Fourteen years ago this week, on Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed in ways that few of us could have imagined. Among other things, the terror attacks in New York and Washington destroyed a false sense of security and helped to launch the United States into two long and bloody wars, the outcomes of which are still to be determined.
For Muhammed al-Ninowy, a physician and university professor living in Lawrenceville, Sept. 11 created a crisis of another sort. A brutal attack on his adopted country, the United States, had left thousands dead, and had been perpetrated by terrorists in the name of Islam, a faith that he held dear and had studied intensively as a young man. The experience left him shattered. He abandoned his medical career and returned to the study of Islam.
Today, al-Ninowy is an Islamic theologian, an imam at a mosque in Duluth and founder of the Madina Institute, with branches in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Malaysia and Canada that teach Islam as a religion of peace. It also houses a small seminary that attracts Islamic theology students from around the globe, and flying above the mosque is a large American flag.
Earlier this month, I interviewed al-Ninowy at his mosque, an austere, plain facility that in an earlier life had served as a bar. The following is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity, length and continuity:
BOOKMAN: That’s quite a change to make midstream in your life, abandoning a career in the medical profession to study and teach Islam. How did that come about?
AL-NINOWY: So 9/11 was a wakeup call for me, in a sense. I’m a physician by training and education. Nine-eleven really just shook me so much that I didn’t know what to make of it, and from that point on I began looking into things on a much deeper level: What’s going on? And I understand that 9/11 was (perpetrated by just) a few people while the Muslim faith is 1.6 billion people, so that it was in no way a representation (of Islam.) But still it bothered me, it bothered me that someone would go and kill in the name of God. Though as we’ve all studied in theology, going all the way back to the children of Adam, to Cain and Abel, violence in the name of religion was always there.
I’m part of this country. Obviously, I’m an immigrant, but I’ve been here 30 years. So I’m an American and I have lived most of my life in this country. My children have been born in this country. I was educated in this country; I came when I was 19 years old. So this country has the better part of my life.
BOOKMAN: Where did you come from? And where were you on 9/11?
AL-NINOWY: I was born in Syria and raised in Syria, and on 9/11 I was right here in Lawrenceville, Ga. I was teaching for the University System of Georgia, medical physiology.
BOOKMAN: And what part of Syria are you from?
AL-NINOWY: Aleppo. What is now the bad part of Syria. I mean, I wish I could tell you what it was 20 years ago, but I can’t show you that anymore. It’s not there.
BOOKMAN: Do you have family still there?
AL-NINOWY: I sure do.
BOOKMAN: Are you still in touch with them?
AL-NINOWY: Some, but unfortunately under the circumstances it is very difficult. And what I see in Syria now, it’s just an amplification of hundreds of times of what happened here with 9/11. I see how religion is being turned into a tool for violence, for attaining a political change.
Now, I am ALL for political reform in the Middle East. I think it is all run by dictatorships and tyrannies with no exceptions. Out of the Arab countries, maybe Lebanon is semi-democratic, but the rest are all tyrannies and dictatorships. So there is a need for political change.
But my fear is about using religion to actually cause or lead a political change — and using religion in a very bad way, not in a good way. In my view, religion ought to reform the human being within themselves to be better people . Violence is the language of the inarticulate. And if you’re going to start telling people that you have to steal, you have to kill, you need to be violent to have a political, economic even religious change, that is defying the very core of the religion itself.
BOOKMAN: Tell me a little more about how all this happened. On 9/11, you’re working as a physician here in Lawrenceville, and today you have an international Islamic operation. How did that happen?
AL-NINOWY: After 9/11, I felt we had to hit the ground running. I quit everything, I quit teaching medicine. And I went straight to figuring out what the problem is. I was educated before I came to the United States, with a four-year theology degree. But I did not follow up on it and studied medicine instead. I figured that you could still be a spiritual person doing whatever you might do.
But when 9/11 happened it really hit home. Islam always tells you to be thankful, to be thankful to people, so I’m thankful that I live in this country. That’s why this mosque has an American flag flying. That’s a statement that I want to make, because we are part of this place. If my neighborhood goes down, I go down with it. I don’t care if you are Jew, Christian, agnostic, I don’t really care who you are, that’s what my religion tells me. You gotta be good to those who are good to you, it’s an Abrahamic faith principle. The New Testament talks about that. It’s a basic principle.
