Robert Azzi wants you to understand what it means to be a Muslim

  • Robert Azzi holds his prayer beads during his “Ask a Muslim Anything” session last month. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Saturday, November 03, 2018

Robert Azzi maneuvered a string of black coral beads through the fingers of his left hand and hit the table in the empty classroom with his right.

The beads provided comfort, rubbing softly against his skin. The contact with the desk was done with controlled power, hard enough to hear later on my recorder, yet soft enough to suggest restraint.

Call it a civilized exclamation point. It’s the way Azzi, a Lebanese-American Muslim, journalist and lecturer, believes he must live his life.

It’s also why he asked me my religion, and when I answered Jewish, it’s why he cited a Jewish mass-
murderer named Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers as they prayed at a mosque nearly 25 years ago.

“When Baruch Goldstein
... killed ... Muslim worshippers, did people come to you and say as a Jew you have to condemn that act of terrorism?” Azzi asked. “Of course not, because they know that Judaism doesn’t sanction that. But every time there’s a Muslim killing, people want me to own it.”

Azzi, who is 75 and lives in Exeter, is on a mission. Soon after our meeting, he’d address a classroom full of people at the Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham, part of his “Ask a Muslim Anything” program. He visits libraries, schools, churches, synagogues, Rotary clubs – any place he can explain to people why pre-judging his religion and those who follow it is, well, prejudicial and harmful to everything this country is supposed to stand for.

His willingness to explain something that makes people uncomfortable, to take questions, hard questions, sometimes insulting questions, without turning defensive is why Azzi will receive the First Amendment Award, presented by the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications, on Nov. 15 at the Palace Theatre in Manchester.

The award is named after the wife of the Manchester Union Leader’s late publisher, William Loeb, an ultra-conservative Republican whose stinging attacks on liberals (and some Republicans) made national news.

This was not lost on Azzi, who grew up in Manchester reading Loeb’s sardonic far-right editorials.

“I’m really touched and honored,” Azzi said. “I always found a publisher who was opposed to everything I believe in, and to come this far from the 1950s and ‘60s and honor a Muslim who writes about progressive issues might have been inconceivable.”

Azzi hopes his openness and candor, his effort to put a face and a voice and a mind to Islam, will help calm irrational fears that people at airports automatically feel when they see someone in a certain style of clothing. Like a headdress.

Go ahead, Azzi says. Ask him anything you want, because there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Not when he’s trying to set the record straight on a religion he says is one of peace, not violence.

“Everything is fair,” Azzi said. “If it’s on your mind, it’s fair.”

Ironically, Azzi’s background reads like a great American story, the one with the spirit of a jam-packed boat moving into New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty lighting the way.

His parents were immigrants from Lebanon, with his father first arriving here in 1910. Mom and dad settled in Manchester and worked in shoe shops.

As a kid, Azzi said he was called names like rag head and camel jockey, but insisted that it was all in good fun. Kid stuff.

“It was at a time when everyone had a name for everyone else,” Azzi said.

He worked the graveyard shift as a roving frame tender, spinning yarn, eating dust, thinking about the future.

“The filthiest job I ever had,” Azzi told me.

He was schooled in the Manchester public school system. He lived with family in Beirut, where he took photos for heavyweights like Time and Newsweek. He’s been an educational adviser on all things Middle East, at schools like Phillips Exeter Academy and Tufts University.

He currently writes columns for three state newspapers, including the Monitor, and his words there and in his “Ask a Muslim Anything” forums have helped bridge a gap that’s widened since the Trump administration began banning people from specific Middle Eastern countries.

And that gap, Azzi says, needs narrowing.

“Al-Qaida and ISIS will find specific portions of the Quran and distort it and twist it to create political justification for their actions,” Azzi said. “But people are not going to act politically who are not very literate, so this gives them a reason for doing it, by giving it a religious meaning so you are acting on God’s behalf.”

Azzi continuously reminded me that Muslims have been in this country for centuries, that the Sept. 11 hijackers were not Americans, that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, meaning a tiny percentage of them kill.

“You’re talking maybe 30,000,” Azzi said. “Say 50,000, say 100,000, say a million, and that would still be less than 10 percent. People are willing to be scared.”

He says mass killings by the far right and far left and every slot in between are rarely linked to a particular segment of society like Muslims are.

Take Dylann Roof, for example, who killed nine black people in a South Carolina church.

“That wasn’t done by a foreigner,” Azzi points out. “Dylann Roof looks like us.”

In a strange twist, Azzi is often the one who’s called a racist, and, through his “Ask a Muslim Anything” tour plus his newspaper columns, his views and words are omnipresent, easily critiqued, parsed, placed under a microscope.

He’s been called anti-Semitic because he supports the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories, saying they’re being treated unjustly and cruelly.

And his defense of Islam certainly doesn’t go over well with people who associate the religion with the Twin Towers and beheadings on TV.

Hugh Fitzgerald, a writer for the online magazine Jihad Watch, has hounded Azzi in print, wondering in one piece why Azzi would equate Islamic fundamentalism with Christian fundamentalism.

“Where are the tens of thousands of victims of Christian Fundamentalism all over the world?” Fitzgerald asks in a recent column. “Just as important, where are the Biblical texts that command Christians to wage war on all non-Christians, to ‘kill them wherever you find them,’ to ‘smite at their necks,’ to ‘strike terror in their hearts?’ ”

Azzi scoffs at the mere mention of Fitzgerald. First off, he doesn’t even believe the man is real. He’s checked online and says he can’t find him.

“This is reporting by a person who doesn’t exist, and I would eat my words (if he does),” Azzi told me. “I have Googled and his work has only appeared in two or three places. This is not journalism. Journalists call me and follow up.”

As for Fitzgerald’s claim, Azzi says those words were taken out of context. He says that’s the problem much of the time when he’s attacked verbally.

“The guy was taking a phrase, ‘kill them wherever you find them,’ but this was in the middle of a war,” Azzi responded, “and they were outnumbered and overrun and massacred.”

The interview lasted about 90 minutes. Azzi gave long, often tangential responses. The black beads sliding through his fingers and the table hitting never left the classroom. At least not for long.

He talked about murder – committed by different people with different backgrounds at different times – coming in cycles, portrayed like momentum shifts in a ballgame.

“From 9/11 to Orlando, more Americans were killed by white supremacists than were by Muslims,” Azzi said. “Then, after Orlando, the Muslims got a bump. Then, after Las Vegas, the white guys were back on top again.”

He’s never felt threatened but says he’s received some vile messages, adding that he’s given some to the police for documentation purposes. He calls people who don’t face him with their views, who criticize without showing up to one of his workshops, “cowards.”

The Stratham audience was made up of middle-aged people and seniors, about 25 in all. They were inquisitive, articulate and prepared.

They wanted to know what Jihad meant. They were curious about how the schism between Sunni and Shia evolved. And what about the treatment of Muslim women and Iran’s creed to destroy Israel and what they saw as violent messages in the Quran?

A man in the back, who would not give me his name later in the parking lot, said Azzi’s view that we were wrong to invade Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction “lacked perspective. You skipped a lot of time,” he noted.

Azzi stood up front, leaning against a podium, a scarf around the collar of his sports coat, looking comfortable in jeans and loafers, his trademark walrus mustache extra silvery under the room’s bright lights.

He defended Islam all the way, citing that there are sanctions for committing murder, and those who kill are condemned to hell and not turned into martyrs.

The beads were still snaking through his fingers, comforting him. He chose not to hit the podium with his other hand. That was done in private.

“Nowhere in the Quran,” Azzi said, “is there legitimacy for killing, period.”