JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
Chicago is a stronghold of American Islam and Rami Nashashibi might be considered one of its most innovative proponents, yet he came to Islam as a convert.
The Jordanian-born Nashashibi had a largely secular upbringing, the child of a diplomat father and a Palestinian mother who grew up in Chicago. Nashashibi returned to Chicago as a student in the 1990s. The city at the time was changing. Ethnic white neighborhoods were absorbing Latinos, African-Americans and, after the first Gulf War, a new wave of Arab immigrants.
Nashashibi found himself drawn to social activism in those communities. He was also drawn to Islam. He'd go on to combine the two, and in 1997, he founded IMAN, the Inter-City Muslim Action Network.
RAMI NASHASHIBI: One of the things that we realized we needed was a community-based organization that connected the disconnected sectors of our communities, both in urban areas and in the larger middle-class sectors of the Muslim communities who were ready to mobilize.
LYDEN: So Chicago has, of course, a long involvement with the Muslim community through the nation of Islam and founder Elijah Muhammad, who died in the '70s, but that is, in fact, the group that Louis Farrakhan now leads. Now, he's had a controversial past. I know that currently, he's working with Mayor Rahm Emanuel to intercede on gun violence. How is IMAN different from the Nation of Islam?
NASHASHIBI: Well, you know, first, I think, as you mentioned, the profound history of the evolution of the American-Muslim community in America is certainly indebted in part to the extraordinary tradition of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the significance that the Nation of Islam represented in terms of a movement that provided as kind of alternative source of empowerment and dignity for communities that were otherwise completely deprived of that. That is certainly a part of the history of Islam in America, and it's part of the history of Islam in Chicago.
The distinction for IMAN was IMAN was really one of the first community-based nonprofit organizations that was opening its doors and was being driven by young Arab kids, young African-Americans coming from an eclectic background trying to find ways of being relevant to the problems and possibilities in urban America.
LYDEN: Rami Nashashibi, Chicago is also in the news right now because of the eruption of gun violence that's claimed so many young lives. The president visited Chicago this week. You spend a lot of time with young people, especially those at risk from some of these communities. What do you think Islam can offer them?
NASHASHIBI: I think Islam and the Muslim community in large has been a source of refuge for many young people who have been afflicted historically with the challenges of violence, living and growing up in violent-prone neighborhoods with the challenges of gang violence. Islam has actually always been a very powerful transformative force in these urban communities.
LYDEN: You are using many different ways of approaching people: rap, hip-hop. You are organizing a rally and have before called Takin' It to the Streets in Marquette Park. Tell me about that.
NASHASHIBI: Yeah. This has become now perhaps one of the largest festivals of its kind led by the American-Muslim community. We started the first Takin' it to the Streets as a really public coming out, if you will, of the American-Muslim community. And it grew from 1997 to, like, a 1,000-person event to bringing over 20,000 people. You know, there's been various celebrities who've been there: Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def.
LYDEN: Let's listen to this clip. We have a clip of Mos Def greeting the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
MOS DEF: (Singing) Assalamu alaikum. Assalamu alaikum.
LYDEN: He sang assalamu alaikum, which translates to peace be upon you. And the crowd's answering back. You have described this moment as beautiful, important and moving. What about it was so significant?
NASHASHIBI: I think it was so profound for me for a number of reasons. One, we still live in a country where, unfortunately, many Americans still associate Islam with violence. The recent Pew study found that almost 50 percent of Americans are more likely to think about Islam as a religion that promotes violence than other religions.
So to be in a place that is associated with a different type of violence on the South Side of Chicago and to see Muslims alongside Jews, Christians and others promoting a message of real peace with real solutions to problems that we all face with an artist like Mos was really profound.
LYDEN: Do you think an organization like IMAN can change some of the perceptions that you were talking about? What misconceptions would you most like to see changed?
NASHASHIBI: Well, I, first of all, do think that that's happening. I mean, the amazing thing about what I've seen emerge in the last decade is that organizations like ours are popping up in urban centers across the United States. Why I'm so inspired and hopeful about that is, you know, you take a statistic like the one I just mentioned, the corrective to that for me is not just a bunch of PR press releases about what Islam means for a vast majority of the people.
The real corrective, I think, is providing more Americans with the opportunity to meaningfully engage with American Muslims on the ground working towards real solutions around issues like violence in their own communities.
LYDEN: That Rami Nashashibi. He's the founder and executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago. Listen, thank you for speaking with us and have a great festival this summer.
NASHASHIBI: Thank you so much, Jacki. Appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.