The well-organized and well-funded campaign to inflame fear of and hostility toward Muslims and Islam has been well-documented. But that doesn’t make having to see Pamela Geller, et. al.’s indefensible ads posted in mass transit systems across the country any easier. It’s the kind of rhetoric that creates a polarization that makes collaboration in the service of fighting extremism impossible.
In response, a refreshing initiative to raise public awareness of the teachings of Islam, provocatively titled “My Jihad,” has appeared in the form of bus ads in Chicago and San Francisco, with plans to expand nationwide. Meet the initiator of this campaign, Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago.
Here’s the moving video Ahmed Rehab describes in the interview, showing an Imam addressing a Coptic Christian congregation in Cairo, Egypt.
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: Ahmad Rehab[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: We’ve talked numerous times on this show about the well-organized and well-funded campaign to feed fears and hatred of Islam in this country. For many Americans, by now an appearance by Long Island college dropout and blogger Pam Geller in conservative media defending her indefensible anti-Islam posters in the New York, Chicago, San Francisco public transportation systems has a similar effect to the so-called Westboro Baptist church picketing a military funeral. Dressed in angel costumes, kinder souls block the mourners’ view of the heartless protests at funerals; and kinder souls post earnest messages critical of Geller’s ad campaigns.
Now, going one step further in redefining the dialogue regarding Islam is a new campaign. The campaign’s attention-getting title is “My Jihad” – and its website bluntly sets out the goal of “taking back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike.” This campaign has been endorsed by prominent leaders like Imam Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The campaign has appeared on buses in Chicago and San Francisco in recent weeks, with plans to expand nationwide; and with me now is the initiator of the independent “My Jihad” campaign. He is the executive director of CAIR Chicago, Ahmed Rehab.
Mr. Rehab, welcome to State of Belief Radio![AHMED REHAB, GUEST]: Thank you very much for having me, it’s a pleasure to be on. [WG]: Tell me – tell us – how was the “My Jihad” campaign born? [AR]: It was born on Facebook, via a Facebook status that I put out, inviting people to join me on Twitter with the hashtag #MyJihad to talk about what their jihad is, what their struggle is. [WG]: Was there one event that turned your mind around on this and said: “I’ve just got to do this”? [AR]: Well, there was all this commotion about the anti-Muslim – virulently so – Geller ads that were posting up in New York and then in Chicago and other cities saying that “in a war between the civilized man and the savage, support Israel, defeated Jihad.” And a lot of the Muslims in the media were talking about “savage,” and the media was asking us about the term “savage.” And I wanted to talk about jihad. Members of the media would press me and say, “Okay, okay, but the ‘savage’ part, does that not upset you?” And my answer was, “You know, she thinks I’m a savage, I think she’s an idiot, we’re even.” It’s just name-calling. But the real issue for me, beyond the name-calling, is this criminal misuse of the term “jihad,” this mis-definition that has been going on for so long. In America, you know we have a sophisticated, nuanced conversation about almost everything under the sun: we talk about science; we talk about the military; we talk about wars or guns or abortion, or the environment – we bring all these experts, and we have all these nuanced, sophisticated arguments. But when it comes to Islam, all of a sudden we devolve into this dumbed-down national conversation that almost look like a caricature in which we’re talking about Islam like we’re a bunch of seven-year-olds who don’t know anything about Islamic history, theology, you know, or anything like that. They bring all these people who are not experts – it would be like bringing in witch doctors to discuss cancer research, rather than actual physicians! And that’s the way it is when you bring on the Gellers and the Spencers and all these Islamophobes who are not representatives of the Muslim community, nor are they experts on Islam by any means, and yet they’re given platforms to discuss and to explain and to preach what Islam is and isn’t. So this campaign was very much about taking the conversation back into a rational space, rather than this dumbed-down caricature conversation we’ve been having. And, mind you, the motto that you mentioned: “Taking back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike” – we acknowledge that there are Muslim minorities who have defined “jihad” and acted upon that mis-definition in a violent matter, meaning in a terroristic manner, in a manner that targets innocent individuals – we’ve condemned that up and down. But here’s the part that most people don’t understand: is that the anti-Muslim extreme, the Islamophobes, as well as these Muslim extremists, agree! So, Al-Qaeda, Al Zahawari, Al Awlaki, all of these guys – and Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, Frank Gaffney and all these other guys – even though they come from opposite ends of the spectrum, supposedly – they agree on the exact same conclusions; on the exact same worldview: that Islam is bloody, that jihad means a holy war or terrorism; and that there is a timeless war between civilizations – the clash of civilizations. And we – you and I, Reverend, our listeners, and everybody else – the moderate mainstream are in the middle, stuck between these two extremes fighting on both ends. This campaign is about giving the mainstream a voice to fight back against these two extremes, and to reclaim the conversation to the moderate mainstream. [WG]: You know, it’s exactly what people who are not well-informed have been saying that moderate Muslims ought to do. And you’re doing exactly what they’ve been saying, though they’ve not been aware that there’d been other voices already talking about this. I started to ask you, Ahmed, why you decided to go with such a bold statement – but, I mean, you’ve answered the question because – isn’t it kind of novel that if you want to talk about jihad, that you call the campaign “My Jihad”? Makes a lot of sense to me.
