Hi Reza. Tell me your story.
My name is Hajj Reza Nikumanesh. I’m the son of my parents. My father came to this country as a teenager, so I grew up in an immigrant household. What that means is you’re kind of trying to basically straddle between being enough of one thing or not too much of another. You’re told a lot of things like keep your head down and just work hard and do good and everything will be all right. We grew up in a household that didn’t really promote being active or making waves, and that didn’t really sit well with me. When I started to come into my early teens, things were happening around the world. Desert Storm was happening and that was shaking me. Mahmoud Abdulra, not that long after, is kicked out of the league because he’s not standing for an anthem. And I read the autobiography of Alhaj Malikil Shabbaz, the biography of Brother Malcolm X. These things, they start to touch me, influence me, push me to think about the world in a different way. I got into activism just because I was asked to show up at a march or asked to show up at a rally.
The particular first rally that I showed up for was around releasing Mumia Abu Jamal from death row. Obviously that still hasn’t happened all these years later. But there I showed up and I started to think about things in a different light. All of a sudden there’s these rallies around Palestine and what’s going on there. I’m getting involved, getting active, getting activated, and then I go through my studies, become who I am, get into my role, helping lead an Islamic center. And then I was approached by these two organizers, they kind of challenged me because here I was thinking I was an organizer because I was organizing rallies and protests, not understanding what organizing really was. And they started to ask me questions, and through those questions brought me into what then was called Faith in Community in Fresno, California, since merged with four other chapters to become Faith in the Valley, which is a Faith in Action Federation. And then that just took me off.
What was it like seeing what was happening with Mahmoud in basketball and stuff like that? How old were you when that happened?
So I’m talking late high school and possibly early college years. But it impacted me heavily because I can remember as early as 8th grade not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem at my school because I didn’t feel right about it. Not because I was driven by my faith or anything like that, but because I didn’t feel right about it. And then when the Gulf War took off, when I was in 9th grade, I guess, or 10th grade, seeing people stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of our class and we actually had TVs. So we were in class watching those missiles fly into targets, and it was disgusting to me, period. I hated it. I felt like people were celebrating the destruction of my people. So it was tough for me. But to see somebody like Mahmoud Abdul rahu, who was in line with the Muhammad Ali’s and the Jim Browns, the athlete activists, being able to stand up and make a change and fight and push and pride and ask the questions that needed to be asked and give answers that needed to be answered.
He did what nobody else was willing to do. I know it was said before, “he’s the Kaepernick, before there was a Kaepernick,” but imagine he’s at a time where he had no support, right? He didn’t have the support of the public. So just existing in that space and seeing what was happening to him, it was a source of power for me and a source of another realization that me as a Muslim in this country, we don’t belong. Or at least that’s what they tell us. And then 911 happens and we’re reminded again, you don’t belong. Before that, the World Trade Center bombings in 97, you don’t belong. The attack on the USS Coal, you don’t belong. Again, 911, you don’t belong. Everything that’s happened along the way has been a story of Muslims not belonging. And I was trying to wrestle through that. What does it mean to belong? Does that mean I just keep my head down like I was told as a kid that I just don’t make any waves?
What is something you want people to know about your faith tradition?
Anybody who follows the faith tradition is going to say, there’s so much beauty. My faith is driven by justice and compassion, just like any other faith. But the call to justice, the push for justice, the scream for justice, the cry for justice is very clear in the Qur’an. Throughout the Quran, we’re called to do justice. We’re called to do justice work, particularly chapter 4, verse 135, where God states in the Quran, “o you who believe, stand up firmly for justice, witnesses for God, even if it’s against yourselves or your kin, whether one is rich or poor, for God is more worthy of both.” This call to stand up for justice is clear. It’s not an option. It’s not one of the things you could do. It’s a command. God then goes on to say, “and be aware, don’t let your own desires lead you to be of the unjust.” Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, has countless sayings about what it means to be just.
He also said, if you see an injustice in the land, then fix it with your hands. If you can’t fix it with your hands, then hate it in your speak against it with your tongue. And if you can’t speak against it with your tongue, then hate it in your heart. But that’s the least of our faith. So what kind of level of faith are you trying to be at? The greatest level of faith is to stop injustice, to do something. The second level is to speak out against it, to be a voice for the oppressed, to stand up, to offer comfort to those who are struggling, and to warn those who are causing the struggle, causing the strife, causing the oppression.
So justice, the way that Islam encompasses the concept of justice as a command, as a clear command again and again and again, is something beautiful about my faith. It’s something that I’ve attached to. We live in a world full of injustice, and if we keep our heads down and do nothing, injustice reigns. And whether or not we win in a little battle it’s a long game. Justice is a long game. So it’s up to everybody, particularly in these verses, to Muslims, to stand up and establish that justice, to fight against oppression.
