Fedwa Wazwaz: Facilitating cultural understanding

Fedwa Wazwaz. Photography by Sarah Whiting.

“Real faith requires us to go beyond our blabber and challenges us to embrace humility and listen to God.”
– Fedwa Wazwaz

During adolescence and young adulthood, when many young people turn away from religion, Fedwa Wazwaz drew nearer.

“My starting point was first trying to understand my faith,” she explains. “My parents couldn’t answer my questions, because they didn’t have the answers. My mom taught me to pray but had not gone to school, so she didn’t have answers to my questions.”

Wazwaz, a Palestinian woman born in Jerusalem, moved to Chicago with her family in the mid-1970s. In 1992, she came to the University of Minnesota, where she majored in computer science with a minor in artificial intelligence. As she studied, she connected with teachers and also with the Muslim Student Association.

“I felt strongly in my faith. It was about dos and don’ts” she says, acknowledging that connection through ritual is important. But she felt something was missing. “It was not so much emphasis on connection to God.”

Learning more about spirituality helped her to strengthen her faith. Speaking of spirituality, she said, “You go through self-knowledge. Understand yourself, your faith – when you are grounded in this understanding, and have an understanding of your fellow human being.”

For Wazwaz, that means co-existing with people of other faiths or no faiths, seeking to live in harmony. For her, spirituality is based on invitation and fellowship. “Knowledge is power,” Wazwaz says. Misusing that power for control is abuse. She believes the goal of a spiritual life is to nurture trust.

Always a student

As an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota in the early 1990s, she also began to see “a lot of misinformation about the faith, about Palestinians, about Arab culture” in the media. She began writing articles in the Minnesota Daily, responding to what people said about Muslims.

In 2001, she and others formed the Islamic Resource Group to “teach proactively” about Muslims in the United States. Muslims, she notes, have been part of the United States since its founding. For instance, Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as a country in 1777.

“We tried to educate based on the facts,” she said. They formed a speakers bureau, responding to people who invited them. “There were concerns about the Koran promoting hatred and violence. We invited scholars to come in and explain verses, the history with context and understanding, words that were mistranslated.”

Besides co-founding the Islamic Resource Group, Wazwaz helped to get the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) started. CAIR-MN is part of the national CAIR organization, which has more than 30 offices nationwide. CAIR-MN works to protect civil liberties and engages with the media to ensure a fair portrayal of Islam and Muslims. The Islamic Resource Group focuses on educational outreach and dialogue, and maintains a list of trained volunteer speakers who can talk to school, religious or community groups on request.

She also started Engage Minnesota, which works to foster dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, and was a blogger for the Star Tribune before it discontinued its Your Voices blog in 2015.

Wazwaz works for the University of Minnesota as a senior data warehouse programmer. Besides her professional work in information technology, she continues to study Islam. She also studied restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, and was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

Family responsibilities have limited her engagement in community organizations in recent years. She is a middle child among ten siblings, and is the one others turn to when problems arise. Wazwaz continues to speak and write and encourage dialogue and understanding. She identifies Islamophobia as a major concern in Minnesota as well as the rest of the country.

According to the Washington Post, hate crimes against Muslims are roughly five times higher than pre-9/11 rates. Bullying of Muslim students in schools – including by teachers and administrators – is also rising.

A voice for reconciliation

Besides religious prejudice, Wazwaz says, “There is an unacknowledged racial bias that is obscuring the truth, that is perpetuating stereotypes and is undermining justice and peace.”

Wazwaz talks about the importance of empathy and of looking at “the good, the bad and the ugly.” Prejudices and hatred arise when people “see with one eye” and acknowledge only the good in their group and the bad in another. Instead of dealing with problems such as domestic violence, “we have to spend our energy dealing with the deniers and the generalizers instead of with the problem.”