Victor Ghalib Begg is an Indian-born Muslim American author, activist, community organizer and community builder. He worked for decades building interfaith coalitions and advocating inclusion. In his 2019 memoir, Our Muslim Neighbors—Achieving the American; an Immigrant’s memoir, he writes, “Getting to know our neighbors is one way to allay current rising tide of divisions. There is power in simply knowing one another.” His wife, Shahina Begg, co-founded “Women’s Interfaith Solutions for dialog and outreach in Metro-Detroit.” He is also a co-founder of the multi-ethnic Muslim Unity Mosque in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was 2009 recipient of the Detroit News Award “Michiganian of the Year” for his leadership role in advocacy work and promoting unity in the community. Victor Begg also received the “Peacemaker” Award by the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University. (Introduction edited by Victor).
Most of your activism revolves around getting people to understand that though our belief systems may differ, beyond the respective labels we are more similar than ever. Why is it so difficult for us to comprehend such a notion?
Not so difficult, if we get to know our next-door neighbor. In doing so, we may remove the labels we unknowingly attach to the people we may have stereotypical notions about. We will better understand our shared values and aspirations with that simple outreach. Loving one’s neighbor is part of the universal teachings among all of our faiths:
Said Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:31
And be good to the neighbor who is your relative and to the neighbor who is not a relative. Quran 4:36
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18
Prophet Muhammad said, “The Angel Gabriel kept on recommending that I treat the neighbors in a kind and polite manner, so much so that I thought that he would order me to make them my heirs.” In Sahih Bukhari, arguably the most influential compilation of his sayings.
I strongly believe we must share our personal stories—at the core, we are all humans with similar dreams, regardless how we worship. As a Muslim, in writing my book, I shared my family story, in all its vulnerabilities; it offered a window into the daily life and beliefs of ordinary Muslim Americans—to get to know who they really are was one of my goals. That shouldn’t be a difficult task—begin with your next-door neighbors, invite them to your home for a cup of tea. Show your love to fellow human beings, whether they agree with your belief system or not. Love and goodness overcome fear and divisions.
In an interview with The Arab American News last year, you stated that you remained optimistic even in the face of discrimination. You were able to reach out to other communities through writing and socially engaging with the 'other.' Tell us the catalyst behind such a decision.
An example I can share is that of post-9/11 terror attack in New York. In the face of a major tragedy, the interfaith community came together, to pray for peace. In the process of planning for that joint service, I raised my hand and told the gathering of diverse faith leaders, “We need more than a prayer.” Although, it was an unexpected proposal from a lay person like me, at a time like that, the faith leaders and other community leaders responded enthusiastically. That simple call for action, to go beyond simply holding hands and praying, prompted an initiative resulting in forming an institution that vies to bring communities together to this day—Interfaith Leadership Council of Metro-Detroit. Such willingness by faith leaders, to step up to do good at short notice, should give us hope and optimism. We rose from the ashes of a major act of violence, to join hands, promote cooperation, peace, and inclusion.
There are so many more examples where average members of the community, as well as the leaders, rise to the occasion. During the COVID-19 epidemic, we are finding the faith communities—mosques, churches, and synagogues uniting to face a common invisible enemy of humanity. People, across the faiths, bind together in helping elderly neighbors, and feeding the hungry regardless of their background. I have written editorials about it.
Back in the dawn of the interfaith era, fifty years ago, we had to plan elaborate dialogues in Detroit so that our various faith communities could meet—often, for the first time. Today, young adults feel more comfortable with diversity. They live, study and work in mixed communities. If a particular cause interests them, most are happy to join with people of other faiths and cultures. They stand up for each other. As I see this unfolding future, how can I not be optimistic?
You refer to yourself as an 'accidental activist' in the first chapter of your memoir Our Muslim Neighbors. What is an accidental activist? And how did that come about?
