Originally published in The Oregonian
Q. Let’s start with the book title itself: “Demystifying Islam: Tackling the Tough Questions.” What do you think are the two or three most common misunderstandings among Americans about Islamic faith and culture?
Zafar: First, there seems to be a major misconception that Islam is a monolithic entity, bereft of true diversity (of both thought and practice). People are surprised to hear that only 15 percent of the Muslim world is of Arab descent. So this is not an Arab religion. Arabic is not the language of Muslims. Muslims come from every race, nationality and background. It has a growing population in every part of the world. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community alone is established in more than 200 countries around the world.
Secondly, there are common allegations made that Islam advocates or promotes violence or intimidation to spread or maintain its influence. This is simply not true. In this book, “Demystifying Islam,” I closely inspect the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the comprehensive teachings in the Holy Quran to illustrate that there is no room for terrorism in Islam or even for violence as a means of spreading the faith.
Finally, there is a misplaced view that Islam inhibits freedoms and liberties. There are ongoing accusations that Islam does not allow for freedom of speech, freedom of religion or equal rights and freedoms to women. This is why I dedicate a chapter of this book to each of these areas in order to unearth the truth about whether or not Islam really prohibits such freedoms or, in fact, champions such freedoms.
Q. Are those misunderstandings more prevalent in the United States than other countries or regions of the world? If so, why?
Zafar: In general, misunderstandings about Islam are more prevalent among those people who do not interact with Muslims regularly. When people rely on third party sources of information about Islam, it is bound to introduce inaccuracies of understanding the philosophy and teachings of Islam.
The United States is fascinating in that there are indeed people with a very highly skewed and patently absurd view of Islam and Muslims, whereas there are also people with a great understanding of Islam and acceptance of Muslims. This is because people have sadly become increasingly polarized in this country, which widens the spectrum of understanding about a host of topics, including the Islamic faith.
Those who know a Muslim personally appear to have fewer misunderstandings. That is why I invite people to come to us and have their questions answered.
Q. You’ve been speaking and writing on this topic since shortly after 9/11, when you were 22. How has the conversation changed, if any, from those initial days of fear and the dawning of awareness that a group like al-Qaida even existed?
Zafar: Immediately after 9/11, the initial stage of fear and discord — provoked by the reported physical attacks against American Muslims and even American Sikhs — was followed by an amazing sense of unity. There was a prevailing sentiment of interfaith outreach and avoiding the tendency to prejudge.
But this changed a few years ago when more antagonism, misunderstanding and even vitriol has been witnessed in political and social discourse about Islam. The actions of lunatics in different parts of the world, mixed with the biased rhetoric of some political, religious and thought leaders here in the U.S., has proliferated misunderstandings, fear and ultimately intolerance of Islam and Muslims.
“Demystifying Islam” confronts each area of misunderstanding and politicization through an honest analysis of Islam’s tenets.
Q. What do you say to the person who accepts that most Muslims are peace-loving yet struggles to understand the militant extremists — in the Middle East, Africa and Asia — who are driven by their hatred for the West? How do peaceful practitioners of Islam reconcile intolerant ideology with their own?
Zafar: It is indeed a genuine dilemma to reconcile the peaceful practice of Islam by most Muslims with the violent actions of militant extremists who espouse a barbaric interpretation of religion. For those struggling to reconcile these two conflicting views, I advise to look at what people on each side use as their inspiration.
Militant extremists are not inspired by their faith. They are inspired by a political ideology that is either focused on power or land, or otherwise focused on a hatred for Western nations and the growing influence and power such countries possess. The only mention of religion is a desperate attempt to rile the masses by infusing religion with their political agenda.
This book directly addresses the intolerant ideology of extremists. It cites their flimsy arguments in favor of their ideology and systematically destroys those arguments. It demonstrates how such intolerant ideology grew centuries ago from political movements and leaders within the Muslim empire decades after Muhammad’s demise. Perhaps this is why Muhammad had warned about the perilous condition of Muslims to come in the future due to their failure to adhere to his teachings.
When Muslims like myself stand up for peace, liberty, pluralism and dialogue, we do so due to our loyal adherence to our faith. When we say that the Prophet Muhammad never behaved in the manner we see extremists behaving, it is due to our deep study of his life. When we condemn crimes against humanity such as stonings, honor killings and religious persecution, we do so in order to counter this militant perversion of Islam with the true, peaceful teachings of Islam.
So I ask my fellow Americans to see in us partners who want exactly what they want – a peaceful, safe world that we can hand over to our children.
Q. You are a national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. What’s a quick description of the group and how does it fit into the constellation of Islamic groups?
Zafar: There is a wide diversity of interpretations of Islam within the Muslim world, which is why there is a multitude of Islamic groups globally. Although there are areas of disagreement, what unites Muslims are not only some basic beliefs like the unity of God and in all previous prophets but also matters such as the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad about the appearance of a Messiah and Imam Mahdi (a rightly guided leader) who would reform Muslims from their irrational practice of Islam.
Whereas other Muslims are still awaiting the coming of this promised reformer and Messiah, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is the sect or group of Muslims who believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, India.
Due to Ahmad’s teachings, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community has a 125-year track record of existing as a peaceful movement that seeks to unite mankind through its motto of “Love for all, Hatred for none,” its undying belief in God and its reliance on only rational discourse to eradicate ignorance and intolerance.