'Ask A Muslim Anything'

Oct 8, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

America is going through a difficult time where people seem more divided than ever. One man, a Lebanese-American and a Muslim, is hoping to change that dynamic one conversation at a time. Anthony Brooks of member station WBUR has our story.

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Robert Azzi calls these meetings Ask a Muslim Anything. He's been leading them at community centers, churches and town halls across New Hampshire.

(APPLAUSE)

ROBERT AZZI: Wow. Salamu alaykum. Peace be on you.

BROOKS: Azzi is a veteran photojournalist who grew up in New Hampshire and spent years in the Middle East. On a recent evening in the village of Dublin, he told a small audience that he started these conversations a year and a half ago because of what he saw as growing Islamophobia. So he decided to address people's fears head on.

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AZZI: You know, I challenge you to ask me challenging - there's no such thing as a stupid question.

BROOKS: A few nights later in the town of Harrisville, Azzi gets this question from Jack Calhoun.

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JACK CALHOUN: Why don't we hear more condemnation of terrorism in the name of Islam from the Muslim community?

AZZI: Because you're not listening.

BROOKS: Azzi points out that Muslims from Tehran to Istanbul to New York denounced the 9/11 attacks, while scores of prominent Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. But Azzi argues those stories are too often overlooked in the current climate.

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AZZI: Muslims denouncing terrorism and violence didn't fit the kind of binary narrative that had taken hold in this country of us versus them. You know, there's this great prayer in the Muslim community saying, please, God, don't let it be a Muslim. I don't think you hear that prayer.

BROOKS: Azzi gets another question. Why are so many people in this country afraid of Muslims?

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AZZI: It's really interesting to me about why people are fearful.

BROOKS: Azzi says 9/11 encouraged the false notion that that's when Muslims suddenly arrived in America, when, in fact, they've been here for centuries. And he argues that the fear was ginned up by the birthers who claimed falsely that President Obama was a Muslim and not born in America - chief among them, says Azzi, Donald Trump.

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AZZI: And he's running for president by painting a crescent on my forehead and a target on my back. Therefore, all Muslims must be foreign. All Muslims must be terrorists. And this is when I started getting the calls.

BROOKS: The threatening phone calls came with the hate mail. So this is personal for Azzi. He acknowledges that Islam has a problem with fundamentalism. But, he points out, so does Christianity.

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JANET SELLE: Can you talk a little bit about praying five times a day?

BROOKS: That question from Janet Selle of Keene, N.H., leads to a discussion about whether a devout Muslim can embrace democratic values. Yes, says Azzi. And whether Azzi condones the oppression of women in some Muslim-majority countries...

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AZZI: I say absolutely not. I don't condone it. I think they live a terrible life. And they live under terrible circumstances. And, secondly, there is nothing in Islam that supports or embraces that kind of horror or terrorism.

BROOKS: The audience is, for the most part, sympathetic, welcoming Azzi's effort to open up a dialogue about Islam.

SELLE: I really appreciated how he talked about the gentleness of Islam.

BROOKS: This is Janet Selle of Keene.

SELLE: It's really important to hear the other side and not just radicalism or the fundamentalists that he talked about. It's important to hear where the belief really stems from.

BROOKS: For his part, Robert Azzi says these evenings in small New Hampshire towns give him hope. But he knows he's not reaching everybody.

AZZI: The haters aren't here. The haters don't come out. This is sort of a Muslim town hall. I've never used that line before. That's what it is.

BROOKS: Azzi says he looks forward to the day when these Muslim town halls will no longer be necessary. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.