The American face of Islam
You think being young, hip and handsome makes SALAM imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez an atypical Muslim leader? Wait until you hear his message.
Viewed overhead, the audience section of CSUS’s Hinde Auditorium seems awash in a white-haired sea that ripples as 250 senior citizens shuffle into their seats. They’ve come to hear an imam speak, though many have never been addressed before by a Muslim, let alone an actual religious leader from the Islamic faith. With visions of a gaunt old man with a long white beard, floor-length robe and towel-like head covering dancing inside many of their mainstream media-fed white heads, this Geritol brigade is no doubt surprised by the handsome fellow ambling up to the stage. The head of Sacramento’s second-largest mosque is barely over 30, dressed in slacks, a shirt, tie and sport coat, and he doesn’t have those crazy eyes like Arabs do in Western political cartoons. His hair is close-cropped, his mustache and goatee are neatly shaved and his build is burly, thanks to regular free-weight training.
No, this ain’t your father’s “Death to America"-spewing jihadist—in more ways than simply his age, appearance and body type. Introduced on this cool March 23 evening as an Egyptian-born immigrant, Mohamed Abdul-Azeez speaks into the microphone in absolutely accent-free idiomatic English. More shocking are the actual words coming out of his mouth.
“America is the best place on the planet Earth for Muslims to be,” the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims’ imam tells the senior-citizen members of the Renaissance Society, a learning-in-retirement organization affiliated with CSUS. After running with that theme for nearly and hour and hanging around another 30 minutes to answer questions—stopping only because the auditorium had to be cleared, not due to a bomb threat but because the exhausted staff had to go home—Azeez and his positive message taught these old dogs a new shtick.
“He wasn’t what I expected,” one gray lady says as she files out the auditorium doors.
Whatever did she expect?
“I’m not sure,” she says tentatively. “Someone maybe defensive about what’s going on in Iraq.”
After a pause for reflection, she concedes, “Actually, he sounded pretty reasonable.”
Told later about the woman’s comment, Azeez reacts as if he’d heard it before.
“I’m very much not hostile to the United States,” he says. “I’m here because I chose to be here. I’m staying here because I choose to stay here. This is my country now.”
Make no mistake: Azeez is not ignorant to the prevailing way his people are portrayed.
“I’m aware—all Muslims in America are aware—that there is an image of us out there, a stereotyping that is …”
His voice trails off as he searches for the least offensive word. He finally settles on “unfortunate.”
America’s biggest social problems, Azeez believes, stem from bigotry and stereotyping.
“Too many people think Latino, they think illegal immigrant. They think black, they think gang. They think Arab, they think someone getting ready to blow himself and others up. People don’t see the individual, but who that individual is associated with in their mind. That is hurting American society.”
Azeez is all about changing that.
Only the SALAM center imam since July 2005, Azeez has attracted so much attention that he receives far more speaking invitations than he can accept. They first started rolling in a couple months after he arrived, then picked up considerably after the Sacramento Bee ran the first of two lengthy stories on him on August 7, 2005; he figured prominently in a third just this past Sunday. The Los Angeles Times quoted him at length last year.
He hit the big time when the national CBS Evening News profiled him in the spring of 2006. Keeping the United States safe from terrorists, he told the Tiffany Network’s reporter, “should be as much a priority for American Muslims as anybody else.
“I want to carry a gun and stand at the border and protect the border myself,” he said, “because I [would be] impacted” by the damage that terrorists might do.
Relaxing in his office—where his preferred dress for one of several interviews for this story consisted of blue jeans and a T-shirt; once he wore a simple black robe, called a jilbab, and a small hat, called a kufi, because, “I just felt like it today"—Azeez recalled the fallout from one article that referred to him as “tall, hip and handsome.”
“It gave all my friends the opportunity to give me a hard time,” he said with a chuckle.
Rather than going to his head, the heavy media attention caused Azeez to reflect about his flock.
“I think there was a thirst among Muslims in Sacramento for someone to speak directly about the place in American society for American Muslims. Some mosques are led by hard-core immigrants who tend to cater to the needs of other immigrants and disregard the cultural differences of Americanized Muslims.”
His bluntness is a breath of fresh air in this image-conscious media world. No subjects were off limits during our encounters, but he obviously considered it critical that the interviewer came away understanding his faith.
“The depiction of Islam as a rigid religion which permits no adjustments in interpretation of social issues as times change is incorrect,” Azeez stressed. “Interpretations of how the mandates of the Quran are to be observed can change, and do change, as the people making them are influenced by changing times.”
And Muslims have been ingrained in American society nearly as long as the Europeans.
