This interview is part of the Young Muslim American Voices Project, a CAP project launched late last year that seeks to strengthen the voices and visibility of young Muslim American leaders.
Mohamad A. Chakaki is a doctoral student in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT and a senior fellow at the Environmental Leadership Program. He received a master’s degree in urban ecology and environmental design from Yale University, and has worked in parks and gardens throughout the country, as well as with the Peace Corps in Cameroon and the United Nations in Syria. Most recently, he consulted on environment and community development projects in the Arab Middle East.
Last week he spoke with Sally Steenland, Center for American Progress Senior Policy Advisor for Faith and Progressive Policy, about the environment and nature’s importance, the Green Muslims, social justice issues, and the challenges and opportunities facing young Muslim Americans today.
Sally Steenland: I’d like to start off by asking you a question about identity—how you see yourself and how others see you. You have worked in the Peace Corps; you were a gardener at the National Arboretum; you taught in a public charter school in Washington, D.C.; you were one of the founders of Green Muslims; and you’re now in a Ph.D. program at MIT. All of these things are part of you. Can you talk about your identity as a Muslim American, as well as the identity that gets thrust on you by others?
Mohamad Chakaki:Identity and culture are fascinating, and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about them. I am an American Muslim. I am also an Arab American. My parents are Syrian. Growing up I went to an Arabic and Islamic school and, maybe like a lot of other young people, I was growing up in a bubble. I didn’t realize how American I was. It took the Peace Corps and coming up against a third culture that wasn’t American, Muslim, or Arab, that helped me resolve my identity as something that is maybe both American and Muslim—throwing Arab in there as well. But also something that is maybe none of those. And that comes out of the second part of your question—the times when identity is thrust on you. I remember a couple of incidents in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was abroad during 9/11.
I remember people asking me, “How can you be named Mohamad and be an American?” “How does it feel to have your country at war with your religion?” Those are the times when identity is thrust on you, and I feel implicit to some of those questions are people saying you can’t be both [American and Muslim]—that these are mutually exclusive.
My answer obviously is no. It has taken some maturing to understand all this. I think increasingly my answer is not good enough. By saying I can be both American and Muslim, I’m reinforcing, even if subtly, the fact that these are mutually exclusive. I am an American. I am also Muslim. I happen to be Arab, male, a brother, a son, a husband. [My identity] is multifaceted. It is all of those things.
S:I want to ask about your environmental work because that is so much of what you do. You say that growing up, you had an enormous interest in nature, in the ocean, in the land. Then when you lived in a city, you experienced urban life. Can you talk about what we call the environment? Maybe you didn’t use that word—maybe you used “place” or “the earth,” or something else. But how did that sense develop within you and where did it lead?
M:What is at the center of this for me is the belief that we are all born close to nature, that in fact we are nature. People do not develop an interest in nature—we are actually born with it. What is concerning is how do we learn not to be interested in the world around us—to be disconnected from it. I had the luxury of not having learned that lesson along the way. It does have something to do with where you grow up and how much exposure you have gotten. As studies in environmental psychology show, there is this age range—midchildhood, from 6 to 12—that is really important in forming this deep bond with the natural world in the way we will remember. We carry those memories with us, even into adulthood, and draw on them.
For me, those ages were split. From 6 to 8 I was in Saudi Arabia, where I was born. My parents immigrated to the Persian Gulf area, and I grew up playing on the sand and surf. My dad would take me to the other side of the Arabian Peninsula—the Red Sea—and I remember swimming among brightly colored fish and coral. And then at 8, my family immigrated to the United States and we moved to the suburbs of northern Virginia. I spent the rest of middle childhood playing on the edges of Eastern forests, with deciduous [trees]. And so I carry both landscapes within me. They have had a profound impact on the work I am doing today, on my identity, and I draw on them on for strength, for inspiration, for peace.
S:Your interest in the environment has led to some concrete things, one of which is Green Muslims. Can you tell us about Green Muslims—what the organization is and what it does?
M:There are two points to clarify. I didn’t start Green Muslims. It is an organization as much as it is an idea. There were a handful of us in D.C. who came together around this notion. It started as a larger conversation with some American Muslims across the United States about bringing together what our faith inspires us to do, and our environmental interests.