Would you give our listeners some examples of the ads that have gone up in Chicago and San Francisco?[AR]: Sure. So, as we said, the two extremes have mis-defined “jihad” for so long as terrorism at worst and holy war at best; and, mind you, the words “holy war” – in Arabic, harb-u-muqadasah – do not exist in the Qur’an, in the Hadith of the saints or the prophets, or in any of the Islamic literature. They’re simply not in our literature. It’s a projection of the crusades – and that’s what the crusades were, a holy war.
“Jihad,” however, actually means a struggle to get to a better place; when confronted with two choices – an easy choice and the right choice – it’s mustering the courage to face the inner strength to make the right choice over the easy choice. That is precisely what jihad is. Now jihad, mostly – the Great Jihad, as it is described by the prophet Muhammad – is the jihad against the self: against your own temptations, your own weaknesses your own internal struggles. And the Lesser Jihad is the armed jihad: when you have no other option to defend yourself, or to bring about justice against injustice, then you may engage in an armed defense, which is a right given to all human beings. But in Islam, it goes above and beyond the accepted universal code of conduct: you can’t strike against civilians; you can’t strike against unarmed individuals – women, children, senior citizens – you can’t strike down against trees… You have to stop as soon as the aggressor stops, it’s only in self-defense to bring about peace as a final option.
But having said that, again, let’s go back to Greater Jihad, which is what most Muslims are involved in. Most Muslims are not involved in the Lesser Jihad on a daily basis. So this campaign – to get to your question – is very much about giving a face and a voice to that daily jihad of everyday Muslims that most people are simply unaware of. So, for example, there’s a woman who is raising three children – she lost her fourth child to a rare disease, and one of her remaining three children, may God give him long life, has a similar disease. And so going through that difficulty every day, missing that one child whom she lost and, you know, wondering what will happen to the next one – coping with that, fighting with that, moving forward with hope and faith – is her Jihad. And so there’s a picture of her family, and they’re holding a picture of the deceased son, and the message on that ad was: “My jihad is to march on despite losing my son. What’s yours?” So it could be something as serious as this, it could be something like trying to go to the gym and stay fit, trying to take care of your body despite your busy schedule – that was another ad that was there. Building interfaith alliances in an environment in which we’re told were enemies and we can’t co-exist; fighting uphill against that current by reaching out as a Muslim to Jews, or as a Muslim to Christians, or to Hindus, that would be a great jihad. So that was one of the ads. And so it goes on and on, with these positive messages about the daily jihad Muslims go through.[WG]: what kind of response have you received, both from within and beyond the Muslim-American community? [AR]: Exceptional support from both the mainstream of the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community. The only, sort of, resistance we have seen has been from the organized Islamophobic networks – you know, the blogs run by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer and their minions who have gone berserk trying to sabotage this project, trying to use the hashtag and, you know, emulate our ad design in order to confuse people. And rather that have real Muslims saying real things, everyday Muslims, they’ve put on terrorists like bin Laden, or the blown-up towers… They’re just very desperate to try to sabotage it. And then the other extreme being, again, within the Muslim community, like Hizb-ut Tahrir and their forums online dissing the campaign. And it’s no surprise to us, because like we said earlier, our motto is: “Taking Islam back from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists.” So the fact that these two groups are precisely the ones who are fighting back against our campaign was pretty much called out by us to begin with. But everybody else seems to love it and that’s making us really happy. [WG]: Great. Are you still talking about expanding the My Jihad campaign? [AR]: Yeah, there’s terrific reception and unsolicited support, both financially and in terms of requesting us to go into different cities and even countries; so I do expect the campaign to continue to grow into various North American cities, and then to Europe and Australia, Africa… We actually had a My Jihad event in Cairo, in which we printed huge banners that stated in the brand colors and message of the campaign “My dear Christian brother, I love you, and I wish you a Merry Christmas, I wish you peace. Signed, your Muslim brother.” And there was a picture of a Christian clergyman and a Muslim clergyman embracing. And we had that in Arabic and we had