"I think there are two things happening at the same time. One is that a lot more backlash is happening, and a lot more fear-mongering--and on the other hand, there's a large group of people who are consciously wanting to find out and learn and understand Islam and Muslims."
Karuna Center: Mehlaqa [Samdani, of Critical Connections] mentioned to me that you are very active in the Muslim community in Amherst. I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about how you're involved and how you're active in the community.
Naz Mohamed: I've been here since the seventies. I came to school at Mount Holyoke and then UMass. When my son was a child, we did Sunday school with just a handful of Muslim families to teach them about the religion and practice. I and my son would visit the West Springfield mosque for religious gatherings and holidays when that was established about 20 or 25 years ago. After 9/11, I got involved in the community doing outreach on Islam and organizing different groups or other events as needed.
KC: Was the purpose of that outreach to increase the understanding of people who are not Muslim?
NM: Yes—to increase understanding of Islam, especially after 9/11, when, to the credit of the North American community, they were curious to know what Islam was all about, wanting to know the religion and the Muslims. We did a lot of interfaith dialogues and discussions.
In the last five or six years I have became very involved in the Hampshire Mosque, then about two years ago I became a Board member and the Clerk. At the same time, I also started representing the Hampshire Mosque at the Interfaith Opportunities Network, ION, to enhance interfaith dialogue and communication.
KC: So you've done a lot of work on this theme.
NM: Quite a bit! The media is portraying Islam in such a negative and violent way that we have to defend it, which is a little tiring. The image is so opposite to what the principles of the religion dictate. When I first became the Clerk, it was close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I started organizing and presenting an “Understanding Islam” series. We did about five lectures a year. We started off in the mosque, and then we started presenting these lectures in different faith communities, like the synagogue, the Wesley Church, the South Congregational Church, and a few other places. We found that going to the host churches and synagogues would draw a lot more from the community; it was more well-attended.
KC: How did you find the response when you would do this interfaith work, or have discussions or dialogues in churches and synagogues about understanding Islam?
NM: It was very positive. We were just stating the religion—and basically, we were giving them Islam 101. A lot of them did not even have any idea of what Islam is all about; it was only what they read and hear in the media. So it was about sharing the faith and sharing the commonalities between the Abrahamic religions.
KC: Since the theme of this event series by Karuna Center and Critical Connections is Bridging Muslim and Non-Muslim Divides, I was wondering how you might describe those divides. What comes to mind when you hear that phrase, bridging divides between Muslim and non-Muslim communities?
NM: The first thing that comes to my mind is the lack of information that people have on Islam—true Islam, not what they see and what they hear and what the media tells them. That is not to say that there aren't a lot of knowledgeable and supportive people—but the majority just believe what is said to them by the media. Also, all these different acts of violence that are happening are really acts of personal agenda—their own lack of Islamic knowledge and taking the Quranic verses out of context. Unfortunately, the word “Islam” gets blamed rather than these individual acts as a reaction to world politics. So my feeling is that anything we do to clear these misconceptions is important work.
KC: You've been active in the community for so long, I'm curious about how you've seen those kinds of misconceptions play out, even in the local community.
NM: I've been here since the 70's, people know me, so I didn’t really experience blatant ignorance; people have been and still are very sensitive. Not that it isn't in our communities—it just isn't experienced as much as it would be in a bigger city and in areas that are not as culturally and religiously open-minded. There are underlying attitudes here, too, but they are not as openly expressed. Especially after 9/11, there were a lot of incidents, not with me, but with other Muslim families—people shouting at them, "go home!" and things like that, which was sort of ironic, because this is home for most of us who are here.
KC: Do you feel like there has been a big shift since 9/11 in the overall climate in the U.S?
NM: Definitely so. I think there are two things happening at the same time. One is that a lot more backlash is happening, and a lot more fear-mongering, and people just not wanting to know anything else besides what they are hearing and what they see. And then on the other hand, there's a large group of people who are consciously wanting to find out and learn and understand Islam and Muslims. So there are two things going on simultaneously, that's how I see it. There are people who are just believing what they hear and see, but there are others who are, before believing, wanting to really find out what the true story is, what the truth really is.
KC: So you think in some ways, people have become more inquisitive, and more open?
NM: Absolutely, absolutely. And to me, if there is any benefit to that atrocity that happened, this could be a major benefit.
KC: What do you think was the most compelling event that you went to within this series?
NM: I think each one was compelling in its own right, because it was so diverse. I think the most compelling in its relevancy was the one about jihad and “holy war,” because that is so out and open in the world right now. It was helpful to me, just having the clarity and getting the historical perspective of how the holy war concept came in, and how it sort of got merged and mixed in with jihad.
I was very pleased that you guys collaborated and were bringing such hot-topic presenters. The focus of the Mosque's series was information on Islam; it had nothing to do with politics. I think that what Karuna Center and Critical Connections focus on are the relevant social and political topics that needed to be addressed and understood. Working hand in hand, I think it gives you a holistic picture, and that's what is important. You need to see the difference between what is the true Islam, and the religion and its foundation and principles, versus what is culturally influenced in what is being practiced. There is a difference.
KC: Looking ahead into the future of this kind of work to bridge divides and better peoples' understanding, I am wondering what you think would be necessary to create better understanding and undo some of the misconceptions that are out there among Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
NM: Maybe something more on a social level, where you can get together socially and get to know people as people. But keep doing what you guys are doing, because every drop makes a difference. Anything one is doing to increase understanding is a benefit.
The only challenge that I could see is that we draw people who are interested; it's like preaching to the choir. How do we interest those who are on the periphery? That is, I think, the challenge that we all face. What is it that will entice or attract others to come?
KC: What you said about getting to know people on a personal level makes a lot of sense to me, too, because at Karuna Center we do some peacebuilding programs in post-civil-war societies, and it's not just an intellectual process, it has to be an emotional process, a process of building trust between people—especially when there has been hurt.
NM: Exactly. These programs should not be a one-time effort, it should be over a longer period of time, because you've got to first of all gather people, then, establish trust, and respect, and then you start talking about issues that are very deep and hurtful, and that are causing all this aggression between and among people.
KC: I wonder how U.S. foreign policy would be different if the average U.S. citizen had a more deep, personal understanding and relationship with Muslim neighbors.
NM: You know what? I don't think we will change U.S. foreign relationships. They have their own agenda, and their politics in the third world countries, which is not the same as to encourage understanding between people. They have a very different agenda and focus, even though it's such a no-brainer: You go and work with the common people to rebuild.
But that's not going to happen, so basically the common people are doing it in a different way, because the focus, and the goal, is very different. If each one of us did our little contribution and share, then I think we can make a difference. We can't change what the world is doing, but we can change our neighbors and our friends; we can change things for the better between us.