Wise up Aims to End Extremism with Knowledge

At the National Liberty Museum last December, Tarek El-Messidi noted that since September 11, 2001, 11 people have been killed by Muslim extremists on U.S. soil, compared to about 60 killed by toddlers with a gun. Add that statistic to the fact that, according to El-Messidi, five percent of all medical doctors in the U.S. are Muslim (not to mention thousands of nurses). Just by the math here in the States, you are far more likely to have a Muslim save your life than you are to have a Muslim attack you.

It was a fitting message for the Philadelphia town hall celebrating the launch of a groundbreaking report from the Women’s Islamic Institute in Spirituality & Equality (WISE): WISE Up: Knowledge Ends Extremism.

The rigorously researched 375-page report, with contributions from more than 70 scholars, Imams, activists and specialists (both Muslim and non-Muslim), helmed by WISE executive director Daisy Khan, fights Islamophobia and extremism with experience, knowledge and good judgment. It demonstrates that the American Muslim community is collectively speaking out against all forms of hate, including Islamophobia and terrorism.

El-Messidi, a Muslim American social entrepreneur and activist whose parents are from Egypt, was born in Texas and raised in Tennessee, now he calls Philly home. He founded CelebrateMercy in 2010, and since then, has become a powerhouse fundraiser for causes across the country. His biggest splash on the local radar so far may have been a crowdfunding campaign (in which he teamed up with Women’s March on Washington leader Linda Sarsour) which raised more than $130,000 within days. Originally for a Jewish cemetery desecrated in St. Louis in early 2017, the additional funds made their way to the repair of an attack on hundreds of tombstones in Philly’s own Mt. Carmel Jewish cemetery—a unifying feat that made international headlines. At the WISE Up launch, El-Messidi accepted a WISE Up Heroes award from Khan and Majid Alsayegh, chair of the Dialogue Institute, which co-sponsored the event along with the Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies.

In his welcoming remarks on December 3, Alsayegh said holding the WISE Up report’s official launch in Philadelphia wasn’t an accident. He reveres the U.S. Constitution, although he remarks, its “ideals [were] not all followed 100 percent.” Khan agreed that holding the event in Philly, before a series of town halls scheduled nationwide, was a symbolic act.

The event also welcomed Pennsylvania entrepreneur Paul Nasrani, of Adirondack Creamery, who said he’s descended from America’s newest and oldest immigrants. His dad arrived from India in the 1960s; but go 13 generations back on his mom’s side, and you’ll find the original Pilgrims. He said, all people worried about violent extremism, Islamophobia, or any other issue can make some stand in their own personal or professional lives, no matter how small.

Nasrani’s own effort is a specialty ice cream flavor, Syrian Date & Walnuts, is currently working its way into South Jersey freezers after launching in New York. Nasrani estimated that it’ll be available through Whole Foods and Fresh Direct in Philly within the next six months. He offered town hall attendees a sample, and you’re going to want some. This treat is inspired by Ma’amoul (a shortbread pastry with dates and nuts), a favorite at holiday celebrations of Syrian Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities. 50 percent of the profits from the flavor are going to the International Rescue Committee.

Khan led a brief overview of WISE Up, which emphasizes that Muslims are not new to America. For example, in 1779, a Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was designed to protect all faiths, including, “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan [Muslim].”

The book’s first section is a history of Islam, and the challenges facing American Muslims. It also profiles 35 notable American Muslims, including Dave Chappelle, Fareed Zakaria, Hasan Minaj, Huma Abedin, Keith Ellison, Khaled Hosseini and Mos Def.

The report’s middle portion is dedicated to explaining the profound difference between genuine Islamic theology and extremist ideology.

“Extremists have hijacked the religion of Islam,” Khan said, just as “any religion can be hijacked.”  

The report’s third and final section is devoted to understanding extremist recruitment and early intervention. Thanks to the work of more than 20,000, mostly woman hours, Khan said, the report details every step of the ISIS recruitment process and how to combat it, and reveals the group’s sway as a true “branded organization” with expert marketing, PR, and social media strategies.

“ISIS claims to ‘Make Islam Great Again,’” Khan warned, with a campaign of exploitation and violence bearing no relation to the actual doctrine of the Quran.

And according to Khan, we should bear in mind that Muslims themselves suffer the most from terrorism, making up about 86 percent of its victims worldwide today.

WISE’s immediate goals include presenting its research at a bipartisan Congressional meeting in early 2018, and holding Town hall dialogues around the country (with the help of local Muslim/interfaith partners). It also wants to raise enough money to distribute 5,000 copies of the report for free, putting it into the hands of mass media influencers, think tanks, academics, and public officials, including all 535 members of the United States Congress.

If that piques your interest, keep an eye out, because Khan said she’d like to bring more Wise Up town halls to Philly.