How has your faith been misunderstood or twisted by people?
I’m a Muslim living in the United States. I’m a Muslim living in this world, in this day and age. There’s not a point or turn or idea that hasn’t been misunderstood or twisted. They tell us you oppress your women. It’s not true. They tell us you have a violent religion. It’s not true. They tell us that you are backwards, that you are against modernity. It’s not true. It goes on and on and on. Now, some of that comes from within our tradition that some of those who claim to be Muslims, take parts of their faith and twist it to fit their own geopolitical goals. That’s the reality. But the larger reality is that for hundreds of years, I can go back to the expulsion of Muslims in Jerusalem and Jews, and then the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain all the way through the North Atlantic slave trade. And ever since Muslims have been in these lands, there has been a distinct sense of Islamophobia in the way that things are set up, run, operated, and instituted.
And that’s not any different today. So yes, 911 happened. It’s a terrible tragedy. One of the worst tragedies that our nation saw. However, the way that Muslims were portrayed after that as a general community and then attacked throughout the world, misunderstanding. If you look at every movie of that era, from the late nineties to the early 2010s, Muslims are the bad people, the bad guys in the movies. Every single time. If you look at the news, you see angry Muslims on the streets in different countries, yelling, screaming, angry. Never talked about why they were angry. Never talked about what brought them to the streets. Never talked to them about the economic conditions, ills, evils, and injustices that were brought upon them by white colonialism, white supremacy, imperialism, and still occupation. So my faith has been misunderstood all over the place, all over the board.
How do your days of remembrance or holy days or holidays in the month offer hope amid injustice happening throughout the world?
All right, the holiest month in the calendar for Muslims is the holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the name of a month. It’s the 9th lunar month in the Islamic calendar. And the word Ramadan is actually just the name of the month. Because we follow a lunar calendar, it comes at a different time each year. We spend 30 days fasting from dawn till dusk, from anything to eat, anything to drink, and sexual activity. Now, you might say that that’s a very personal thing. It’s a personal struggle, it’s a personal fight. It’s a personal attempt to control whatever it is that you’re trying to control in yourself. But Ramadan becomes a time of great community power. It becomes a time where people spend more time together, whether it be in prayer, whether it be in community, whether it be in learning circles, whether it be in reading the Holy Quran, whether it be in being with each other at the end of the night. And through that you start to talk about things that are happening around the world, right?
It becomes a sense that this Ramadan, the way I fasted today, the way I gave up food and drink, there’s people that don’t get to break their fast at the end of the day. There’s people around the world that don’t have food. There’s people around the world that don’t have potable water. There’s people around the world that don’t get to say, “I went one day without food or water and I get to break that fast.” They don’t get to break that fast. They have to continue. And a lot of that comes from systems, right? It’s not just that somebody doesn’t have food. There is a way that this world exists that allows certain people to have food and others not to. There’s a way that this world exists to ensure that some of us have clean potable water and some don’t. There’s systems in this world that exist to, that keep people away from basic medical needs, keep people away from access, economic success, that all of these exist. So, Ramadan, while it is a personal month of spiritual cleansing and reenergizing, it’s a public month in the way that we come together to think about the state of the world, the state of our community, the state of our affairs, and what God is calling us to do.
God is not calling us to just fast and do nothing afterwards. God is calling us to fast and pray and remember God. But why? So that we can stand up and do something about it, that we can stand up and do something to make a change, that we can stand up together as a community that are all struggling together and all going through such and such together, and now we can figure out, all right, that’s what we’re dealing with. How do we galvanize ourselves and our power to help those who can’t?
In your experience within your community, within the Muslim community, has there been a barrier in seeking justice?
Absolutely. So the seeking out of justice is for the self and others, it’s for all of us. And the reality is that there’s just certain things that we don’t have access to. First of all, you have to think the Muslim community in the United States is very diverse. It’s the most diverse community in the United States, according to all statistics. So that means you have every kind of people represented in the Muslim community; White, black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, whoever they may be, they’re made up in these days in these united, yet to be, United States. The reality is that there are a lot in our community, or there are pockets in our community throughout these United States that are newly arrived refugee families, people that are coming as a result of the wars that we’ve inflicted in their regions, or the economic destruction that we have wrought upon their people. They then have to seek out solace, peace and safety, and then we bring them in.
And the access to basic needs, or access to being able to just live them, being able to just set up a life and live here and move here and adapt to what’s here. I wouldn’t say it gets in the way of them being able to stand up and fight for justice. But when you can’t feed yourself, when you don’t know the language of the land and there’s no interpreters for you, because when they go to courts or social services, there’s no Arabic interpreters, there’s no Dari interpreters, right? There’s no Farsi Interpreters. Those things don’t exist for us in most of the country. So they don’t have access to the services they need. They’re struggling. They basically are just hoping that a mosque or a church can step up and help them. So when a family is in that mode, just that mode of survival, it becomes very difficult to activate them to fight for even what they need. So sometimes it becomes hard, even when you’re working with refugee populations, to tell them, “hey, we need to fight for XYZ” whatever that may be. We need to work on this. We need to try to change our immigration systems here.