“Without question there were Muslims among the slaves brought here from Africa,” he said, “so there has been a Muslim presence in America for centuries. As a result, American culture is not only Judeo-Christian, but also Muslim.”
In a relatively short time, Azeez has made a favorable impression on many other members of Sacramento’s religious community. Among the first to reach out to him was Rabbi David Wechsler-Azen of Congregation Beth Shalom.
“He has become one of my favorite people,” Wechsler-Azen said. “We are very active in the Interfaith Service Bureau. Just last November, 40 members of our synagogue joined with parishioners from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church and members from SALAM Center to meet and discuss issues, particularly, on that day, immigration.
“Imam Azeez has a historical view of the world, and we share a progressive perspective of things. My congregation is delighted by my friendship with him, and we plan to invite him to speak to us this year.”
One issue they have been “dancing on the edge” about is Middle East politics, particularly the thorny matter of Israel and Palestine coexistence.
“We are still in the trust-building process on such a delicate issue,” Wechsler-Azen admitted. “But we have talked about it some, and I’m sure we’ll talk about it more. And in friendship.”
In a separate interview, Azeez agreed that the Palestine-Israel issue is difficult to speak freely about.
“Remember, I grew up in an Arab country,” he said. “The version I heard over and over again was that Israel started the war, invaded and took the Sinai, and Egypt had to beg to get it back. I’m listening to other versions now. I’m listening.”
Dexter McNamara, executive director of the Interfaith Service Bureau, said Azeez “is very much involved in the interfaith dialogue we promote. He is very engaging, warm and obviously very bright. He has an absolutely open mind with respect to other people’s beliefs, but at the same time is very much committed to helping Muslims be as faithful to Islam as they can be.”
“He is very contrary to the unfortunate stereotype of Muslims,” said Father Michael Kiernan of the Catholic Diocese in Sacramento. “I have heard him speak, and he is very impressive.”
David S. Thompson, the Westminster Presbyterian Church senior pastor who presides over the Interfaith Service Bureau’s board of directors, said he and Azeez often stand shoulder to shoulder at interfaith events and various activist gatherings on the Capitol’s west steps.
“He is very personable,” Thompson said, “and an appropriate representative of his faith.”
The Rev. Michael Moran, senior minister of the Spiritual Life Center in Sacramento, said Azeez “was received very well when he spoke to our church. He talked about how contemporary Islam was, and I believe people walked away with a greater understanding of his religion.”
Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Sacramento chapter of the Council on American-Islam Relations, said Azeez is active in the area’s entire Muslim community.
“His message to the community is tolerance,” Elkarra said. “Some immigrants have fully integrated. Some want to keep the culture and traditions they brought with them, and some of the younger Muslims want both. Mohamed is able to speak to all three groups.”
Azeez’s contention that Muslims can be true to their faith and this country is partly responsible for the attention he receives, but it is his forceful criticism of violence in the name of religion that sealed the media deal.
The imam just shrugged at the observation.
“Denouncing violence doesn’t make me unique,” he said. “All imams denounce violence. Where, perhaps, I am unique is in trying to put an American face on Islam, and trying to make Islam relevant to American Muslims. I think Islam is relevant to any social problem in any country.”
His message might be reaching more ears if Azeez would accept all the speaking requests that crossed his desk. He turns most down, particularly those from such places as Boston, Chicago and New York because, he said, his first obligation is to Sacramento’s SALAM and the sermons he delivers there every Friday afternoon.
Most deal with the themes of freedom, forgiveness, happiness and justice, which he described in a recent service as “a universal value that crosses the boundaries of race, language or religious affiliation.” Aggression, he said, “is the antithesis of justice.”
His sermons usually last about a half hour, but the actual message is only half that long because he alternates the languages, starting passages in Arabic, then repeating them in English, then switching back and forth until the big finish. He does this without notes, standing before a microphone in a corner of the SALAM Center hall. If there are lonely women in the crowd, they must love the odds: Azeez’s services generally draw about 200 men and 70 women.
The scene is similar to the way Islamic services overseas have been portrayed in film and television: Men congregate in a semi-circle directly in front of the imam, some sitting cross-legged on the floor, some kneeling and sitting on their heels, and a few sitting on folding chairs. As is custom, the women similarly sit or kneel behind the men, separated by about 15 feet of floor space. The women wear the now-familiar modest Muslim garb the abayah, and all except for a few female student observers from American River College across the street had their heads covered at a recent service.
What’s different than the typical media portrayal is the way the men are dressed. California casual rules the room, with all wearing long pants but with a variety of shirts, varying from sport shirts to tees. Some are tucked in. A follower at one recent service wore a New York Jets football jersey with a player’s name and number on the back. Only a few were dressed in floor-length robes.
