This article was published in the Exeter NewsLetter and Portsmouth Herald. I’m enough of a narcissist to want to share it with my readers:
By Jane Reid firstname.lastname@example.org
April 13, 2017
EXETER — Robert Azzi was born and attended public schools in Manchester, has been a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, became a photojournalist whose work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and other U.S. and international publications, and has lived in Beirut, Cairo, Athens and New York. He now lives in Exeter.
His musical tastes range from Bach to Beyoncé. Trim and fit-appearing, he walks daily. He is 74, divorced, and has one daughter, now in London completing a doctorate. He owns more than 8,000 books, including treasured early editions of the Qur’an in English. And he now devotes his life to interpreting Islam and Muslims to Americans through both his writing as a columnist and public speaking encounters.
Azzi did not grow up Muslim. He was raised as Christian by parents with a Lebanese background. His mother was born in the U.S.; his father came here as a child. As a young adult, Robert went to Beirut, first staying with relatives there and later on his own, and made many Arab and Muslim friends throughout the region. One close friend had such an appealing, accepting outlook on the world that Azzi converted to Islam.
His mission almost consumes the man. He now writes for local newspapers and talks with local groups up to four or five times a week, often with a presentation called “Ask A Muslim Anything.” His goal is to explain that Islam is a religion of peace and good will. Yes, he admits as he speaks to church groups and elsewhere, there are splinter groups which do terrible things in the name of religion, and there are “hoodlums” who claim to be acting as Muslims. But that is not the Islam he knows.
At an “Ask a Muslim Anything” session held earlier at Stratham Community Church, a woman noted that Christians, Jews and Muslims “all l have the same stories.” Of course they do, Azzi replied. “We accept the Torah, the Psalms and Gospels along with the Qur’an as the Word of God, God is not going to make up different stories for different people.”
Those three Abrahamic religions, he continued, have much in common. Muslims also believe in “the pre-Easter” Jesus as a prophet second in importance only to the prophet Mohammad.
At least 70 people, about half of them members of the Stratham church, attended that gathering. Around his neck, Azzi wore a keffiyeh, an Arab scarf which may also be worn as a headdress. It has no religious significance, he said, but is simply traditional wear. (Strolling about Exeter, stopping for coffee, his garb is simply traditional American casual.)
The Stratham meeting, like most others, was friendly and non-confrontational. Many questions are the same from gathering to gathering. Someone always asks about Muslim treatment of women. His reply has several parts. Woman suffer in part, Azzi says, because for generations understandings of The Qur’an have been interpreted by men, as has happened in other traditions, wielding their patriarchal authority to advance their own interests.
Some Muslim-majority countries, Azzi said, have been more advanced than the U.S. in electing women to public office. But change for most Muslim women must come from the bottom up with women empowering themselves through education, not from the top (government) down, he believes, adding that change is already beginning in many places.
Inevitably someone asks about acts of terrorism done in the name of Islam. The often-heard phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” particularly upsets him. No one talks about “radical Christian terrorism” or “radical Judaic terrorism,” he protests, although atrocities have been committed by adherents of those religions as well. Some terroristic acts, he says, are committed by impoverished, uneducated youths who have been indoctrinated by extremists, others by alienated, disenfranchised and marginalized youth. Although the Qur’an forbids suicide. Again, Azzi believes education is at least part of the answer.
Although Islam may have been here as early as 1619 when 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown, and was acknowledged by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, it wasn’t on the radar of most Americans until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaeda Muslim terrorists. The negative image continued during Barack Obama’s presidency, when some opponents alleged that he was born in Africa and was a Muslim.
“Today,” Azzi wrote last May, with presidential campaigns in full swing, “America’s being swept up in a virulent wave of Islamophobia that has nothing to do with religion, it’s about demagogues manipulating public sentiment for personal power, privilege and profit … ”
Muslims in New Hampshire are few, variously estimated at 0.05 percent to 0.12 percent. Many state residents have never knowingly met one. Azzi says his efforts are worthwhile if listeners take away just three ideas: “First, that a Muslim can be in their midst for an hour or two and respectfully exchange ideas and share common interests and concerns. Two, that they understand that Islam is not any more monolithic than any of the other great monotheistic religious traditions. Three, that while we believe that the Qur’an is the literal Word of God that it is not meant to be read literally.”
Azzi’s blog can be found at theotherazzi.wordpress.com
Also visit, http://bit.do/Azzi-on-Beruit