Robert Azzi is an Arab-American Muslim who wants you to ask him anything about his faith. The Exeter-based photojournalist has put together a program called “Ask a Muslim Anything” that he hopes will help reduce misunderstandings between people of different faiths.
Azzi spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.
Why did you decide to do this?
I’ve been writing a column for about six years now. It’s been appearing in The Concord Monitor and Portsmouth Herald, mostly. And I realized that a lot of people have a bias against Islam that is not based on knowledge. It’s based basically on not knowing any Muslims and not having any interactions with Muslims. There are only 1,200-2,000 Muslims in New Hampshire. I realized from my unique, privileged point of view that I could take my answers to their questions on the road.
And what kind of questions are you fielding?
I’m getting great questions. First of all, I’m realizing that the animus is really based on just not knowing. All the rhetoric we hear that’s hateful is not really built into most New Hampshire residents, my neighbors. So I get questions that range from believing or thinking that Islam is a monolithic religion when it’s not, to questions like, “Why don’t Muslims denounce terrorism?” They do, on a regular basis. Questions about ISIS and Al-Qaeda and women wearing hijab and the relationship with Jesus and the prophet Muhammad and the Quran. Also questions about my background and living for years in the Middle East and my conversion to Islam as a young adult.
So you’re speaking from the perspective of you, Robert Azzi, and you’re not saying all Muslims feel this way because, as you say, it’s not a monolith.
Right, and I try to make it clear that I’m not speaking as a theologian. I’m not speaking as a scholar. I’m speaking from my own experience. In fact, I encourage them to look at many sources because there is as much divergence in Islam as there is in any other religion, and I want them to say, “Here’s my neighbor, Robert Azzi in Exeter, and this is what he thinks and this is what he believes.” Perhaps that will trigger something. Basically I want people to become aware of things they didn’t know they didn’t know.
Do you feel like people were afraid to ask you and so you had to offer this explicit invitation?
It was this fear, especially since 9/11, that somehow Muslims are unapproachable. They were the “other.” They weren’t just the “other,” but they were so foreign, even in this land, and so I realized—especially in the last year and a half, when I really took this show on the road, if you will—people wanted a safe space to ask these questions. They weren’t going to write letters to the editor. It’s only trolls and troglodytes that write hateful emails to me. But there’s a whole community of people who wanted a safe space—in a library, in a school, in a retirement community—where they can say, “Robert, I have this question,” “Robert, I read this” or “I heard this, what do you think about that?”
I had an Imam from a mosque at one of my presentations recently and a couple of questions I had were on sort of touchy issues. And I said to him afterwards, “What did you think?” He said, “Well, I wish I had through of that.” So we all bring different perspectives and that’s what I want people to know. There are different perspectives and not every Muslim is to be perceived as a threat.
So where do you think people should go, online or otherwise, to find more high-quality information about the Muslim faith?
Krister Stendhal, who is a giant of Lutheran theology, was at the Harvard Divinity School, and he flew to Stockholm. They wanted to build a Mormon temple in Stockholm and the people of Stockholm were opposed to it. And he gave a speech in Stockholm defending the Mormon temple and he enunciated three principles of religious understanding. He said, first, don’t compare your best to their worst. Second, he said, if you want to know about a religion, ask one of its adherents, not one of its critics. And thirdly, he said, leave room for holy envy. And that’s a part I like a lot, because I find in all our religious traditions, there’s something that we not only share but want to envy in another tradition, whether it’s song, whether it’s scripture, whether it’s just the tradition of saying “As-Salaam-Alaikum.” So look to the literature, but there are also a lot of critical sites out there.
When people want news, for example, they’ll say, “How do you know what to trust?” I’ll say, “Don’t trust one source. Go to all of them. If a story is too good to be true, it’s probably too good to be true.” When I give these talks, at libraries in particular, I send them a book list and suggest they make a little reserve shelf of five or six books that are non-western, but give an introduction, another perspective. I’m not saying you have to adopt the other perspective. I’m just saying know this other point of view. And those books are generally available by the time I get there.
Robert Azzi will host a potluck dinner version of 'Ask a Muslim Anything' Wednesday, April 26th at 6 p.m. at Grace Episcopal Church in Concord.