that in English, and we held these huge signs in front of the church at the Coptic Christmas a couple of days ago; and as the Christians were coming out, they were surprised to see it and there was a lot of tears and hugs and a great atmosphere of interfaith love and relationship-building. And there is an Imam that we are in communication with, who visited a church and gave a phenomenal speech – we actually have that on the My Jihad TV Youtube page, which I invite people to watch – very inspirational video. The reception he received as he walked into the church; the applause and just the great speech he gave about how Christians are equal partners in Egypt with Muslims; and that everybody being Egyptian is equal, and one hand… An exceptional message against any of the extremist voices out there.
And Reverend, I gotta say that the reason why extremists have been relevant is not because they’ve been right, and it’s not because they’ve present a tremendously rational argument of sorts, but rather simply because they’ve been very, very loud. And so it’s all up to us, the moderate mainstream, to not sit on our backsides, to not sit this out in the bleachers, but to come out and to regain the conversation; to be louder – not in the same radioactive, hateful manner, obviously, but loud in the other direction: the direction of love, the direction of peace, the direction of rational conversation. Only when we do that will be able to effectively sideline the extremist amongst our midst – who, by the way, are part of what I would call the war lobby. The war lobby in America, the war lobby abroad – these individuals eventually want to clash, they want war. It’s profitable to them – ideologically, economically – and they’re a danger to the world. But the biggest threat to the world and they point to us, and they demonize us, the moderates, as Geller and Spencer always do, coming up with these stupid conspiracy theories against us, because they want to silence us; because we stand in their way. better that way but if you’re very dangerous to or lobby wants bloodshed and they profit from it.[WG]: I want to encourage our listeners to go to the website myjihad.org. Ponder that mission statement, “Taking back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim extremists alike.” Friends, I think we would all benefit greatly from an identical mission statement for a campaign taking back Christianity from extremists, or taking back Atheism from extremists. I think there’s a model here that has potential far beyond one faith tradition alone. The My Jihad ads are up on buses in Chicago and San Francisco; they’ll soon be up in a number of other cities. My guest has told us about it. Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Chicago.
And I’ll tell you what Mr. Rehab, you are an articulate, powerful spokesperson for this campaign. I appreciate what you’re doing, and I really appreciate you being with us today on State of Belief Radio.[AR]: Thank you sir. It takes two hands to clap, and so we’re one hand, you’re the other, building interfaith relationships between Muslims and Christians, and Muslims and Jews, and Muslims and Atheists, and Christians and Jews, and every different group is absolutely important in order to not let these extremist voices hijack the conversation. So I thank you for your work and your great radio station.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
Author of more than 20 books, including First Freedom First: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy leads the national non-partisan grassroots and educational organization Interfaith Alliance and serves as Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Dr. Gaddy hosts the weekly State of Belief radio program, where he explores the role of religion in the life of the nation by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America, while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Dr. Gaddy provides regular commentary to the national media on issues relating to religion and politics. He has appeared on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and Hardball, NBC’s Nightly News and Dateline, PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, ABC’s World News, and CNN’s American Morning. Former host of Morally Speaking on NBC affiliate KTVE in Monroe, Louisiana, Dr. Gaddy is a regular contributor to mainstream and religious news outlets.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Dr. Gaddy emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is a past president of the Alliance of Baptists and has been a 20-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance and member of the World Economic Forum’s Council of 100. Rev. Gaddy currently serves on the White House task force on the reform of the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Dr. Gaddy served in many SBC leadership roles including as a member of the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-84 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-77.
Dr. Gaddy received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.