I began that chapter in my book by quoting an ayah (verse) from the Quran: “Nothing will transpire except what God has prescribed for us.” Quran 9:51
In summary: My goal, in coming to America in 1970, was to get my college degree, find a job, and build a good life. On November 4, 1979, Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, touching off the longest hostage crisis in American history. That was the initial catalyst for my activism. For 444 days, the hostages’ plight and Imam Khomeini’s politically motivated revolution in Iran flooded the news cycle. The initial anger about the hostage taking and Khomeini’s later fatwa against author Salman Rushdie began to center [more] on Islam, less on Khomeini and Iranian politics.
At the time, I was not so religious. Early in my life, for example, I attended services twice a year, on the two main religious holidays. That’s just like many Christians who jokingly call themselves “Chreasters,” attending only on Christmas and Easter. Nevertheless, I was involved in that era as a guest on radio talk shows, articulating perspectives about Muslims many Americans were not hearing. That added to my urge to speak up when needed to publicly articulate about issues.
Not many journalists recognized the importance of including the voices of Muslim community leaders in their news reports in that era. In fact, Muslim-Americans were not even recognized as a single entity—we were identified as Arabs, Indo-Pakistanis, Black-Muslims, and Iranian et cetera. I decided to write an op-ed piece for the leading newspaper on the current crisis with Iran as a Muslim-American. Editors rejected my submission. Frustrated, I asked whether The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press would let me purchase an advertisement to publish a statement by a nonprofit group focused on cultural understanding. This turned into a humiliating and costly experience, as they asked for Thirteen Thousand dollars for less than a quarter page editorial. Our shared frustration within the Muslim community, over these refusals to even include our viewpoints, became a springboard for my actions. Americans want to hear from Muslim leaders who condemn violence in the name of our faith—and the vast majority of American Muslims do condemn.
I learned that developing relationships with media professionals is essential if we are to have our voices heard. Next, I naturally moved into civic, interfaith, and political participation, along with building Muslim community organizations. As I recount such memories in my memoir, you’ll find in the twists and turns of my life that these stories represent decades of struggles in America to organize and build an inclusive community. I had never dreamed of doing all this work. We make those accidental turns as we travel through our life journey. We have come a long way since then. Today, the same newspapers that once rejected my submissions out of hand now regularly seek my input. The Detroit News recognized my years of activism with the prestigious ‘2009 Michiganian of the Year Award’—a newspaper that had refused to publish my well written op-ed piece. I have included a copy of that well written editorial in my book.
We have weathered so many crises since the hostages were taken four decades ago. September 11, 2001 was the watershed—it was the first day of a new calendar for all American families, including those like my own, who truly follow the faith of Islam. Soon, our nation would engage in a series of overseas wars. Muslim Americans would be viewed as a suspect community, our constitutional rights violated with impunity in far too many cases.
Muslims like me were catapulted into the role of defending our cherished American values of freedom and equality—on a national stage with extremely high stakes. That certainly wasn’t part of my American Dream when I first set foot on these shores, but life in this turbulent era led me step by step, from one moment to the next, until … until … well, until one day I woke up staring at an entirely new landscape for Muslim-American relations and I found myself, accidentally, in a very public arena. I am proud of how I responded, but this was not the trajectory I had envisioned half a century ago.
In recent years, the barbaric ISIS group rose its ugly head. My wife and I had moved to Florida, to retire. But, the retirement is not happening. Living along Florida’s Treasure Coast today, I began contributing regularly to local newspapers and eventually became a regular guest writer on Muslim issues. I joined the local association of religious leaders. The charged election primaries in 2015 began with the demonization of Muslims and Islam. ISIS-inspired attacks continued. Once again, I have become as busy in Florida as I ever was in Michigan in my work with media and interfaith networks, promoting both peace and accuracy in reporting on Islam.
I cannot retire as an activist. Ominous headlines never seem to stop. In the early hours of June 12, 2016, I woke up to the news of the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 58 others. Hearing the awful news, I prayed: “Lord, let it not be a Muslim!” Eventually, reporters revealed that the shooter was Omar Mateen—a man from our local community. My heart sank!
