Stabilizing the Islam narrative

Imam  Azhar Subedar was born in the U.S. and grew up in Canada.

JESSICA ZHOU, Evergreen assistant news editor

Imam Azhar Subedar distinctly remembers an Air Canada flight he was on almost two decades ago. The flight took off from London, and when it touched down in Canada, its final destination, the passenger in front of him wished the stewardess a good day.

“I can have a good day, knowing I landed safely,” Subedar recalls the stewardess saying, looking directly at him.

This happened one month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center. Subedar said the incident made him feel “like garbage.”

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He was born and raised almost entirely in Canada. His mother was from Uganda and his father from India. When he was a child, his family practiced Islam, but was not extremely religious.

“Growing up in Canada we weren’t very diverse — we faced a little bit of racism,” he said, recounting his time as one of a handful of “brown kids” at his school. “Islamophobia didn’t really start until 9/11.”

Subedar currently serves as the spiritual director to the University of Tampa, where there is a large Muslim student population, and the religious adviser for the Florida Board of Education. Previously, he was a member of faith-based initiatives under the Bush administration.

His decision to study Islam stemmed from the initial desire to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who studied to become a hafiz, or memorizer of the Quran. At school, he was redirected to study to become an ulama, or scholar of the Quran.

“It allows me to really see myself and God’s connection to myself, what did he create me for, what can I do in appreciation of that for him,” he said of his evolved relationship with Islam.

Subedar spent nearly a decade studying Islam, at al-ulums, Islamic houses of knowledge, in Arabi, Louisiana; Ontario, Canada; and at the Institute of Islamic Education in the United Kingdom where he earned his master’s in Islamic Sciences.

“After ten and a half years of studying, if I have done this much, I have to give back something,” he said.

Because there was a growth in the amount of imams, Islamic religious leaders, in Canada, Subedar moved to the U.S., where he saw a greater need for his knowledge. Growing up, he found there were generational and cultural barriers with imams who had come from other countries.

The U.S. has 2,500 mosques, 42 percent of which have full-time imams serving them, he said. The supply did not meet the demand. Since Sept. 11, 2001, an imam’s job has changed, with additional duties including speaking to the media and gathering to discuss community issues.

“I wanted to fill that void,” he said, describing his desire to fulfill for others what was lacking in his own childhood. “I want every youngster and every person to feel that Islam is for them.”

Subedar wants to stop the systematic demonization of Muslim people through grassroots-level work, which has more impact because of the opportunity for more face-to-face conversations, he said. This is why he travels across the U.S. and the world to educate people about the Quran.

“I feel there’s more work that can be done in community,” he said. “I want to see that impact. Local politics affect us more than what goes on in D.C.”

Subedar was invited to speak at WSU for Islamic Awareness Week after the threats made against the Pullman Islamic Center last semester.

“My internal goal is to stabilize the narrative of Islam once and for all,” he said. “Ignorance leads to fear, fear festers into hate and hate becomes the demonic figure of violence.”

The media coverage of violence committed in the name of Islam is disproportionate to the number and impact of societal contributions made by Muslims, he said.

Subedar pointed out that although Muslims make up 2 percent of the country’s population, they are 10 percent of the doctors in the nation. In Orlando alone, there are 285 Muslim doctors, he said, when he spoke about the media coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooter, who was Muslim.

Subedar addressed the level of scrutiny Muslim criminals receive from the media compared to non-Muslims who have committed similar acts of terror.

“Let’s call crime for what it is,” he said. “There are positive things, such as the 45 free Muslim-run health clinics in the country that need to be projected, but apparently this won’t sell.”

He said while media organizations are business, they have to understand they can control the line between bringing humanity together and altering their perception of the world.

“What I would say to them is bring authentic Islamic scholars to the table of discussion,” Subedar said. “It baffles me that a person who spent two years living in the Middle East is chosen over a scholar who has grown up with and studied Islam all their life.”

He has visited areas such as rural Florida to speak to people who are against Islam. These people, he said, still disagree with or do not believe in the religion, but have at least been receptive to his message.

As a businessman, Subedar said, President Donald Trump was successfully able to capitalize on Islamophobia.

“He saw this as a vulnerable place and has allowed us to see our shortcomings,” Subedar said. “There’s a sense of urgency; as a society we’re being pushed to a place where we never imagined.”

“Make America great again?” he asked of his audience at WSU yesterday in Heald Hall. “Our education system is 29th in the world. We rank below Saudi Arabia. We’re ranked 34th in health, and our infrastructure is worse than [some] third-world countries.”

Yet, Subedar said, whenever he travels the world, everyone he meets tells him they love America. This, he said, is because the country’s diversity distinguishes it from many others in the world.

“I think [Trump] has given us an ability to really communicate,” he said. “I’m not looking for people who align their thoughts with us. What humanity needs is to build bridges.”

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to reflect that Subedar was born and raised mostly, though not entirely, in Canada, and that there are 285 Muslim doctors in Orlando, not 285,000.