So if religion is not making someone a better human being, there’s a problem with that. And that’s the problem with dogma.
BOOKMAN: Is your message at all controversial within Islam?
AL-NINOWY: I wouldn’t say it’s controversial, I would say it goes back to basics. But will some people feel a bit awkward? Yes. Sure.
When I travel overseas, I hear a lot about America, the negative role that America plays. As a Muslim theologian, I’ve had to sit many times and say about America, ‘Have you been there? Have you lived with the average American people?’ ‘No, I haven’t,’ they say. ‘But I see the news.’ So I’ve had to tell them: ‘Why don’t you come over, why don’t you experience people?’ People are people. There are good bad and ugly everywhere, it doesn’t matter who you are.
BOOKMAN: A lot of Americans would say the same in reverse: ‘No, I don’t know any Muslims, but I see them on the news!”
AL-NINOWY: That’s right. And that’s scary enough. And so our job in the field of spirituality and religion is to build bridges between people…. In my experience, to be honest with you, America is just as misinformed about Islam as Muslims are misinformed about America. And if both get to see each other….
Like I said, I’ve been here 30 years, I was pretty much raised here and educated here. And I only have good things to say. Obviously in any society, you’ll have the good, the bad and the ugly. But we have a decent society. The American people, if they’re told the truth, they seek justice. They want to be just. They don’t want to do wrong in general, and I tell people that.
Most the time I get asked about American foreign policy. I tell them, look, agree or disagree with politics all you want. But America is a decent place. I’m here. I’m right here in Atlanta Georgia, in the South, and we have a place that’s international, that has branches everywhere, and we are free to spread and talk about our religion.
BOOKMAN: Is there distrust of you and your message in Islamic audiences overseas, because you come from America?
AL-NINOWY: Sometimes, yes. Especially when I talk of love and unconditional compassion. Unconditional. To me, that is the very first thing in Islam: Unconditional compassion. Some — a minute minority — think this is a sellout. They think, ‘OK, you’re coming from the States and you’re telling us that we need to be compassionate toward people who we view as hostile toward us. They say, ‘That’s a sellout.’ I say, ‘That’s being true to the scripture itself, why don’t you read it? Instead of hijacking it based on a political principle.’ So that’s a challenge, sure.
BOOKMAN: So you have that debate, that discussion?
AL-NINOWY: Yes, of course. That’s asked, that’s raised oftentimes. My credibility is sometimes knocked because of that. The mainstream Muslims, the message appeals to them. But you have always the ideologues, and the ideologues usually hijack the agenda. To me, really, politics with religion is the problem. Obviously we live in a country that separates church from state. But I believe it as an Islamic principle.
BOOKMAN: I would think it would be difficult to publicly identify as Muslim in a post-9/11 America. You’re risking reactions that you may not be prepared to deal with.
AL-NINOWY: There’s lots of hostility, but again from a spiritual point of view it is innocent hostility, misinformed hostility. Hostility based on misinformation. So you can’t judge people on the basis of that. You have to do the best you can — what else can we do? Be out there and work with people.
BOOKMAN: Have you found an acceptance in Gwinnett County?
AL-NINOWY: I think yes. People are great, I like the South, it’s home. My three children, one was born in Chicago, the other two were born right here in Atlanta. So it’s home. I travel all over the world. And then I come home.
BOOKMAN: As somebody who has a foot in both worlds, so to speak, someone raised in Aleppo, in Syria, who knows that world intimately but who is now an American, are there things that we Americans can do better in dealing with ISIS and the whole issue of Islamic extremism? Can you explain it to the rest of us?
AL-NINOWY: ISIS to me is a political ideology more than a religious ideology. With all due respect — I’m not a politician so I’m not an expert on this — but here’s my two cents.