But that didn’t gain any traction as a national effort. And so those of us in the D.C. area decided to start local and do work that was relevant to our lives and the place we were living in. Because we were young urban professionals and D.C. can be a very transient city, we were looking for ways to reconnect to each other and to Washington as a place.
That started during Ramadan, which is a fasting period for Muslims. Our point was, since we were paying so much attention to what was in our body and our spiritual state, why not think about where some of that food comes from when we are breaking our fast? We did something called a Green Iftar, which is the breaking of fast at sundown. We made sure that the food was wholesome—organic if we could, local if we could—and that we commuted to the dinner in a way that was sustainable.
That was our first meeting, and there were about a dozen of us. At the next “green dinner,” as we started to call them, we got double that amount. In the dinner after that, we had to hold it at the Josephine Butler Parks Center in Washington, D.C., which is the headquarters of the Washington Parks and People. We established a relationship with them and started to go to the park in Northeast Washington—Marvin Gaye—that they were working on. During green dinners we would take up issues like water, food, urban space, and oceans.
That is how an idea—what it means to be both green and Muslim—took off. It is a network that still growing. Some of us who originally co-founded it have moved away, but it has inspired other groups across the country—seeing what we had been doing and blogging about it. But it certainly hasn’t been the first effort, either. There have been thinkers and activists writing about Islam and the environment here in the United States as well as abroad for a very long time.
S:Can you talk about that connection? The historical and theological connection between Islam and the environment, reverence for nature, and the importance of being good stewards and caring for the planet?
M:It is interesting that you used the word “steward.” That comes out of a biblical tradition, but it also echoes a concept in the Koran, which is the Muslim holy scripture. In Arabic, the concept is khilafa—it is actually where the word caliph comes from. And it means to be a steward or trustee. And so there is that same notion of humanity being stewards for God’s creation.
But with that comes a heavy burden—the trust to be carried. In fact, the Koran says that the responsibility for stewardship and trusteeship was offered to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but those creatures refused to bear it because it was too heavy. Instead, humanity took it on. So as the Koran states it, we are responsible for the earth in a way that if we are centered and whole, so is the rest of the world. If we are not, corruption and mischief spreads in the land and sea. And here I am quoting also from the Koran. It spreads because of what our hands have wrought there.
The inspiration also comes from nature. This is where it is interesting. [Islam] is not as anthropocentric, centered around humans as it seems. Muslims see plants and animals much like other faith traditions, especially indigenous traditions, as being fellow worshipers or seekers. They are in this constant state of remembrance, so that we can go back to nature to reinspire us—to be whole again. Those are all Koranic concepts around faith and the environment.
S:This reminds me of other connections you make. You talk about reverence for nature, the psychological importance of being connected to the earth and to the physical world. You also say that your interest and concern for the environment is very closely connected to your interest in social justice issues and that the two can’t be separated.
M:Yes, they are connected. It starts with the psycho-spiritual, the internal world. It reverberates outward into the social and communal, and then beyond that to the natural world around us. You can think of these as concentric circles.
The Koran states that no change comes into the world, or among people, until they change inwardly. The first locus of change, whether issues are social or ecological, is within. And then from that, we can come together and find justice socially and communally. That will pave the way for environmental or ecological justice. You can’t have one without the other. We can’t pretend to skip over social justice issues to take on environmental issues, as if they aren’t connected.
There is a longstanding environmental justice movement within the United States and internationally, where we see environmental health issues, issues around poverty and the environment in that holistic way.
S:I want to follow up about being disconnected and fragmented. That links to your talking about false opposites and the boundaries we set up. You say that nature doesn’t know political borders—we are the ones who do that. We say, there is nature and there is culture. There is east, there is west. There is me, there is you. There is humanity and there is the other. Can you talk about that?
M:It connects directly to this fragmented way of seeing the world. [Categories] are useful. You can’t deny that in some ways we are different than plants and animals. But sometimes tools of knowing the world and studying it can outlive their usefulness—or be put to ill use. When dichotomies or opposites become so entrenched that we think of them as stable and unchanging—that what we call east will always be east and what we call west will be west—we get into trouble.
When I talk about the identities I carry within, they are not mutually exclusive. If we think that, it means we can never understand the other. We will never understand nature. We will never understand easterners. Men will never understand women, and vice versa.
