By Alex Ortiz
It didn’t take long for Dr. Sabeel Ahmed to feel unwelcome when he immigrated to the United States from India at 17. During his first gym class, students spat on him because he is Muslim. He was called into the principal’s office to tell who did it, but when asked if they should be punished, he said ‘No.’
Ahmed made it through those tough times, and made it to medical school, eventually settling in Skokie as a family doctor. Like so many Americans, his life changed on 9/11 as the need to educate people about the true nature of Islam became necessary, as it once was in that gym class.
That day in 2001, Ahmed was working at a hospital when some of his colleagues asked him about what was happening. Ahmed realized then the news was not the best educational source about Islam, and there would be a backlash. And he knew the attacks only confirmed many Americans’ suspicions of Muslims. He said then as he says now: “You know there are good and bad in the followers of any faith. Let’s not judge the faith of Islam by what some misguided Muslims may have done or are doing.”
“You know there are good and bad in the followers of any faith. Let’s not judge the faith of Islam by what some misguided Muslims may have done or are doing.” — Dr. Sabeel Ahmed
Ahmed hung up his stethoscope and now travels the world educating Muslims and non-Muslims about Islam through the non-profit organization he founded, Gain Peace. His work has led him to almost 30 states and nearly 15 countries.
He and a few staffers and volunteers work under the umbrella of Islamic Circle of North America, an organization that focuses on education, outreach and social services in Muslim communities and beyond. They distribute English versions of the Quran and field thousands of questions from callers about Islam.
Ahmed is always insistent that every question is answered.
On Thursday at the Downtown Islamic Center on State Street, Ahmed spoke to about 30 suburban high school freshmen learning about human geography and Islam. After a short introduction, Ahmed opened the floor to questions, most of which were about basic aspects of Islam: “What time of the day do you pray? Do you have to fast all the time? Why were there only men praying in the room?”
Then the conversation turned more ominous. One of the students asked why Muslim women are mistreated. This was one of those opportunities Ahmed looks for to dispel misconceptions about his religion. He tried to make the point that violence is not something specific to Islam. The conversation then evolved into one about extremism.
“Does the KKK represent Christianity?” he asked the students.
“Heck no,” one student responded.
These misconceptions are nothing new. Ahmed remembered during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, people speculated if Muslims were responsible. So the reactions to 9/11 were no surprise, either.
“We kind of knew that was going to happen again, regardless of who did it,” he said. “So mentally, we were ready for it.”
Co-workers marvel at Ahmed’s compassion.
“He’s so passionate,” said Basit Shaikh, a Gain Peace volunteer. “The logics that he uses, the references that he uses in his speeches, they make so many understand.”
It has not always been easy work. There have been times when skeptical non-Muslims ask him awkward and even accusatory questions. In early October, Ahmed spoke at an open house at a Bolingbrook mosque. He answered questions from curious attendees, including one about combating the radicalization of young Muslims.
He was asked, “What do you guys have in place to monitor your kids and ensure that this radical jihadism does not creep into them and into their lives?”
The question came in part due to an incident in 2014 when a 19-year-old Muslim man, Mohammed Hamzah Khan, and his two younger siblings from Bolingbrook were stopped before boarding a plane to begin their journey to Syria and join ISIS. Khan and his family prayed at one of the mosques in Bolingbrook, but he was radicalized online by ISIS recruiters.
While this incident made some locals nervous, Ahmed was insistent on putting the issue of extremism in Islam in context.
“Violence is a global problem,” Ahmed told the crowd. “Not just a Muslim problem.”
He talks to his own kids about the Quranic teachings against violence. He thinks the threat from Muslims has been exaggerated by the news. According to an FBI study of terrorism on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005, extremists who identified as Muslim accounted for only 6 percent of attacks.
Ahmed also stresses it is important to know what the root causes for extremism are.
“The extremism that we see is an extreme reaction to extreme oppression that Muslims feel,” Ahmed said. “It’s a human reaction. It’s not just a Muslim reaction to oppression and loss of life and innocent kids getting destroyed.”
As many times he is asked awkward questions, there are many others that come from a genuine desire to learn. That day, the open house in Bolingbrook was supposed to end at 6 p.m. and he was there answering questions until 7:30. It’s at times thankless work, but he still feels compelled to defend his faith.
“The money is not there,” he said. “But the need is there.”