I asked my wife, “Shahina, what is Brother Siddique Mateen’s son’s name?” She thought it was Omar. We knew his relatives well, although we did not know Omar. I did not want to believe these reports about him! His father, an Afghan immigrant, had been heavily traumatized by the war there. Now, his whole family was in deep shock over Omar’s horrifying crime. National media descended upon our small town. Our mosque leadership, afraid all Muslims would be forced to account for this young man’s rampage, was unprepared to deal with this awful situation and asked me to be their spokesperson.
I was caught in a hurricane, once again. Events beyond our control were suddenly affecting all Muslims by association, especially those who live in Florida. I wrote a guest column in the Treasure Coast Palm newspapers that week, denouncing the crime. I helped organize an interfaith memorial service at the Community Church of Vero Beach and a candlelight vigil at the Riverside Park. These were planned jointly with the LGBTQ community and deeply appreciated by all. A thousand mourners congregated! What I understood so clearly after 9/11 were three simple words: Interfaith activists act!
The most emotional moment of the evening was when Sana Shareef, a Muslim teenager, played the Christian hymn Amazing Grace on her clarinet before I expressed Muslim community’s sadness about the horrific tragedy. I will never forget a gay man who was on stage with me that evening, so overcome by the experience that he reached out and hugged me. Resting his head on my shoulder, he cried.
The Fort Pierce Police Department asked for my help in holding cultural competency training for its officers. The goal was to promote an understanding of Islam and the local Muslim community, in the aftermath of that terrorist attack.
Working with colleagues across this region, my wife and I were able to make a positive difference. Unlike decades ago, news media professionals, political leaders, law enforcement officers and other community leaders have warmly welcomed our efforts. This tells me that Americans are open-minded and accepting of diversity—if only they can get to know their Muslim neighbors—only if we stay active and engaged in our ever-shrinking world.
Activism has increased around the world. On the one hand, this is good news, because it means more people are standing up for others. On the other hand, it is a sign that we have a lot of work to do still. When it comes to interfaith activism, what is, in your opinion, the greatest hurdle for people when it comes to connecting with those outside their faith?
Yes, we have good news and some bad news.
There is much work needed in many other parts of the world like India and China where extremist movements and government actions are causing inter-religious strife. These are some serious challenges we face, and hurdles to overcome. Rather than fading in the years since 9/11, 2018 ushered in a new era of demonizing our neighbors with efforts to establish a Muslim travel ban or add other restrictions based on one’s faith or country of origin. Unfortunately, there are those who will demonize the other for political gain—the study by the bi-partisan think tank, Center for American Progress, in its study: The Fear Inc. has elaborated such threats to pluralism and democratic values.
The bad news is that, while we may have won many cultural contests, we haven’t won the broader campaign to reach a consensus in this country that interfaith diversity is a positive American value.
In the post 9/11 world, because we worked on building interfaith relations, we succeeded in bringing diverse faiths together. I believe that that was due to the efforts of likeminded men and women, working for inclusion. I am deeply troubled that divisionary environment began to deteriorate again in 2015, with the new openness to anti-Muslim voices, and cultural biases burgeoned during the Trump campaign and other efforts from the far right.
These are some of the bad news reports.
The good news is: Interfaith movements in the United States, in Europe, and the Middle East, however, are trying to mend a broken world with compassion and justice and by concrete action. This is the good news. Person by person, friend by friend, good-hearted people can change the world, given the opportunity. In the days immediately after the anti-Semitic murder of 11 Jews in their Squirrel Hill synagogue, Pennsylvania, the Muslim community felt a sense of urgency for building bonds between people of different faiths (including those with no faith, at all). The Jewish community responded with the same spirit in the aftermath of New Zealand mosque shooting. For in doing so, we saw a glimpse of hope of a mended world.
Once again, five years later in 2020, with an increased interfaith cooperation, we feel the environment is getting better due to faith leaders promoting interfaith friendship, in spite divisive politics of the country. We need leadership at all levels to promote and care about unity, however, it is the interfaith leadership that steps up to the challenge of joining our hearts.