Instead, what I think is true is that although there are opposite ends of the spectrum, in the middle the lines blur. There is a blur between nature and culture, city and nature, east and west. If we pretend it’s not there, then we miss everything that’s happening in that gray area. And what’s even more concerning is that we may create, or feed, a more fragmented way of seeing. After a while, you can work your way into thinking that is the way the world is, and you design a world around it.
S:I want to ask you about the Ph.D. program you are in at MIT. You are studying urban environmental design. Can you talk about the work you are doing now and the work you hope to do?
M:It comes out of what we were just discussing and is also a program for Islamic architecture, or the study of architecture and urbanism in the Muslim world. I am also grappling with the east/west divide, as well as the city and nature divide, that environmental designers and planners are working on. There is a strong cultural component to the program, as well as architectural. It’s a Ph.D. program, so it is training me to be an academic, a writer, and a thinker. But I am also interested in staying grounded in practice and working on projects, whether here in the United States or in the Middle East.
I have had the fortune to be able to work in both those contexts, such as community forestry efforts in Jordan and public schools in D.C. I have also worked with a community-based Muslim school in the D.C. area, and done some work in the Persian Gulf. That’s probably where my focus will be—on [expanding] American and European universities or opening satellite campuses in the Middle East. And trying to understand what those efforts mean—culturally, as well as architecturally and ecologically—for the places that are being built.
S:We are almost one week into a new year, and as you look to 2010 and beyond, can you share what some of your concerns are? The things you worry about, that occupy your mind? After that, I want to know what gives you hope.
M:So you want me to start with the bad news. Then we will end with the good news.Part of what is on my mind is what’s in the news. I will be traveling internationally this weekend. I am going on a class trip to India and can’t help but think of what we are hearing in terms of profiling and airline security. I connect that to larger debates in terms of Muslim Americans in particular, but I think of all Americans, with issues of civil liberties. My wife is a human rights and civil liberties lawyer so we talk about this as it is relevant to her work and our lives.
A personal concern is: am I going to get patted down as I go through the airport? I have gone through these things before. I actually had to write to my congressman. My worry is that the more we talk about extremism and radicalization—these terms are very polarizing—that young American Muslims and also young Americans will believe that this is reality. Those in angst or struggling emotionally, like all youth can, [will see] these stereotypes in the media actually become a reality for them. That is one of my concerns. [Another concern has been] around transportation security issues and what came out of the Fort Hood shootings last year, and people making statements like “going Muslim.”
I would add that obviously there are environmental challenges that in some way dwarf these issues. If we don’t get it together on issues like climate change, food, and water, we are going to have a lot bigger things to worry about. That might not happen over the course of the year but increasingly it is becoming a reality.
S: We will ruin our planet.
M: Yes—and there will be people who won’t be able to adapt as well as others. That is where the social justice issue comes in. The poorest countries will have to deal with that.
S:And what gives you hope?
M:Young people give me hope—children. I am a teacher as well. Nature gives me hope. I think that we still carry those young people within us, those children that were connected and whole and saw the world in a way that was refreshingly open and honest. And so my hope is in all of us that we still carry those children and nature within.
S: Let me ask you to paint a picture in terms of the renewal and nourishment of nature. You are living in Cambridge [Massachusetts] now, and being connected with nature can revive you. What do you do? Do you go for a walk in the park? Do you go by the Charles?
M: I am really lucky to have this beautiful view. As we speak, I am looking out onto a frozen Charles River. I can step out of my door and walk along Memorial Drive next to the Charles. My wife and I make a point of going to gardens and parks here in Cambridge and Boston.
Stepping away from my books is also very important to clear my mind. Funnily enough, I learned that when I was studying for a master’s in environmental management. I took a few courses on environmental psychology and design and learned about how important nature is for our own cognitive development and performance. So yes, there are simple things. Just looking out the window is sometimes enough.
And then there are other times when you need a more direct connection and contact. There is the spiritual side as well. As in the biblical tradition, there is a book of nature and a book of scripture. So I find peace and solace in meditating and praying. I think the line blurs between the spiritual and nature. That is where you go.
S: Safe travels. And thank you so much for talking with us.
M:Be well and happy new year.
Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.
More on this topic:
- Video: Young Muslim American Voices Interviews Mohamad Chakaki
- Young Muslim American Voices Are More Important Now than Ever by Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Sally Steenland, Marta Cook, and Eleni Towns
- Young Muslim American Voices Call for Inclusion and Respect by Sally Steenland