While I believe that the Assad regime is a tyrant regime and a dictatorship — there’s no doubt about that, I have experienced that myself as has my family in Syria — I don’t agree with using violence as a means of political change, and ESPECIALLY if you’re using violence in the name of religion. To me, it’s contradicting the core of the faith itself. You can’t kill people to change a political system. You know what? Change people, and they’ll change the political system.
In my view, ISIS is just a political ideology using an Islamic facade. These guys don’t really care. Because ISIS has killed more Muslims than they’ve killed anybody else. It’s a hateful political ideology. And hate has always existed in many faith systems. There are always those who erect walls of hate under the banner of love.
I always say political tyranny and religious tyranny — you can’t even compare them. Because political tyranny may steal, may kill, but religious tyranny does all that in the name of God! So it’s much worse. So Islam, in the Koran and the prophetic traditions, have warned us against potential religious tyranny. And what we have with these people is religious tyranny.
BOOKMAN: What about financing? Setting up an international organization, multinational branches, that takes a lot of money.
AL-NINOWY: It sure does. I always say that religion has to be a labor of love. You’ve gotta love what you do, because there is no financial return per se. We’re based on 100 percent contributions, so whatever people contribute, that’s how we survive. Every locality finances itself. So the people in the UK, they finance themselves, etc.
With this message especially, because it’s apolitical and it doesn’t seek to mobilize the emotions of people as much as build the spirituality of people, we can’t mobilize a lot. Emotions mobilized can get you lots of people. So we’re going the long path, but I think that’s the right way to go. And people on the ground support it.
BOOKMAN: Do you have a YouTube and social media presence?
AL-NINOWY: We do, yes. We’re building all that kind of stuff. I don’t really know exactly how many followers we have on Twitter, I don’t run the account myself, some of the students do. But we have a presence on YouTube and Facebook, and I have programs that air on TV in Malaysia and South Africa, in English. So we’re appealing to people.
BOOKMAN: And how many come to your Friday prayer?
AL-NINOWY: Six or seven hundred.
BOOKMAN: But it’s the nature of the problem that it only takes one or two young men who are listening to another channel, so to speak, and who act upon it, and a lot of everyday good work comes undone.
AL-NINOWY: Absolutely. That’s really what it is. You can build all you want, but at the end of the day, when there’s that gruesome scene on TV like that unfortunate event in Tennessee, it’s a disaster.
And what people don’t understand is that we Muslims hurt twice. First of course is the pain and sorrow for these young (military personnel) who were killed in Tennessee, people who had gone overseas and put their own lives on the line for the mission that the country commanded them to do, and then they come back here and, you know, it’s supposed to be safe here. This is home. Home is where you can walk unguarded. So there’s the pain for the loss of the lives of these young people, and the pain for their loved ones, that lasting scar on everyone’s life.
And then it happens that the victimizer, the shooter, is the victim of his own ignorance, someone who is driven by such a hate and such great ignorance to commit such a horrendous crime. And obviously that too is going to have an impact on the entire (Muslim) community. People don’t know what to expect after that.
We have to calm people down here and tell people that you have to believe in the greater good. People are good. Average people have a good sense of understanding of things. That’s what it really comes down to, balanced people who understand that these things happen, but that doesn’t mean that everyone out there is the same. Similarly, when I go overseas and they tell me about America, I ask them: ‘Have you met these people, have you lived with them, have you talked to them?’ And they tell me no.
You’ll find one or two people who are maybe off, but the vast majority of people, this is one of the greatest countries in the world. And the reason is, this is a thinking nation with the capacity to change. Having President Obama — now, I’m not necessary political, whether Democratic or Republican — but having a black president and now having a female as a very strong candidate at the least, that tells you it’s a thinking nation with the capacity to change. And that’s the beauty of America.
BOOKMAN: It is still somewhat stunning that so soon after 9/11, we elected someone by the name of “Barack Obama” as president.
AL-NINOWY: And “Hussein” in the middle!
BOOKMAN: As we were reminded repeatedly.
AL-NINOWY: Right. We were reminded often and often. But whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, I feel there is lots of closeness among the Abrahamic system. As much as we fight, there is so much in common. I’ve spent a lot of time on all three scriptures, including the Babylonian Talmud. Interfaith work is very important. And you can do it more in America than anywhere else.
