Muslim journalist answers questions at presentation

Photo by KATHY CLEVELAND Robert Azzi speaks with people after his presentation at the Amherst Town Library last week. The Arab- American Muslim was at the library as part of its “Build A Better World” adult summer series.

AMHERST – Robert Azzi fielded questions about his faith last week, including his favorite: Why hasn’t the Muslim community condemned terrorism?

“I love that question,” the Arab-American Muslim told about three dozen people at the Amherst Town Library. “Every attack has been condemned by Muslims universally. On 9/11, people filled the streets of Tehran chanting, ‘We are Americans.’ “

Azzi’s question-and-answer session was called “Ask a Muslim Anything,” and he encouraged people to say what was on their minds.

“A lot of media and politicians have chosen to ride to glory” on an us-versus-them narrative, Azzi said, and cable TV is more interested in Muslim violence than in violence committed by white supremacists.

Azzi told a story about Muhammad to illustrate the Islamic prophet’s devotion to peace and charity: The prophet would go for a walk with his friends every day, and every day there was a woman who throw trash on him.

“One day she was not there,” Azzi said, “and he went to her house to make sure she was OK.”

No place in the Quran endorses random violence or terrorism, he said, and everywhere in the Quran, when violence is referred to, the context must be considered – when was the verse revealed, and what were the circumstances of the revelation. And in some places as during a battle when violence is mentioned, it can be interpreted as a “rallying of the troops” of a vulnerable people. After the violence of battle, the Quran endorses mercy and forgiveness.

“We know how much violence there is in the Old Testament of the Bible,” he said. “Those who know Christianity know that’s not what Christianity is. “

People in the audience also asked about Muslims’ attitude toward women.

Oppression of women in countries such as Saudi Arab has more to do with tradition and culture than religion, Azzi said.

“I have no patience with the veil,” he said. “If a woman chooses it, I honor her, like a nun, but if she’s forced by her husband or family, I really find that objectionable.”

Among the core values of Islam, he said, are treating each other as you would treat God. Azzi said he agrees with Pope Francis and others who say the God of Islam is the same god as the God of Christians and Jews.

He said he believes in evolution and other scientific concepts.

“I find no contradiction between science and my faith.” Azzi said. “I have a problem with people who say the Earth is 5,500 years old. … One of the great proofs of God is the variety and glory all around us.”

He talked about the difference between Sunni and Shia, which he called differences in authority, not religious practice.

The divisions between the two major denominations of Islam became stronger after the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, Azzi said. Before the invasion, nearly half the population of Baghdad was mixed, with the children of the mixed marriages jokingly referred to as “Sushi.”

“We forced people to take a harder definition. … it was a whole new dynamic,” Azzi said. “We blundered in and exacerbated the tensions.”

Azzi, born to millworkers in Manchester, is a photojournalist, columnist and public speaker.

His work has appeared in Time, Newsweek, National Geographic and Fortune. He has been a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University, a member of the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, an adviser to Tufts University’s Fletcher School committee on Islam and Southwest Asia and recently became a board member of ACLU-NH.

Azzi has lived in Beirut; Cairo; Athens; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and New York. In Amherst, he was asked what was the most accepting place he ever lived, and he said Beirut. The Lebanon capital was “amazing. No one cared about your ethnic or religious identity,” he said.

The most unaccepting place? His email, where he regularly receives hate mail.

He called the Amherst gathering of about three dozen people a blessing. As for people who send him hate mail, he wondered, “Why can’t the creeps come out of their basements and come face to face?”

Azzi writes a column for the Portsmouth Herald, and he criticized the paper in 2008 for distributing an anti-Barack Obama DVD that emphasized the then-candidate’s “otherness” by showing scenes of angry mobs.

“For Muslims … it was like a cross burning on the lawn,” he said.

Azzi’s presentation was part of the library’s adult summer reading series called “Build a Better World.” The night before, he talked in Wilton, and his next one was scheduled for Bethlehem. By September, he will have participated in 26 of them, he said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or