Understanding Islam: A Conversation with Arafat El-Bakri

By Lydia Howell

In the almost seven years since the September 11th attacks, intensifying after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, non-Muslim Americans have been fed a steady diet of myths, distortions and outright hatred propagated about Islam. The religion has 1.4 billion believers worldwide, and more of Minnesotans’ neighbors are Muslim, hailing from Somalia, different Middle Eastern countries and South Asia. Islam is also winning many American converts. One of the most surprising facts in a wide-ranging interview with Arafat El-Bakri is that the biggest group of the 5 million American converts to Islam are educated women.

“Meet Your Muslim Neighbors: A Dialogue”
Thursday June 26, 7 p.m.
Robbinsdale United Church of Christ
4200 Lake Road, Robbinsdale, MN
Free and open to the public

El-Bakri is participating in a series of events to challenge the misconceptions about Islam and Muslim people, and to foster interfaith dialogue, at the Robbinsdale United Church of Christ. He is the founder of the Islamic Relief Social Services in Minneapolis, an outgrowth of his work on the Bosnia Relief Committee. An imam, he is on the boards of many Islamic organizations, and serves on the board of Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.

“A lot of words are being used to discredit and smear Islam,” El-Bakri says. “Jihad literally means ‘struggle’. It’s mostly translated as ‘holy war’–a concept that is not in Islam at all. Jihad is a struggle–struggle against your own desires, struggle in education, struggle on the battlefield. For us, war is justified or unjustified. There’s nothing holy about war. Wars are bad. The highest jihad is with yourself.”


The soft-spoken El-Bakri is a Palestinian who emigrated from Egypt and has lived in the United States for 22 years and is married to an American-born woman who converted to Islam. The couple have two daughters and a son. With silvering hair and full beard, wearing a longish vest, he generously provided this writer with reading material to prepare for the interview. It’s part of the myth-busting process that he patiently engages in. Many non-Muslim American might be surprised to know some of these facts: A Muslim woman keeps her own name after marriage. Animals are to be treated with kindness. Islam respects the rights of all faiths, as the Qur’an states, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

One of the most controversial aspects of Islam is the status of women, with much confusion between what is universal Islamic doctrine about women and what are local customs in the countries where Islam is practiced.

“Islam offers liberation for women,” El-Bakri asserts. “Islam came into a world where women had no value. The theory was that women didn’t hunt so they’re no good. It was a time when girl babies were buried alive. Islam came to change that. Women are the partners of men. Not necessarily equal to men, but equal in importance to men.”

Some Westerners justify intervention in Muslim nations citing oppression of women — some real, some exaggerated. El-Bakri notes that Islam established women’s rights including property rights 1,000 years ago – while in the U.S., married women could not own their own property or even their own wages until the late 19th century. El-Bakri notes that, in Islam, women may issue a fatwa (a religious interpretation of the Qur’an) just like men can and that there are female scholars of Islam.

As an American feminist, I realize I have my own jihad to make to try to make sense of “segregation” side-by-side with rights that predate my own country’s or Christianity’s by centuries.

Perhaps most moving in the conversation are El-Bakri’s observations about Islam and war. He describes the Qur’an’s requirements of conduct during wartime that resonate with the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against targeting civilians, the elderly, children and women, but also protect the enemy’s fruit trees, animals and homes. He does not hesitate to take on suicide bombings.

“Any killing of the innocent is a crime. Killing yourself is a crime, too. In all that, we miss the actual truth. These issues are political not issues of Islam. Battle between the United States and Iraq or the Palestinian issue – these are political issues. They are disputes over land – like the Irish and Britain. The never said a Catholic attacked a Protestant. They said the IRA attacked.” His voice remains calm even describing this hot-button issue.

“Conflict is everywhere. Being Muslim does not make every act a Muslim act, ” Arafat El-Bakri concludes. ” There’s hypocrisy and twisting of facts to justify any act against people who happen to be Muslim. Just as we condemn a suicide bombing, we should also condemn the bombardment of a city.”

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis-based independent journalist and winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. On Friday, June 20, 2008, at 11 a.m., hear the complete interview with Arafat El-Bakri on “Catalyst: Politics & Culture,” hosted by Lydia Howell, on KFAI Radio 90.2 FM Minneapolis/106.7 FM St. Paul. Online until July 4 at http://www.kfai.org.

Thursday June 26, 7 p.m. “Meet Your Muslim Neighbors: A Dialogue”,
“Meet Your Muslim Neighbors: A Dialogue” will feature a panel of Muslim residents at:Robbinsdale United Church of Christ. What are the greatest challenges to Muslims in the workplace, schools, and neighborhoods? Have things changed since 9/11? What do Muslims and non-Muslims tend to misunderstand the most about the other? On this evening there will be an opportunity to dialogue with people of varied ages and backgrounds who practice the Muslim faith and reside in Crystal, Brooklyn Park, Coon Rapids, and other suburban areas.

The “Meet Your Muslim Neighbors” series is free and open to the public, sponsored by the National and Global Ministry of RUCC and Northwest Neighbors for Peace. Location: Robbinsdale United Church of Christ, 4200 Lake Road, Robbinsdale MN 55442. For more information, contact Gloria at gjpeck@yahoo.com or Carole at 763-546-5368.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Islam: A Conversation with Arafat El-Bakri”

  1. I am interested in converting to Muslim, but there is no church around here I know of. I would like more information, or know when another meet your Muslim neoghbor deal is

  2. Hi Sara. What city do you live in? I am one of the founders of a new organization called Twin Cities Convert Connection and we are really into helping people find the resources they need, for instance finding a mosque (like church for Muslims) near you. E-mail me at tc.convertconnection@gmail.com – I can also answer any questions you might have!

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