Chicago Monitor Editor Agnieszka Karoluk interviewed Qasim Rashid about his 2013 book, “The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution and Perseverance”. The Wrong Kind of Muslim is the first book of its kind. It relates these untold accounts of persecution and torture, directly from those living and dying under Pakistan’s oppressive regimes. This book gives voice to their forced silence. A silence which, if broken, is punishable with arrest, fine, or death.
Read excerpts from the interview below or listen to the full unabridged recorded interview through our SoundCloud.
How has your book been received both in the US and abroad?
It’s been a blessing. This book has been received very well. If you look at the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, it has well over a hundred reviews and they have been near perfect 5 star reviews. I am getting emails from everywhere: all over the US and Canada, South America, African countries, Asian countries and even from Australia. I am literally getting emails from all over the world about this book and it’s been really exciting. It’s also bittersweet because I have not been able to get the book into many Muslim majority countries due to censorship. It hasn’t been banned to my knowledge, but it is difficult to get the book to these countries because of censorship issues due to the fact that I refer to Ahmadis as Muslims in the book and that’s considered blasphemy in countries like Pakistan. That is bittersweet but at the same time I am glad that it has had the exposure that it’s had. I just hope and pray that it continues and I think it will.
I wanted you to talk about the importance of knowing one’s own family history- those that came before you, your own community’s struggle. Because I know you really stress that in the beginning of the book you were sort of ashamed that you didn’t know your own family’s history and your travels to Pakistan really changed your worldview and changed how you wanted to contribute to society.
Yeah, I think it goes back to the idea that if you don’t know where you came from, it becomes much more difficult to know where you are going. And those who don’t learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them over and over again. So if you look at the struggles of people especially in our younger generation- people in their 20s, 30s, even younger than that- a lot of the struggle stems from a lack of identity and not knowing who they are or what their forefathers stood for. That’s why it was so important for me to do my own independent research when I was in my teens and my twenties, and I am so grateful to my parents who did not just tell me what to think or what to believe, but really for pushing me outside of that comfort zone and making me find out for myself. It was frightening, it really is frightening and even now I get emails from people saying “I’m having this Christian talk about Islam and I can’t answer his questions- what do I do?” and it’s tempting to give them what I think is the answer, but that would be an injustice to them. Aside from being hypocritical from my part, it would be an injustice to them because it would not help them appreciate their identity and who they are. So my advice to them would be the same that my father gave to me: look, this is what you need to figure out. This is where you need to really understand what you believe in and if you can’t rationalize it, then maybe you need to reevaluate what you believe in. I was told that unless you do that, you’re not going to find any sort of comfort or appreciation for who you are or where your family is from.
Along those lines, I was really astounded that both your grandfather and father did not force their religious beliefs on their children, including yourself. Many immigrant parents are not that way, they usually tell their children “Well, you have to believe X, Y and Z because that’s just how it is. You have to belong to this community because that’s just how our family is.” So I was wondering if you could talk more about that. Do you do the same to your children? How can parents and families who come from various faiths negotiate explaining their traditions and beliefs to their children without forcing it upon them?
My grandfather had the fortunate opportunity of having a near-death experience that really helped put things in perspective. I’ve never had a near-death experience so I can’t speak for myself, but from his experience he realized that there was really no one he could rely on, it was just between him and the Almighty. There was no one to stand before him or to count on. That’s when I realized I can’t do the same thing to my children, because on the day they stand before God I won’t be there, it will only be them and God. There was this realization that he didn’t want to take that away from his children and this was imbarred to my father who then imbarred it to me and I was blessed with two kids and I am doing the same for them: I am keeping their minds open and teaching them not to become narrow in their approach. This is just one part of it though, the other part is that this is what Islam taught. The Holy Qur’an reminds Muslims on hundreds of occasions to investigate- to ponder, reflect, and not rely on blind faith but to take the initiative to do your own research. When you look at the example that the Quran gives of what the people who believe blindly what your fathers believe, you believe, even if your fathers were dumb, deaf and blind. So it really rejects this notion to believe what religion your family happens to me. Finally, to really step out of that comfort zone is not easy. It’s frightening, and I can say that from experience, it was very frightening to me. Once you do it, you begin to realize that this is what separates mankind from all other creatures on earth. Mankind is the only creature who has the ability to choose and to decide. If we refuse to use this gift I think we are wasting the greatest things that we have available to us. Finally, we need to have a balance. This doesn’t mean that you let your child burn their hand because they have to learn from experience. There is a difference between behavior and belief. You can teach your children morals, good upbringing and lead by good example, but when it comes to their choices, you need to empower them to choose what to believe in.
How do you feel about exploring, studying, and most importantly, experiencing other faith traditions?
