GREENFIELD — Springfield lawyer Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, her head covered in a pink scarf, told a gathering of nearly 60 students and community members last week that as someone whose Lutheran and Baptist parents converted to Islam when she was a toddler, she has Christian grandparents and “was always in an interfaith setting,” including Jews in her extended family.
“We have the whole Abrahamic thing going on in our family. It was such a non-thing for me,” Amatul-Wadud told attendees of the hour-long program Thursday on “debunking common myths about Islam.”
Amatul-Wadud, who moved to Springfield from New York when she was 10 and graduated from Elms College and Western New England University, said that while she’s not a religious scholar, she’s been comfortable with interfaith dialogue for her entire life. It wasn’t until about 18 months ago that she began speaking at colleges and universities, as “an uptick” in rhetoric, as well as violence, was occurring against Muslims in this country.
“We live in this bubble and we don’t know each other,” said Amatul-Wadud, who recently helped defend a Muslim community against a planned 2015 attack by a Tennessee man convicted in February by a federal jury for threatening to burn down a mosque. “That’s not how we should exist.”
Explaining that Islam is a religion that incorporates early Jewish and Christian history, she said, “Sixty percent of Americans say they don’t know a Muslim, yet Muslims are probably the most vilified group in the past political election and definitely have been subject of some really interesting policy making post-election. Yet we don’t know what each other believes.”
Amatul-Wadud said Muslim, Christian and Jewish religions have ancient covenants with one another, promising “to always have each other’s back, to always protect each other during exercise of their religion.”
In that spirit, Amatul-Wadud — who was among those interviewed by the Obama administration about the chief concerns of American Muslims, and took part in a White House “Know Your Neighbor” Program in December 2015 — said that because Islam incorporates and validates Judaism and Christianity, Muslims “believe that all three of us are deeply connected.”
In this area, she said, she’s seen “a lot of solidarity” from people of different religions, including a massive interfaith support rally at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts on Dec. 18.
Emphasizing that she believes Muslims are also feeling traumatized by outpourings of racism and anti-Semitism like the recent attacks on Jewish cemeteries and the deadly attack on a Charleston, R.I., church in 2015, Amatul-Wadud said, “It is our community, it is happening to us because of our religious beliefs, and it is happening because ‘they’ — the ubiquitous ‘they’ have caused us to fear each other, because we don’t know what we believe.”
In response to questions from audience members about how to instill a sense of empathy, Amatul-Wadud drew on her legal background, specializing in domestic cases and civil rights, saying, “I think the conversations that we have politically, socially, religiously, have to follow a similar rubric: that we don’t have to have agree on everything, but let’s have some core principles of belief that we do agree on, and use facts and narratives. And perhaps that will build empathy.”
If it doesn’t, she added, one of the key things is to “build an affirming support system, so that you’re not always in this role of fighting, arguing and beating your head against the wall.”
Amatul-Wadud also stressed the importance of education, especially in teaching young people “to be critical thinkers, exposed to other thoughts, to other sides, and to teach them to question.”
She said she’s often confronted — although she wasn’t asked directly at GCC — about how to reconcile Islam with extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Karam and al-Qaeda.
“Ninety-nine percent of Muslims condemn acts of terrorism by ISIS, Boko Haram, and groups like that, and most recognize that the largest targets of those terror-gangster organizations are Muslims,” she said. “You don’t really hear about those groups wiping out villages in Turkey, parts of Africa, because sometimes those ‘lives don’t matter” … then when they hit the West, there’s no talk about the 10 acts of terrorism that went on in the weeks prior that we just didn’t hear about.”
She added, “I’m not a religious scholar, but I’m going to tell you, they’re not Muslim. They’re a political ideology. They have an agenda that has nothing to do with faith, sort of like the (Ku Klux Klan). I would say it’s not even a radicalized or perverted version of Islam, but that these are people who have issues with their borders, issues with geography. They’re just gangsters.”
Especially with efforts now to reduce the scope of the federal Department of Justice, Amatul-Wadud said in response to an audience question, a stronger emphasis has to be at the community level.
“We’re a community partnership: I will protect you in your existence as my neighbor, and you will protect me. We need to have each other’s back. …. We are partners, we are community. And that’s where we draw our strength.”
You can reach Richie Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269