Social media is both good and bad news—a double edged sword that can be employed to spread good news bringing people together and spread love, or add to demonization, hate and mistrust. We ought to be wary of the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and even emails for example.
Those who commit acts of violence in the name of their faith create fear and divisions. We need a visible outpouring of interfaith solidarity to make it clear to potential perpetrators that violence was not an acceptable response. The peace “activists” must, first and foremost, act. As important as prayer is in all of our religious traditions, we had to envision ways of working together that go beyond interfaith prayer. We must work to break down the walls that separate us and to educate us about those who might seem so strange at first but might become heart friends if given the chance.
We must invite others who had the same activist passion to take interfaith relationships to a higher level everywhere. If the terrorists and extremists are going to hijack our faiths for violence, we must do the hard organizing and community building to turn people back to our faiths’ deeper roots of love, mercy, justice and peace.
And, conversely, what have you found is the easiest way to engage with the so-called other?
Nothing is easy. Blessed are the peacemakers, but they are not always blessed with an easy job.
In order to bring change, an organized effort is required. Parts of the answer I covered above in my I answers. We need to reach out to one another, get to know your neighbor. A number of interfaith movements, and a large number of religious congregations are including interfaith dialog in their agendas. If this trend continues, the path to know the ‘other’ will become easier.
I may be preaching now, unintentionally. I wrote a book to provide a window into the family, community and spiritual values of ordinary express hostility toward us. One Pew study showed that only about one third of Americans have had meaningful contacts with Muslims. That leaves a majority of Americans more prone to adopting without question the myths and biases so prominent in contemporary media. I hope when people read or hear heartfelt stories of the so-called other, they will discover how much they share.
Divine scriptures all promote diversity and love of the other. However, followers of religions are convinced their truth is the only truth. Why are we listening to our egos instead of our books?
We often only pay superficial attention to our scriptures. If we dive deep into our faith, we will see scriptures preach love and peace in their essence. I often reflect on Rumi’s famous verse about calling people together, no matter what their faith might be. He lists groups that often were considered enemies of one another in the turbulent 13th century. In English, his words are:
Whoever you may be—come!
Even though you may be
An infidel, a pagan, or a fire-worshipper—come!
Ours is not a brotherhood of despair.
Even though you have broken
Your vows of repentance a hundred times--
Every day, millions of American say, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” They are seeking deeper truths. I believe, it is only a minority that places their egos above the yearning of their spirits for love.
Whatever our individual religious traditions may be, consider the fact that the most universal greeting in our world today is still this: “Peace.” Jesus is “Prince of Peace.” One of the 99 names of God, in the Quran, is “Peace.” We may pronounce that word differently: Hindus say shanti; Jews say shalom; Muslims say salam. At the root of who we are, as humans, all of us hope to come together, one day, in peace. We all dream of finding harmony and wholeness.
My faith speaks of a God of the “worlds” with a universal presence. As Muslims, we do not think of Islam as a new religion. We are following God’s timeless calling, as the Quran’s 41:53 states: “We shall show them the signs in the horizons and within themselves until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth.” As we look around and contemplate on the nature, we will see the truth—we are a single humanity on this planet. There is much more commonality in our scriptures than we fathom.
These are some of the words that Muslims can join Jews and Christians in affirming.
God encourages us to reflect on the world’s great waters. The Quran 21:30 states, “We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” In 45:3, the Quran states, “In the heavens and the earth there is evidence for the believers.”
If you are unfamiliar with the Quran, then you may recall these passages from the Bible: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Those are the opening words of Genesis.
Psalms sings of the power of nature to remind us of God. Psalm 90 begins, “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.”
The Quran reminds us of the fleeting nature of this world: “You will think that you lived (in this world) but a short while!” (Quran 17:52)
These words may sound familiar to Jews and Christians. Psalm 90 puts it this way: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past.”
