Muslim activist challenges perceptions of Chicago's 'notorious' south side

“Communities and people get dehumanized through a portrayal of being more ‘violent,'" says professor and community activist Rami Nashashibi.
Inner-City Muslim Action Network organizes a "Taking it to the Streets" festival. a family-friendly arts festival. (IMAN)

"Communities and people get dehumanized through a portrayal of being more 'violent' or prone to violence than others. And I just think statistically, factually, historically, yes- that is incredibly incorrect and ahistorical." - Rami Nashashibi

Rami Nashashibi, Executive Director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network

Rami Nashashibi knows what he's talking about - he is working and raising a family on the so-called 'notorious' south side of Chicago. Nashashibi is a Muslim community leader, founder and Executive Director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network - IMAN - and an Assistant Professor in the Sociology of Religion, & Muslim Studies, at Chicago Theological Seminary.

But he didn't grow up religious. As the grandson of Palestinian refugees, he grew up in various parts of the world, and became acutely interested in questions of race and social justice when he moved the Chicago to attend college. The intersection of African-American culture and Islam sparked his spiritual questioning, though he sees no real difference in being 'secular vs spiritual.'

"I've come to really appreciate a much more integrated way of thinking about the world. In other words, the many things that people talk about as "secular values" or "secular causes" are very rooted in spiritual traditions and I think the same is true for spiritual values. I think they are resonate with what folks of all good conscious probably believe in one capacity or another."- Rami Nashashibi

He founded IMAN, to bring together an eclectic American Muslim network to challenge questions of violence, poverty and race. And to showcase how robust, creative and vibrant the community is.

Hip hop has become one of Nashashibi's interests because of the inclusive spirituality found within the music.

"Muslims found a place in hip hop culture long before they did in many other cultural productions. You could be a young kid in Algeria or in India or on the south side of Chicago and hear a kind of hidden transcript in hip hop that would fly over most other people's heads, and know that - hey this music and culture is inviting you to occupy a dominant place, not simply a place on the margins, but some place where you can genuinely be yourself and engage in the larger culture."

He was recently inspired by a quote from the Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby of Louisville, Kentucky, who spoke at Muhammad Ali's memorial.  

Pastor Cosby said: "When you come to Kentucky, one of the rules is you bet on the horse when it's in the mud, not in the winner's circle."

That prompted Nashashibi to reflect on the idea of mud in Islam:

"All of you descend from one human being, and that human being emerged from the dirt. This is particularly poignant for Muslims as they prostrate themselves in prayer five times a day, by placing the highest part of their anatomy, their head, into the dirt as a reminder that at the end of the day, you really are not all that."

The spirituality of mud and muck isn't something you hear every day.

Rami Nashashibi is quickly becoming renowned beyond his Chicago home base. He was named one of President Obama's "Champions of Change" in 2016, among his many other honours and awards.

Not that fame is something he seeks; in fact, Rami believes, as a Muslim, that any ego-puffing experiences are hazardous to your spiritual health. 

 "All of your praiseworthy distinctions, your degrees, your bank portfolio, really don't amount to much and should never, ever be the basis on which you think yourself superior to another human being."- Rami Nashashibi

CLICK LISTEN above to hear how Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Nashashibi to deal with a potentially racially charged situation in a Chicago public park.