It’s late Tuesday night at the Paradise Valley Methodist Church Fellowship Center and the congregation of 70 people looks more diverse than usual.
It’s hard not to notice women in headscarves and men with Jewish skullcaps all sitting together. At the front of the room stands a pastor, a rabbi, and an imam.
The event is part of a three-part seminar series hosted by the Salaam Chai Paradise tri-faith fellowship, discussing war and violence in scriptures–a heavy topic–but Imam Anas Hlayhel loves events like these.
“I cannot begin to tell you how much misunderstanding there is about Islam and Muslims,” he says. “One way is to talk to the media, write blogs…but there’s nothing equal to face-to-face discussions to see what they think and feel, because you can always make assumptions…”
Hlayhel may look like a traditional imam with his thick beard and modest clothing until you hear his easy-going personality and clear American accent.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Hlayhel began attending study circles at his local mosque when he was ten. He came to the United States in the late ‘80s at 17 and studied electrical engineering at the University of Houston. Working various jobs during school, Hlayhel learned English and met people from different cultures. He gave his first sermon at a Friday prayer in his university.
Now an Intel engineer, Hlayhel is a part-time imam at the Islamic Center of the Northeast Valley, chairman of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, husband and father of four. A highly sought after speaker in Arizona, he is known as a positive voice for Islam.
“One of the famous misconceptions of Islam, as some people think, is that it’s inherently violent, so I think I have more hard work to do tonight to explain some of the text that you find in the Qur’an,” Hlayhel says, with a nod towards his fellow speakers.
He begins to analyze various chapters in the Qur’an, highlighting key verses that he says are commonly misunderstood.
Hlayhel explains that when people hear the word “jihad,” they think of war and fighting, but the Qur’an says a way to make jihad is with the tongue, by striving hard against people through argumentation and debate.
But Hlayhel wants to avoid being politically correct, saying war is a fact of life and sometimes the only way to relieve oppression.
“Islam didn’t invent war as some people like to think, ” Hlayhel notes, “but Islam did regulate war.”
Imraan Siddiqi, a Muslim in the audience, appreciates Hlayhel’s honesty.
“While we have seen other representatives attempt to beat around the bush, or whitewash the issue-the Imam fulfilled his duty in giving an honest, fair depiction of Islam,” Siddiqi says.
After the imam finishes speaking, a man approaches him with some lingering doubts. He asks about flogging of women in the Middle East because of their dress.
“I don’t mean to put you on the spot,” the man says. “It’s nice we’re talking about all this, but when I see things like that… I just don’t understand it!”
Hlayhel says he doesn’t understand it either and would also like to know why it happens, because no such punishment exists in Islam.
“It used to intimidate me,” he says, after the man leaves, “but after awhile I got used to it. They talk about these things everyday, it’s nothing new. If we’re shocked, then it’s our shortcoming.”
Before moving to Chandler, Arizona six years ago, Hlayhel worked and studied Islam extensively in California, where he obtained a certificate in narration of hadith–a discipline that analyzes prophetic sayings. Because Hlayhel was so concentrated on his studies, he hardly interacted with non-Muslims–something he realized needed to change if he wanted to counter negative perceptions.
“When I came to Phoenix, I thought now I have chance…I’m going to be in a brand new community. I’m going to settle and try to be more beneficial to greater amount of people,” he says.
The community took him up on that offer as soon as people heard him speak for the first time and invitations poured in for lectures, workshops and media segments. Hlayhel’s popularity spread that he’s now on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, though he only likes using the networks to share important news and events and not rattle off what he’s doing all day.
Azra Hussain, CEO of the Islamic Speaker’s Bureau of Arizona, says Hlayhel is one of the three people she reaches out to whenever an event needs a scholar because he’s educated and personable.
Tayyibah Amatullah, office manager of CAIR-AZ, says Hlayhel not only talks about tolerance, but is not afraid to make the first move. When protests started last year over the building of a Phoenix church that some mistook for a mosque, the imam wanted to reach out to the church.
Despite his busy schedule, Hlayhel hopes to improve his role as an interfaith leader in the future.
“My hope is, God willing, the next generation will do much more,” he says, shaking hands with attendees as they say their goodbyes. “I am happy to be part of that beginning.”