And if all of your time is spent struggling so that your family can have basic needs, maybe there’s no space for them to be fighting. Which means that the rest of us, the rest of us that have the privilege of either citizenship or a green card or a permanent residence, whatever it may be, to fight for them and stand with them and be willing to stand and organize with them as soon as they’re ready.
What are the hopes for the future and what inspires you to continue to fight? What hope do you have for the future?
One of the great Muslim scholars and martyrs in these yet to be United States, alhaji Maliki al Shabaz brother, Malcolm X. He said, “we’re not outnumbered, we’re just out organized.” The reality is that we are still an unorganized people. We still don’t understand what it means to give everything that we have to give to build community power. And we need to heal. We need some healing first. The reality is that it’s really difficult to push forward before you have spent time healing whatever it is. So another saying by Brother Malcolm X, he said that if you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six, that’s not progress. If you pull the knife all the way out, that’s not progress. Progress is made by healing the wound made by the blow, and some people won’t even acknowledge that the knife is there. So the reality is that we need some healing. This system has shoved it’s knife into our backs. Now, you can argue, have they pulled it out six inches and left three inches in? Have they pulled it all the way out? Are they even thinking about what it means to heal that wound? And then finally, when he says, and some won’t even acknowledge that it’s there, you and I know people that won’t even acknowledge that those systemic injustices exist. They’re unwilling to call out systemic level injustices because, hey, this is America. Everybody has the right to succeed. If you just work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and all those other lies that they’ve been feeding us, the reality is we haven’t been healed yet, right? So we need to figure out how to heal. And my hope for the community and what keeps me fighting and motivated is that I want our communities to be healed. I want our communities to be able to have those knives pulled all the way out, the wounds healed. We’re going to have scars, right? That’s what happens with wounds, but at least they can be in the process of becoming a scar. So that way we can think forward, because it’s hard to think forward when you’re really so torn by what has happened in the past.
My hope, my drive is that we heal, that we heal as a society, that we heal as a people, so that we can go back to the first Malcolm saying, organize ourselves, because we’re not outnumbered. We’re just dealing with a whole bunch of trauma that’s stopping us from organizing. And my hope is that we can get past that trauma. We heal so that we can organize and then create the world that we want, the world that we all belong, the world that we all can exist, the world that you and I can just be because we are. That’s my hope for this world.
What is your advice for working with other faith traditions to work together and work toward a common goal?
People within our faith traditions don’t agree on everything. So how do we look at each other fully for who they are? By the way, I got to say this. I hate the saying, let’s just forget our differences and come to the table like, I want to be everything that’s me. So if I have to forget what makes me me to be at that table, I don’t want to be at that table. So be all you are. Let me be all that I am. Be everything that makes you you, and I’ll be everything that makes me me. And we’ll come together and figure out what we want to fight for together. And there we move into working together. The Quran. The Holy Quran. There are some interesting verses about the creation of humans. It says, “Oh, mankind, this is God speaking. Oh mankind, we created you from a single male and a single female. And then we divided you into tribes and nations so you would get to know one another.” That says many things to me.
First of all, it says that our creation was not an accident, that we were created with a purpose. Secondly, it says that the differences among us, our racial differences, our ethnic differences, our linguistic differences, our preferences, our religious differences, our ideological differences, even our political differences, those are not accidental. God said, I created you, then I separated you into tribes and nations. And then he tells us why he did it. He tells us the purpose. It’s not so that you and I would fight and figure out. God tells us that I did that so you would get to know one another, so that we would have these differences and get to know one another. And if we spend that time getting to know one another for who we are with everything that makes us us, that’s how we can build together across faith, tradition, ideology, and political lines.
But at the end of the day, all of us want access to clean, drinkable water. All of us want access to these lands, to be able to vote right. We want voting rights for our people. All of us want our kindred to be able to migrate to these lands without having to struggle through a refugee and asylum process. We want people to be able to come because they want to build a life here. All of us want our kids to be safe. All of us want to be free from gun violence. All of us there’s so many things that all of us want. And if we can just move past those things or those mindsets that I’m trying to convince you to be on my path, if we can move past those things, then all those other things can be a reality. Like, we can end gun violence. We can end police brutality. We can end prison systems and have bail reform or abolishment. We can end all of those things that get in the way of us existing in all that we want to be, but not if we’re working with other faith traditions to check a box or to tokenize or to say that we’re doing or to have some Kumbaya moment.