The Quran’s first chapter, Surah al-Fatiha or The Opener, is an appeal for guidance:
In the Name of Merciful Redeemer of Mercy;
Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment;
You alone we worship,
Your aid alone we seek;
Show us the right way; the path of those You favor;
Not of those who earn your displeasure and have gone astray.
That traditional English translation of the Arabic may not sound familiar to Christian readers, so I invite you to ponder a few of the words: “Your aid alone we seek.” Christians pray: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
We pray: “Show us the right way; the path of those you favor, not of those who earn your displeasure and have gone astray.” Christians pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Adding to that, what advice can you give us to surrender spiritual superiority for the greater cause of building loving communities in which all sacred ways are respected?
Extremism in religion is the problem—a cause for divisions. We should find a link as human beings who are not only physical, we are also spiritual. Saying we all worship One God sometimes is not true unity. Yes, we do, but the story is more complicated. We need to respect the spiritual paths people seek in their own individual ways. Yes, we are proud and dedicated to our own faith, but others too also love their faith and equally dedicated. My faith teaches: “There is no compulsion in religion. Quran 2:256”, meaning don’t force anyone away from their chosen path.
The centuries-old Sufi tradition sings hauntingly of that yearning, describing a profound longing for the divine. Spirituality has an important role in the practice of my faith. That’s why am surprised when people tell me, “Victor, you’re a moderate Muslim.” I say, “No, I’m not. I’m a Muslim. I’m an observant Muslim, like most American Muslims. At the moment, our approach to the faith may seem ‘moderate’ to you because of the crazy acts of extremists who have misused the name of our faith.” I go on to explain that I have been inspired by the great Sufi teachers and that I see no barriers that should prevent us from seeing Shia and Sunni Muslims as brothers and sisters.
We fight about God aplenty. How can we set aside theological differences and just be present with one another?
Religion remains a potent force for good—or for political conflict. Community by community, we must decide which path we will take. The good news is that the interfaith movement has become a burgeoning cottage industry. Many public meetings now include interfaith invocations. If we only recognize our own exclusive understanding of an Almighty God, then these inter-religious prayers couldn’t have taken place.
That’s startling to me today, as one of the pioneers who ushered in this movement with the help of my interfaith partners, staring in the nineteen-eighties. We had recognized the need to put our differences aside.
Today, we see advertisements for interfaith comedy shows, interfaith art shows, interfaith concerts and interfaith Habitat for Humanity builds. Theological differences matters little when we do events and projects together.
And finally, tell us why living through our heart is the portal to our individual and collective awakening.
We need to use our personal and social connections to work together. If we do so, as one of my Baptist friends puts it, we become ‘heart friends’.
We can broaden our mission by building relationships among religious leaders, so as to actively engaging entire congregations. Synagogues, churches and mosques members are made up of families, interfaith gatherings in our diverse places of worship would offer opportunities to build friendships. Our goal, and this may be more applicable in an American context, was to extend the benefits of interfaith relationships to the grassroots. And, the outreach must also include those who call themselves ‘nones’, meaning of no faith.
By caring for each other, our hearts would lead to cooperation in multiple ways. A few example of what the Detroit interfaith community was able to do because we cared:
Interfaith blood donation program, interfaith health screening for those who have no health insurance—an initiative of Muslim and Jewish doctors, together with Iraqi Christians, Chaldeans. We really wanted to make a statement—an interfaith statement that, in our city, we’re about working together to better the community.
Even many business entities are finding values in bringing diverse groups together. In 2001, the Ford Motor Company Interfaith Network was established, and its members became staunch supporters of interreligious projects both within the company and in the larger community.
”We have to agree to disagree in a civil way—and remain friends afterward.” That’s a bit of wisdom I will never forget from David Gad-Harf, the public face of southeast Michigan’s Jewish community right after 9/11. During one particular flare-up in Middle East conflict, The Detroit News interviewed both David and me as spokesmen for our respective communities. Just as I expected, David warned me that we would be pulling no punches. “Victor, sometimes our community-relations goals conflict with our respective advocacy needs”.