BOOKMAN: You brought up the impact of the case in Tennessee, where a young Muslim man attacked and killed American soldiers. What was the impact of that recent shooting in North Carolina, where a man killed three students because they were Muslim?
AL-NINOWY: The day of the Chapel Hill shooting. Again, my eyes were tearing in the same way as in the Tennessee shooting. Innocent people are dying, and people are killing out of hate. It’s a double tragedy in that sense. The only thing we could do is pray and do better work.
BOOKMAN: I would think that the entire American Muslim community had to feel personally threatened by that, had to feel vulnerable, even though it was the act of only one individual. Everybody had to feel threatened.
AL-NINOWY: That’s what I’m saying. The problem with hate and polarization is that everybody is vulnerable. It doesn’t matter who you are. Hate is the enemy of everybody. It doesn’t matter which side hates, the victims are always the innocent people in between. So my heart went out to the family of the people in North Carolina, just as it went out to the people in Tennessee. There just are no words to describe it.
BOOKMAN: We talked earlier about the misconceptions about America in the Muslim world. What about the misconceptions about the Muslim world in America?
AL-NINOWY: There hasn’t been enough presentation to our fellow neighbors. Like I said, having an American flag at a masjid, some people in the community came to me and asked why, when this is a religious institution. Well, we’re part of this country, that’s why. A sense of belonging — this is who we are.
I think there’s a need for American Muslims to present themselves more with the people. American Muslims have always been good with the law of the land. But we need to be good with the people of the land. The law of the land knows that the American Muslims are mostly law-abiding citizens. The average American Muslim is educated, they have good income, they live in good areas in general. But there hasn’t been that interaction with the people of the land.
We need to go out there. Some Muslims go about their daily lives, working with people, making friends, but they never disclose their Islamic faith or that they practice Islam. That’s out of fear of repercussions or stereotyping, maybe, but I think if we expose ourselves more, talk to our neighbors more, and do more civic work, make positive contributions back to the community. I think that’s where we need to go.
But again, the atmosphere, the stereotyping, the bombardment of negative pictures about Muslims don’t help. I travel a lot, and post-9/11 almost every single one of us was harassed when we came home. I always say, the most unAmerican day of my life is when I come home. All these silly questions and everything else.
I’m a U.S. citizen and have been for decades now. I remember one of the immigration officers, he looks at my passport and says, ‘So, you were born in Syria?’ I said, ‘yeah, I was’. So he says, ‘What made you leave Syria?’ And I answer: ‘Because they started treating me like you are now.’
He started laughing. He says, ‘Look, I do what I have to do.’
I can’t blame the people, the public, because we as American Muslims need to extend our hand and educate the public. We can’t expect the public to go and read different things about a religion, because that’s not fair. We have to reach out.
BOOKMAN: One of the things that you often hear is that American Muslims don’t speak out enough against terrorism. I don’t think that’s at all accurate; I think it’s a case of people choosing not to hear such condemnations, but that’s a hard perspective to change.
AL-NINOWY: My question when I hear that is, ‘When was the last time that you went to a mosque, to a sermon at a mosque?’ Because if you come here …. Obviously, I can’t teach every single Friday about terrorism, but anyone who has been here knows well where we stand. I think the American Muslim community has been really unequivocal in its condemnation of all that violence. But I don’t know how to make that heard on a national level, in national media.
The American Muslim community is like any other segment of America. It has its own social problems, things it has to deal with. Remember, this place is a spiritual refuge to many families. They come on Fridays, they want that inner peace, to be connected to God. So we try to give them that. But we sure do talk about the challenges as well, among them violence committed in the name of God. There is absolute unequivocal rejection of anything that has to do with violence. The vast majority if not all the American Muslim community is really united in that. But it’s not heard.
There’s lots of calls in the world for violence in the name of God. And our view is exactly the opposite. There is need for love in the name of God, not violence in the name of God. All wars that happen in the world are caused by greed, ambition and self-interest, but in order to mobilize the masses we cloak them in religion. That’s one of the key things that I fight.
We do what we can, and then let God do the rest.