like these are very helpful, but can only go so far, given that most people with negative views towards Islam are unlikely to participate in an open-dialogue such as this.

So I didn’t answer some of the questions about specific teachings, not because I’m trying to dodge the questions, but because I’d prefer not to give you wrong information. I think a great resource is Imam Suhaib Webb’s “Virtual Mosque,” where he has a lot of information to answer some of the questions that were asked. Also, for more on what my views are on the relations between Muslims and other Americans, I’d encourage you to read The Crescent Directive, where I really lay out my positions in full.

1.  Justin asked: Can you provide some background about yourself? I'm curious to know for how long you've been a Muslim and what keeps you in the faith today. Is it an inward conviction? Some type of evidence that supports the Quran? Something else? 

I was born in Houston, Texas, but with the exception of a short stay in Kentucky, I’ve pretty much spent my whole life in a suburb or Buffalo, New York. My parents, now U.S. citizens, are immigrants from Pakistan. As far as my religious background I was born and raised Muslim, and would certainly consider myself to be a person of faith. I don’t really think about faith is terms of evidence, in fact, faith by definition is belief absent proof. It’s tough to explain why I have faith, it’s just a sort of feeling I get—that I know God’s up there and that there was a reason I was born into this faith.

2. Wesley asked: What Islamic tradition are you a part of? Shi'ite? Sunni? Sufi? (And is this the correct way to ask that question?)  

I'm Sunni, and yep that's a fine way to put it.

3.  Steve asked: What is it like to live openly as a Muslim in America? How much suspicion/discrimination/fear is directed at ordinary Muslims?

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Muslims live with more freedom in America than we could anywhere else in the world. I’m certainly not oblivious to the fact that there is fear and suspicion, even discrimination of Muslims at times. But a lot of the blame for the fear should go to terrorist groups and radicals who are soiling my faith and crippling the voices of the overwhelming majority of peaceful adherents.

And while it is sad to see some of the suspicion and discrimination, we do have many of our fellow Americans on our side, who stand up to these incidents. More importantly, the discrimination is not systematic or institutionalized; we don’t see restaurants refusing to serve Muslims or businesses refusing to hire Muslims. This gives us American Muslims an incredible opportunity. It is even more critical for American Muslims to build bridges with other Americans while we can, and really positively integrate into American society so that we can ensure this discrimination doesn’t spread.

4. Several readers wanted to know about Islam and women. Katy-Anne asked:  I am wondering how you as a man feel about the treatment of Muslim women and the root reasons why Muslim men tend to treat women the way they do? Zeckle asked:  In Christianity, we have various views on women and their roles in society and faith--ranging from a very hierarchical, patriarchal view to egalitarian; does Islam have a wide range of views of women as Christianity does? What are those variations in Islam? Do those variations occur along cultural lines---Islamic theocracies versus American Islamic understanding?

I think it’s pretty obvious that many of the countries in the Arab world have cultures and policies that are extremely oppressive to women. My understanding of Islam has always been one that puts everyone on equal footing. I think you’ll find more of that here among American Muslims. It’s important to remember the role culture can play in behavior, and there is a tendency for culture to be confused with religion, which may explain the poor treatment of women in many of the Islamic regimes in the Arab world. In any case, my own belief and my understanding of Islam is that oppression of women should not be tolerated in any circumstances.

5.  Zeckle asked:   What are some areas where Islam and Christianity have similar values and may be able to work together in our world? 

Overall I think a majority of the values are the same. There are many overarching moral themes, such as helping those in need, caring for those in your community, etc.  I can’t speak to some of the more specific doctrines, but there is one commonality I find very interesting.

I think most people don’t know the place Jesus has in the Islamic tradition. He is one of the highest regarded messengers and Muslims do, in fact, believe that he will return to Earth to defeat the “false messiah” also known as the anti-Christ. I’m sure there are many more similarities between the faiths, but that is probably one of the least known. 

How these similarities will enable us to work together is a different question. I don’t think our ability to work together hinges on similarities in specific teachings. I think it comes from similarities in interaction. As I point out in The Crescent Directive, for most people, their perceptions of a particular group are more of a function of their observations and interactions with individual members of that group, than they are a function of specific teachings of that faith. As a result, I think a Muslim and a Christian, simply by living and engaging in a pluralistic society like the United States, have the opportunity to get to know more about their respective faiths, just through experiencing life in a society that includes members of that faith.

So, in my opinion, the key to working together will really be American Muslims continuing to integrate and invest in American society, and our fellow Christians, Jews, Hindus, atheists, and others, embracing our efforts to take our place in the mosaic that is America.

6.  I asked: What have you found to be the most common assumption people make about you when they find out you are Muslim?

I haven’t found any. I know it’s probably true that some people make assumptions when they find out I’m Muslim, but I’ve never been able to discern what, if anything at all, they had assumed. Sometimes people aren’t sure if I can eat meat—I can, just not pork!

7. From Karl: A common criticism that I have seen leveled at mainstream, moderate and progressive peace-pursuing muslims is that for a group that is said to form the vast majority within their religious community, they [allegedly] haven't done enough to restrain, inhibit and denounce extremists who advocate and commit violence in the name of Islam for religious and political ends. Do you feel like this is a fair criticism? Why or why not? 

I hear that often, as well. While I think many members of the American Muslim community do denounce extremism, I think we could all be doing more. One of the things I mention in The Crescent Directive is that American Muslims have a number of organizations dedicated to Muslim advocacy, why not a few dedicated to eradicating extremism? And remember it has to be more than just condemnation because at the end of the day it can only go so far—at some point we have to actually have to take action, get into the trenches and stamp out extremism within our faith. That said, on the whole, I think American Muslims are leading the way on standing up to radicalism.

Note from Rachel – Khurram introduced us to a fantastic resource when he suggested consulting Imam Suhaib Webb’s “Virtual Mosque.” For those who had questions about Sharia Law, you should check out this video in which Osman Umarjee explains Sharia Law. (He starts talking about it at around 3:40.) Those with questions about the meaning of “jihad” might find this video from the Bridges Foundation helpful. I spent quite a bit of time this week searching the site and learning more about Islam (from actual Muslims for a change). Along with Khurram, I highly recommend the site.

Check out the rest of our interviews here.

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