Azeez reiterated with his flock that “the gift of freedom is without a doubt the most precious gift that we enjoy from God.”
Muslims in America, he said, “have a responsibility to protect and preserve the values of freedom in this country for two simple reasons: first, because they are the very values the Quran advocates; and, second, because there is no other place on Earth where these values can materialize and blossom.
“We Muslim Americans, since we are often the victim of the erosion of civil liberties under this administration, are faced with only two options: We can pack our suitcases and leave America in the hands of fear-mongers, or decide to stay and fight the legal fight to restore the freedoms that gave this country its uniqueness in the course of history.”
On the drive over to address the adult study group at Davis Lutheran Church, Azeez mentioned that he had become aware that some of his messages “sent shock waves into the Muslim community.
“I think Muslims had schizophrenia for the longest time, at least here in Sacramento, that somehow being a good American and being a good Muslim were not compatible with each other—that if you chose to live the American way of life you had to compromise your religion, and vice versa.”
It appears to Azeez that Americanized and younger Muslims have found a healthy balance between faith and country. It’s his goal to have recent immigrants accept the message, as well.
“Muslim immigrants are here because they chose to come here,” he said. “I am one of them. Like me, they stay here because they have chosen to stay here. This is our country now. It is our obligation to fight to protect the freedoms our country offers.”
At the same time, it is incumbent on newcomers to adjust.
“Many immigrants bring with them cultural baggage, such as their treatment of women, and non-Muslim Americans think that is Islam. It is not.”
His talk to a dozen study-group members at Davis Lutheran was primarily theological, covering the basic tenets of Islam and its relationship with Judaism and Christianity. Like Judaism and Christianity, he informed, Islam “is one of the religions of Abraham.”
At an April appearance sponsored by the Muslim Student Association at UC Davis, Azeez drew a crowd of 70 students who were not all Muslims. Only a very few of the young women present wore scarves about their heads. The imam focused on the misuse of the word “jihad” by much of the Western media.
“Jihad is the struggle to achieve perfection as a human being,” he told the students.
There are five types of jihad, he said, and one of them is “jihad of the sword,” which does allow Muslims to kill in specific situations.
But, he explained, “Islam has clear rules of engagement. The killing of women and children, and of non-combatants, is expressly prohibited, as is the killing of feed animals and the destruction of crops.”
Suicide bombers, he said “are rejected by Islam.”
He spoke for nearly an hour before answering questions for an hour more. One student wanted to know how Muslims could respond to the slanted view of Islam in the media.
“Speak out,” Azeez said. “You have the freedom to do that here. What you complain about does exist in the media, and it is unfortunate. For example, if the man who killed 32 people and himself at Virginia Tech were a Christian, he would not have been described in the media as a Christian terrorist. If he were a Buddhist, he would not have been described as a Buddhist terrorist. But if he had been a Muslim, he would absolutely have been described as a Muslim terrorist.”
Speaking a week later to an American River College humanities class, Azeez had a math lesson: There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, about 5 million in the United States and about 60,000 in the Sacramento area. Only about 20 percent of the Muslims in the world are Arabic, he said, “which makes the racial profiling at airports of people who look Arabic not only foolish, since Christian Arabs and turban-wearing Sikhs are also likely to be harassed, but counterproductive, because one of the 160 million Muslims in China could be a terrorist who breezes right on through because he or she doesn’t look like an Arab.”
Azeez cited an experience he had as a teenager in Cairo as playing a major role in forming his belief that he could be a better Muslim in America than in his home country. Born to a wealthy Egyptian family, he was sent to a Catholic high school in Cairo because his father, a successful chemist with international friends, wanted him to learn English and get to know Christians and Jews. But his father also insisted he attend a Muslim school simultaneously, which amounted to seven days each week in school.
The imam at the Muslim school was very strict, Azeez said, and did not permit any questioning, “which was difficult for me because, like every teenager, I was questioning everything at the time, including my faith.
“Questioning is simply not permitted in the Middle East. Everybody must conform. I read everything I could get my hands on, particularly everything I could find about America. And when I read about Clinton and Lewinsky, the fact that newspapers could write stuff like that about the president of the United States persuaded me that there was more freedom there than any other place, certainly than any place in the Middle East.”
After high school, he attended medical school at his father’s urging, eventually graduated and took an examination that earned him a license to practice medicine in Egypt and the United States. But, he said, it had never been his wish to go to medical school in the first place, so he applied successfully for admission to Ohio State University.