I think that’s the best way to get out of your comfort zone: to really learn about other people and experience it. We all have experienced the armchair scholars and the Google scholars, and that’s a shame because especially in America, we have the opportunity to go learn and experience different faith traditions from the people practicing them. That’s a beautiful gift and a rare opportunity. So doing that as I said was frightening at first, but once I began doing that I realized two things. One was that I realized how similar we all really are. It was shocking to me how similar we are, I don’t know if I can find a better way to understand that than experiencing it. The second thing I learned was that there are some significant differences, but they are not so significant that they prevent us from working towards a common cause to promote peace and tolerance for all of humanity.
When you say “how similar we are” do you mean people who practice a certain religion or faith or just people in general?
Both! So as far as people who practice faiths, we are very similar in the sense that if you look at Muslims and Christians for example, we believe in all the Prophets in the Bible, we believe in the Ten Commandments; as far as the Golden Rule and belief in God, heaven and hell, by and large we have similar beliefs. On a deeper level we are all striving for success: for a safe environment for our children, for a comfortable lifestyle, we root for the same teams. It was a strange experience for me when I went to a church for the first time and the pastor made a comment about the Chicago Bulls. I don’t know why it seemed so alien to me but it occurred to me “these folks are Christians. They are my fellow Chicagoans and they happen to be Christians.” I also don’t want to glaze over differences, but those differences become secondary because as human beings, we all want the same things: safety, prosperity, and mutual respect. It goes back to what the Qur’an says that we create you to tribes and subtribes so you may recognize one another. You do that by engaging with the other person and trying to find out who they are and not by ignoring them and pretending they don’t exist.
You talk about your grandfather, Mian Jee and the mob that was coming to his village to kill him. You point out a key part in the book where there is a difference between the townspeople who wanted to protect him despite him saying, “No, I want to be a martyr… If this is my destiny then it is my destiny.” You made a key difference between the townspeople and the mullahs, politicians and policemen. I think this is a key difference to make between different hate groups, oppression, political or religious violence. Can you talk about what you learned from this story, on a broader scale?
This was a really emotional part for me to write as well. I was learning about this, researching and speaking to different members of my family as well, especially my uncle. I think the biggest thing I learned was that this was another great example of how important it is for us to dialogue and interact with one another. Those townspeople protected my grandfather not because they agreed with him, but because they recognized him as a human being. They saw who he was as a person and the humanness of them came out and superseded their concern for him being the wrong kind of Muslim. This is a lesson for Muslims in America where unfortunately we see bouts of Islamophobia and sometimes outright persecution that instead of only hauling up discrimination for what it is which we should be doing: be as active as you can be in the community to work with those around you, to serve with those around you. It comes back to the theme of winning the heart. Win the hearts of those around you by continuing to serve the community, not for the sake of any other reason other than because they are human beings and they have an inherent right to the fundamental human rights that all of us have. Our duty towards Allah is by prayer and our duty to mankind is to serve them, and as Muslims we have these fundamental duties. Despite the discrimination and bigotry and violence, it can all be overcome by engaging with one another in dialogue and serving humanity.
My last question about the book is when you met the Christian man in Pakistan and you kept asking him “Why don’t you just leave if you’re being persecuted?” and he said, “Where do I go? If I don’t work this job my family starves!” So I am wondering what was going through your head in that moment and what do you think about it now as you reflect back?
This is one of those things where at the time it felt so confusing, but later on I thought, “God, I was so stupid.” And that’s really what it was. I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult. Here’s a fellow human being who deserves equal treatment, why aren’t we treating him equally? When I realized that unfortunately, in a country like Pakistan that has had so many anti-Ahmadi and anti-blasphemy laws for so many years, my thought was that treating a person like a human being is supposed to be a default. It is not the default there. Last year PEW released a survey in Pakistan where something like 75% of Pakistanis support anti-blasphemy laws. As I reflected on this, the reality has become even more. I’m really happy to hear you say that you didn’t feel like you were being preached to regarding Ahmdaiyya Islam because I did that on purpose. If I wanted to write a book on preaching, I would have done that. This book’s purpose was to get people to do their own research and to recognize that this is not a religious issue this is a human rights issue. Regardless of what someone believes or doesn’t believe, we all have the right to be treated equally. That’s what difficult for me to understand about that Christian street vendor, and I painfully realize it now that we have that much more work to do.
You mentioned you have a new book coming out soon, tell us about it.
The book is called “Extremist” and in this book I respond point by point to a book written by Dutch politician Geert Wilders in 2012. Myself and a few others went through to make it a point by point rebuttal to every allegation he makes against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (pbh). There are about 62 or 63 allegations where we give very detailed and well referenced academically responses. Alhamdullilah we have received some great endorsements already from Professor Akbar Ahmed of American University as well as Dr Robert George of Princeton Unviersity. So that is set to launch InshaAllah in March.