University News

‘Activist intellectual’ discusses social change

Staff Writer

“Blessings be upon you all,” began Rami Nashashibi, executive director of the Inner-City Muslim Action Network in Chicago, at the 2012 K. Brooke Anderson Lecture Monday night. IMAN, a community-based nonprofit incorporated in 1997 and based in Chicago, works to foster social justice in urban communities, according to its website.

As an “activist intellectual,” Nashashibi has brought significant social and spiritual change to the youth of southern Chicago, said David Coolidge, the University’s Muslim Chaplain. Nashashibi is the first person he thinks of when he hears the phrase “walk the walk,” Coolidge said.

An activist, scholar, ethnographer and self-described “American Muslim,” Nashashibi was more of an “agnostic activist” than someone who identified with any religion before converting to Islam, he told the lecture audience of more than two dozen adults and students. The Office of the Chaplains and Religious Life selected Nashashibi to speak.

Nashashibi now lectures across the United States and Europe and has been recognized by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for his innovative social activism. He was named one of the “Ten Young Muslims Visionaries Shaping Islam in America” by Islamica Magazine and is among the “Top Ten Chicago Global Visionaries” named by Chicago Public Radio.

Activism has been some of the most difficult, rewarding and “practically empowering” work he has ever done, Nashashibi said. 

IMAN, which means “faith” in Arabic, provides a range of services to the Chicago community, including a “Green Reentry” project that converts foreclosed homes in the South Side into housing for former criminal offenders. Other services include arts spaces for youth, community forums, a health clinic and an annual festival called “Takin’ It To The Streets” that brings musicians, activists and community members together. 

Nashashibi said he viewed his lecture, “Ghetto Cosmopolitanism: Forging a Grassroots Human Rights Agenda,” as an opportunity to unite his academic and activist work. He spoke of faith communities looking for social justice and inner city residents exploring multiple notions of identity. 

IMAN found that it was critical to connect “communities that had very little history of working with each other,” Nashashibi said, mentioning Chicago’s many racial and religious groups. 

Over the last four years, IMAN has compiled a grassroots human rights policy guide that examines legislation on activism issues and grades legislators on how well they have addressed these issues. This guide is then distributed to the legislators, Nashashibi said, and has helped change the language of human rights.

He recalled the tension in the room during one public forum in Chicago after Latinos voiced their thoughts about the black community. He spoke of the “black-brown divide” between the communities and how notions of a certain struggle as a “black issue” or a “Latino issue” can create further divisions.

“Not only did we not know others’ narratives well, we didn’t really know our own narratives,” he said. Nashashibi said he is interested in listening intensely to others’ stories on a personal level — outside the context of the media — and in looking at how transnationalism plays out and can connect communities, creating a network of engagement.

Transnationalism is a powerful idea people tend to forget to talk about, said Janet Cooper Nelson, University chaplain. She said Nashashibi’s lecture was an effective way for people “to be drawn into the discourse.”

Throughout the lecture, Nashashibi stressed the importance of honesty, empathy, trust and challenging “narratives that we’ve internalized about each other.” 

He also emphasized the importance of confronting spiritual, social and political hypocrisy and referenced a speech by Malcolm X that accused America of hypocrisy. He said the speech appealed to  some and felt “blaringly transparent” to others. 

Nashashibi’s lecture was “inspiring” and showed that it is important to see “theory in action,” said Alan Flam, director of advising and community collaborations at the Swearer Center for Public Service.