“I attended Ohio State for two quarters and then came to Sacramento to get married and stayed here for eight months,” he said. “My wife, Kauthar, is the daughter of a friend of my father. Her family lived in Canada, and they came to Egypt several times when I was growing up, and I met her there and we corresponded regularly. Then, about the same time I came to the U.S., they moved to Sacramento.
“When I was in Sacramento, I went to Friday prayer at the SALAM Center, and I thought it was a pretty weird place, very unorthodox. For example, the men and the women prayed in the same room, without barriers between them, and that was something I had never seen before. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, but people had gotten used to doing it the other way, segregated. I know now it was not unorthodox, but orthodox.”
The couple lived in Sacramento during 9/11, “and we spent three weeks in total depression.” They decided to move back to Ohio, and Azeez finally graduated from Ohio State with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then enrolled in graduate school at the University of Chicago, and obtained a master’s degree in social science.
He was working at a nonprofit Muslim organization in Columbus, Ohio, when a Sacramento friend suggested he apply for the religious leader’s post at SALAM Center. Remembering how intrigued he’d been by the mosque, and because his wife’s family was here, he applied for and got the job. That still surprises him, both because his education was more secular than theological, and also the little matter of his age. At 31, he may very well be the youngest imam in the United States.
He’s been a good fit, according to Anita Judeh, who has been the SALAM Center’s administrative associate since 1995.
“There’s been a big difference in SALAM since the imam arrived,” she said. “We all seem to have much more energy, because much more energy is required. There are more activities than there used to be, and they’re bigger activities. And more members are involved in the planning and the doing. We have outside speakers, and activities with other mosques and with churches and synagogues.”
No one’s actually done a head count, but there seem to be more people attending Friday prayers and Azeez’s sermons, Judeh said.
A female mosque member, who asked that her name not be used in this article, also cited the “amazing amount of energy” Azeez brought to the job.
(Why this article only quotes a SALAM employee and an anonymous member is best explained in the June 9 Bee article, “On their guard: Some Muslims are nervous about taking visible roles in houses of worship.”)
“We are a very diverse community at SALAM,” the mosque member said, “from lily white to pitch black. I think Imam Azeez’a messages have been very well received by all.”
She’s been particularly pleased by Azeez’s stance toward women.
“SALAM conforms to the way Islam was at the beginning,” she said. “In the time of Muhammad, the prophet, women went to the mosque and were important and participated equally with men. There were never any religious restrictions on women for the first few centuries after the prophet died, but there were societal restrictions, which somehow came to be considered by some to be part of Islam. After my experience here at SALAM, when I hear of a mosque in America separating men and women, I am saddened.”
“The orthodoxy is women have the same rights as men,” Azeez said later, “but men respond to cultural norms and get away from orthodoxy. For example, Muhammad said that men and women should be free to choose their own spouse, so arranged marriages are not orthodox. But they have come to be accepted in the culture in many places, and some non-Muslims have come to believe that arranged marriages are mandated in Islam. They are not.”
He pointed out that the recently elected president of the Islamic Society of North America, which according to Newsweek magazine is “the largest Islamic group for social outreach and education in North America,” is not only a woman, Ingrid Mattson, but also the first non-immigrant and convert elected to the position.
Whatever the sex of the imam, it is a time-consuming calling, forcing the religious leader to juggle work and family obligations. Add Azeez’s outside speaking engagements to the mix, and it becomes like juggling chainsaws. But Kauthar said she understands the time requirements of her husband’s job, and is grateful for the two days he has been able to set aside exclusively for his family.
Meanwhile, she said she is still learning what it means to be an imam’s wife, often fielding questions from the women of SALAM. She’s into juggling herself, planning to return soon to CSUS to finish her pursuit of a degree in child psychology, while helping her husband raise their 3-year-old daughter, Zeyneb, and son, Adam, who was born earlier this year. And she remains coordinator of the Sacramento Muslim Womens Network, a group of about 25 Muslim women in the community who help needy Muslims.
Azeez has become so busy that he has asked SALAM’s board of directors to allow him to hire an assistant. Get your applications in now. But don’t worry about SALAM’s imam slowing down any time soon. He’s got even bigger goals ahead.
“What I would really like to do, if I didn’t have the challenges I have here, is to organize American Muslims to try to transfer the democratic ideals here to the Middle East, to help people there realize that objective for themselves rather than perceive the American military coming there and telling them how they’re supposed to live.”
He’s got his work cut out for him.
“There are 55 Muslim countries in the world. Ten of them are democratic. There should be more.”
Don’t bet against Mohamed Abdul Azeez getting his wish.