‘Coffee, Cake, and True Islam’: How a Muslim Community Is Fighting Islamophobia

“I’m not going to say we all sing 'Kumbaya' and get along perfectly, but [the campaign has] created a platform where people can be transparent and ask questions about Islam without fear of intimidation or backlash.”

Religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity were among the fundamental tenets of the religion Qasim Rashid had always known. But time and time again he was seeing his religion be held up as a symbol of violence, intolerance, and discrimination. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Qasim Rashid holds his phone out to me over the table at the Starbucks where we are having coffee. Someone has tweeted, “I will give anyone who kills the basterd [sic] Qasim Rashid one thousand dollar.” “First of all, I’m a little offended it’s only a thousand dollars,” Rashid says with a laugh. “I’d like to think my life is worth a little more than that.”

The soft-spoken man sitting across the table from me doesn’t seem like someone who would inspire regular death threats—even on the notoriously troll-happy Twitter. The project for which Rashid draws so much ire is called True Islam, an educational campaign dedicated to highlighting the “true” values espoused in Islam. “There is so much misinformation about Islam,” Rashid says, and in December 2015, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to which he belongs decided to do something about it.

Earlier that month, a couple walked into the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, with automatic weapons and opened fire on the people inside, killing 14 and wounding 22. The perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were a married couple who, according to the FBI’s subsequent investigation, were “essentially homegrown terrorists” who had become radicalized by extremists on the internet.

Following the tragedy in San Bernardino, President Obama called on Muslim communities to “confront, without excuse” the extremist ideology that “has spread within some Muslim communities.” He also praised Muslim leaders who “speak out against not just acts of violence, but also those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the values of religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity.”

Religious tolerance, mutual respect, and human dignity were among the fundamental tenets of the religion Rashid had always known. But time and time again he was seeing his religion be held up as a symbol of violence, intolerance, and discrimination.

“There are extremist groups and some Muslim clerics who are really the epicenter of misinformation about Islam,” says Salaam Bhatti, another member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community involved with the True Islam campaign. “It’s not that they don’t truly understand Islam, it’s just they have selfish, geopolitical, and financial incentives to spread misinformation.”

The purpose of the True Islam campaign is to look at how extremist groups like Daesh, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban distort Islam, and provide factual information about the religion, using the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad’s own words. Rashid says, “[Extremist groups] literally fabricate things [about Islam] that don’t exist.”

While both Rashid and Bhatti place the blame of misinformation about Islam largely on the shoulders of the clerics and extremists who perpetrate it, politicians, media outlets, and a general ignorance in the United States about Islam all serve to amplify and spread that misinformation.

First and foremost, Rashid and the other members involved in the True Islam campaign had to understand exactly what the misconceptions about Islam were and how prevalent they had become. True Islam organizers conducted a survey of Muslim youth, asking basic questions about the principles of Islam. “We had an idea of what the answers would be, which was why we were doing the campaign to begin with,” Bhatti says, “but once we saw the answers … for example, the large majority we surveyed thought Islam had a monopoly on salvation, which is just wholly untrue and not stated anywhere in the Quran … we saw how much work we had to do.”

Extremists are creating a false understanding of Islam in the minds of other Muslims, proponents of the True Islam campaign assert, but the rampant Islamophobia seen in the United States and other Western countries also speaks to an ignorance about Islam among non-Muslims.

Rashid doesn’t bring up media coverage until I press him on the issue, but once I do, it’s clear that coverage of Muslims in the mainstream media frustrates him—with good reason. Media Matters found that, “In the month after the election, only 21 percent of the guests who appeared on evening cable news to discuss Islam were Muslim.” I mutter a comment about one particularly conservative news network and Rashid smiles, “You know what, though? If all the other networks had a Muslim commentator on when they were discussing these issues, that [aforementioned conservative network] would have as well.” The problem is bigger than any one network.

“We have no control over what the news networks choose to cover,” Rashid says, “which is why this is a grassroots education campaign.” For both Muslims and non-Muslims, the solution to misperceptions, be they perpetrated by clerics or the media, is largely the same. It is what the True Islam campaign is based on: education and in-person interactions.

“We know that Daesh and other extremist groups are using social media to try to radicalize and spread misinformation about Islam,” Bhatti says, “so we are using those same channels to spread accurate information about Islam.

The campaign put together a social media presence (True Islam on Twitter and Facebook) and a website TrueIslam.com. The site asks Muslims and non-Muslims alike to read and understand 11 commonly misunderstood truths about the faith: True Islam “wholly rejects all forms of terrorism; believes in Non-Violent Jihad of the self and of the pen; believes in the equality, education, and empowerment of women; advocates freedom of conscience, religion, and speech; advocates for the separation of mosque and state; believes in loyalty to your country of residence; encompasses the universal declaration of human rights; believes in all verses of the Quran and forbids lying; recognizes no religion can monopolize salvation; believes in the need for unified Muslim leadership; rejects the concept of a bloody Messiah.”

Each of these tenets is taken directly from either the Quran or the “words of and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,” Rashid says.

