Amir Hussain—who describes himself as a Pakistani-born Canadian Muslim and teaches theology at a Jesuit university in Los Angeles—is intent on spreading a message: There is more that unites than divides us. Written for Christians by a Muslim, his new book, Oil and Water: Two Faiths, One God, explores the differences between Christianity and Islam—but more importantly—what these two faiths have in common, paving the way for meaningful dialogue and ultimately, reconciliation.
Hussain is considered a leading specialist on Islam and is currently a Department of Theological Studies assistant professor at Loyola Marymount University. He recently spoke with BustedHalo about what it means to be Muslim in a post-9/11 world.
BustedHalo: Tell me about the title of your book, Oil and Water.
Amir Hussain: Many people think that Islam is a religion of violence, and that the Qur’an, the holy book for Muslims, is a book of violence—or at least, that it is much more violent than the Bible. A number of important Christian leaders have made very negative comments about Islam that only reinforce this notion. They see Islam as a threat to the values of the “Christian West.” Like oil and water, they do not mix. As a Muslim, I am deeply concerned about violence committed by Muslims, especially when it is done in the name of Islam. However, as a Muslim, I also see the truth and beauty in my religion, and I choose to remain Muslim. As someone who loves to eat and cook, I know that oil and water can often be combined to produce delicious results. I see oil and water as necessary ingredients, not as mutually exclusive categories, which is why I have used them for my title.
BH: As a Muslim, you talk about feeling like a minority growing up in Canada. You also say you feel the same way living in L.A.—but for different reasons. Please explain.
AH: In Canada, I was both an ethnic and a religious minority: A ‘brown’ person born in Pakistan, who is a Muslim. In Los Angeles, I am also an ethnic and a religious minority. But I’m also a minority as a Canadian living in L.A., with a slightly different accent, and different takes when it comes to sports (I prefer hockey) or justice issues (I’m against capital punishment).
BH: Talk about your interfaith work over the past few decades and the surprising things you’ve learned about other religions.
My work includes shared worship experiences, teaching courses and taking courses about different faiths and speaking in various adult education settings. In the last month, for example, I presented at Pilgrim Place, a center for retired clergy in Claremont, Calif., Covenant Presbyterian Church in Westchester, Calif., the International Institute for Secular Humanist Judaism in Farmington Hills, Michigan, Ojai United Methodist Church in Ojai, Calif., Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Calif., Xavier University in Cincinnati, and the University of Dayton in Ohio. I have learned about connections between Native North American traditions and Islam, mostly from my Cree elders in Manitoba. Islam—like Judaism before it—began as a tribal religion with deep ties to land and place. We share that with native traditions. My work with secular humanist Jews has been fascinating; I didn’t know there was such a thing as Judaism without God. For me, the key to interfaith work is not that we seek to convert each other, but that we help each other to find what is meaningful in our own traditions.
BH: How long have you been teaching at Loyola Marymount and what kinds of classes do you teach?
AH: I have been teaching at LMU since 2005. Before that, I taught at California State University, Northridge. I teach courses on world religions, as well as upper-division and graduate courses on Islam.
BH: What is life like for a Muslim in a Catholic setting?
AH: In all honesty, I can’t imagine a better place to be. As a Catholic university rooted in its Jesuit and Marymount traditions, there is both a commitment to education and to social justice. We are the only major Catholic university in Los Angeles, which is both the largest archdiocese in the U.S. and the most religiously-diverse city in the world. LMU embraces this, and has a strong commitment to interfaith dialogue. I feel welcomed and at home.
BH: What would you say your students are most curious about when it comes to finding a better understanding of Islam?
AH: Most are generally curious about the two issues that are of primary interest to most Americans: violence and the roles of women.
BH: What was your first thought when it was discovered that Muslim men were responsible for 9/11?
AH: It really was a sense of sorrow and loss. My first thoughts and prayers, of course, were with the victims and their families. I have lots of friends who work in and around the World Trade Center, so I spent most of that day trying to make sure that my friends were alive. One of them was an Indian, a Hindu. By the time I got through to him, it was evening, and people already suspected that Muslims were behind the attacks. I told him, very simply, to keep his head down—that even though he was Hindu (and not Muslim) and Indian (and not Arab), he might be mistaken as “one of them.” My friend was okay, but sadly, the next day a Sikh gas station owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot to death in Mesa, AZ, by someone who thought that he was “one of them.” I felt ashamed of what Muslim terrorists had done in the name of my religion.
BH: How did you cope after 9/11? Did you find it more difficult to be a Muslim in America?
AH: Funnily enough, I contributed a chapter in a new book, Subverting Hatred: The Challenge of Nonviolence in Religious Traditions, called “Life as a Muslim scholar of Islam in post-9/11 America.” I’ve spent most of my time making presentations about Islam and Muslims. Before 9/11, I’d make presentations to religious or community groups every other month or so. For the first few months after 9/11, it was every second or third day. It was difficult as most people confused ordinary American Muslims with the terrorists. To this day—six years after the horrors of 9/11—I get negative and derogatory comments at presentations as if I am somehow in favor of terrorism and violence. There is a lot of hate out there, and I’m often the first Muslim that people have met, so the hate and anger at the terrorists is projected at me. I understand this of course, but it does get weary sometimes.
BH: You’ve mentioned that your approach to teaching classes on Islam before and after 9/11 also changed. How so?
AH: Before 9/11, I’d begin with a standard historical introduction to Islam and the life of Muhammad. Typically, I’d used F.E. Peters’ fine book, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. This was because before 9/11, most of my students—whether they were Muslim or not—knew very little about Islam. Post-9/11, people thought they had a large amount of knowledge, but almost all of it was wrong as it came from the media. So I began with a mini-course in media literacy, talking about how the media (particularly television news) constructs images of reality. Now, we start with Neil Postman and Steve Powers’ book How to Watch TV News.
BH: How much do you hold the media responsible for what’s out there about Muslims?
AH: There’s a lot of responsibility on the media for accurate reporting. However, they make their money not on accuracy, but on commercials and ratings. They sometimes favor simplistic “us vs. them” models, rather than any kind of nuanced understanding. In some cases, it is a willful ignorance. For example, I listen to both KNX, a local news radio station in Los Angeles, as well as KKLA, an evangelical station. I have sent them copies of my book. I have sent them media releases. I have sent them emails to let them know that I’m happy to appear on their programs to talk about Islam. They have never contacted me. In the case of KKLA, it is particularly galling, as they claim to want to dialogue with Muslims, but when a Muslim comes to them, they ignore him.