Shaykh Yasir Fahmy wants to make America great. And he is challenging the members of his flock to help him do it by living up to the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
“That is what our religion calls us to,” Fahmy said during a recent sermon at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, where he is the senior imam.
“It calls us to care genuinely about the well-being of every single one of the members of our society, with deep love, with deep sincerity, with deep empathy, with deep compassion and with deep mercy.”
“That,” Fahmy preached, “is a pathway towards making America great.”
Fahmy, who retains the accent of his native New Jersey and wears traditional Islamic-style robes and a skull cap, recognizes that these are times of real fear and anxiety for many Muslims in America.
But he says this is no time for followers of Islam in the US to circle the wagons and hunker down.
“Our notion of justice and mercy is not about the self,” the imam said during an interview at his office in the mosque.
“It’s not about just Muslims being OK, but it’s more about living prophecy and trying to live prophetically in society.”
Fahmy wants the members of his congregation to help build stronger connections with the wider community, including the non-Muslim majority population of Boston. To that end, he is doing things like opening the doors of the mosque in the Roxbury neighborhood for a town hall meeting held on a recent Friday night.
The guest of honor at the public gathering in late February was Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, who has become an outspoken ally of Fahmy and the Islamic Society of Boston.
“Salaam aleikum,” Walsh greeted the standing-room-only crowd.
“I want to offer peace to all of you of different faiths,” he said.
The mayor spent more than two hours taking questions from audience members, most of which were about how President Donald Trump’s Jan. 25 executive order barring refugees and citizens from a handful of Muslim-majority nations might impact Boston residents and their families and friends.
Walsh said he wholeheartedly opposed Trump’s January executive order that initiated the travel ban.
“When I went to grammar school in 1971 and 1972, if this same order came down, you know something? My mother wasn’t a citizen at that point. She had a green card. So, I’d be afraid,” Walsh said.
“I think that what’s happened is that there’s been this broad brush painted that every Muslim is a terrorist,” he told me.
“We all have people in all our faiths that might not be law abiding. But you don’t paint the whole community that way because of certain individuals,” said Walsh, who is Catholic.
But many Americans still have their suspicions.
Half of the white Catholics surveyed in a recent Pew Research poll said they supported Trump’s travel ban. And just over three-quarters of the white Protestants polled said they supported the ban.
“There is a legitimate fear with Islamic terrorism,” says Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church outside of Atlanta, which he describes as a solidly conservative congregation of mostly Republican voters.
“Sadly, that fear has just multiplied here in our culture, and obviously it’s a political hot potato in regards to ... Donald Trump,” Wright says. “He built a lot of his campaign related to that fear.”
Wright says he fully understands that politicians have a solemn responsibility to keep the country safe. But he is no fan of the travel ban.
He and his congregation have been helping several Muslim refugee families from Syria settle in the Atlanta area, along with two Christian families from Iran. He concedes that there are profound differences between his own Christian faith and Islam.
But he says he wishes that more of his fellow Christians were willing to reach out and connect with their Muslim neighbors.
“It’s a disappointment that so many Christians in the pews of our churches have been letting fear kind of guide their actions rather than the fact that Christ commands us to love our neighbor,” he says.
When Shaykh Fahmy delivered his last Friday sermon in February, he borrowed a phrase from President Trump.
“Brothers and sisters, if we want to make America great, then we have to heed the guidance of the Prophet [Muhammad],” Fahmy said.
He said it is important to shed light on the examples of injustice and oppression in the US. But Fahmy added that it will also be vital for the congregation to respond to adversity with love and compassion.