The website then asks Muslims to endorse the campaign, and non-Muslims to endorse it as a Muslim ally. Doing so, Rashid says, “encourages people to take an active role in combating hatred and bigotry in their communities. We want to encourage people, if they are sitting down at the table at Thanksgiving and someone says something about Islam that isn’t true, they can say, ‘Look, I signed on to this True Islam thing … and what you’re saying isn’t what Islam is really about.’”

The website provides a bevy of tools for learning more about the religion, including a free annotated download of the Quran, a “Muhammad fact-checker,” as well as videos and other resources.

Offline, the True Islam campaign hosts in-person events at which anyone (Muslim or non-Muslim) is welcome. The most frequent events are part of their “Coffee, Cake, and True Islam,” effort where Muslims and non-Muslims meet for discussion in “a safe space where Muslims and non-Muslims can see the humanity in each other,” Rashid says. “I’m not going to say we all sing ‘Kumbaya’ and get along perfectly, but it’s created a platform where people can be transparent and ask questions about Islam without fear of intimidation or backlash.”

Additionally, members of the True Islam campaign will sometimes give talks at churches and other houses of worship about Islam and the peaceful principles outlined in the Quran. These events have garnered a mixed reception. “I was speaking at a church on the anniversary of 9/11,” Bhatti says, “and there were some members of the church who were so insulted and furious that a Muslim would be there that day that they chose not to attend services.”

For each churchgoer who is offended by the idea of a Muslim in a church on 9/11, there is the other side of the coin—the people who approached Bhatti after the talk to thank him for coming and openly taking questions about Islam. That’s what keeps both Rashid and Bhatti going in the face of resistance. “One of the things Islam as well as many other religious scriptures say is, ‘Love thy Neighbor,’” Bhatti says. “Well, you can’t love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor.”

There’s data to back up these assertions: The Public Religion Research Institute conducted a study, finding that while a relatively small percentage of non-Muslim Americans have regular interactions with Muslims, those who have even sporadic interactions with Muslims have significantly higher positive perceptions of Muslims than those who have no interaction with them. Rashid and Bhatti do not need a study to tell them this, of course; they see the fruits of their labor daily. Rashid says, “I get messages every day from Muslims and non-Muslims thanking me because they had an incorrect conception of what Islam teaches. Islam is a religion of peace.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the fiercest resistance to the True Islam campaign Rashid and Bhatti have experienced stems not from non-Muslims but other Muslims. Although they are between 10 million and 20 million in number worldwide, the Ahmadi are seen as heretical by many mainstream Muslims because they do not “believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind, as orthodox Muslims believe is laid out in the Quran.” Founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community believes Ahmad was the long-awaited “mahdi” or messiah. While Ahmadis see no conflict between their belief in Ahmad as the messiah and Muhammad being the final prophet, their belief in Ahmad has resulted in a vicious persecution of Ahmadis in the Middle East and Asia, especially in Pakistan where it is illegal to refer to Ahmadis as Muslims. For their part, the Ahmadis “insist that [Ahmed] was not a ‘law-giving’ prophet and his job was only to propagate the laws enunciated by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad,” as BBC explains.

These differences have had practical implications on the True Islam campaign. “Before we started the campaign, we sent out letters of invitation to over 2,500 mosques and Imams, and we got a whopping zero responses,” Bhatti says. “We are slowly seeing other Muslims sign on as well, but we were really hoping to have that happen before we launched the campaign, so we could all do it together.”

This is perhaps most frustrating to proponents of the campaign because “it’s a totally non-sectarian campaign,” Rashid says. One of the images on the True Islam website is a picture of Robert Salaam, a U.S. Muslim blogger and Marine veteran. Next to his image, there’s a quote from Salaam that reads, “This campaign expresses the values, beliefs, and ideals of the entire Muslim community, regardless of sectarian differences.”

For those who don’t consider Ahmadis “real” Muslims, the notion of signing on to a campaign created by the group purporting to espouse “True Islam” is a religious disconnect that cannot be overcome. Haroon Moghul, a Pakistani-American academic, commentator on Islam and public affairs, and author of several books including How to Be a Muslim: An American Story, says there are indeed “significant theological differences between Ahmadis and mainstream Muslims.” However, those differences aren’t necessarily relevant to the issue of Islamophobia. “At the end of the day,” Moghul says, “it doesn’t matter whether you consider someone a Muslim theologically but whether you’re identified as a Muslim in the public imagination, and the consequences that has for you and your safety and your ability to be a part of society.” He laughs, “I don’t think Trump’s Muslim ban cares about [who is or isn’t considered a prophet].”

The most anti-Ahmadiyya will, as the tweeter who called Rashid a “basterd” [sic] did, call for the death of Rashid and other Ahmadis.

Still, for Bhatti and Rashid, this is just part of their spiritual journey. Mirza Ghulam Ahmad believed that Islam would need to be saved from fanatics who spread false ideas about Islam; the True Islam campaign, while non-sectarian in its tenets, is an extension of that goal. Further, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community forbids retaliation against one’s enemies. Instead of focusing on those who think the True Islam campaign is the wrong approach, Rashid prefers to focus on the successes the campaign has had. When he gets death threats he reports them to the authorities, or shares them on Facebook or Twitter. Rashid says, “I think the net negative is much smaller than the positive. The love outweighs the hate.”