Rebranding her faith

Hanadi Chehabeddine (photo by Terri Peterson Smith)

Hanadi Chehabeddine was born in Lebanon and has lived in the U.S. since 2008. She is Muslim and is now an American citizen. She feels compelled to reach out to her fellow Americans in ways large and small to help them understand her religion and way of life. 

She is also a typical mom. She sends her seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old twin boys off to school. She works on a blog, goes to the gym and loves to read. She’s been working on a master’s degree in International Leadership at St. Thomas. It’s a busy life, and she treasures the quiet time when she sits down over coffee with her husband, an automation engineer, to discuss their day. 

Steps to active conversation

Even before this presidential administration’s attempt to ban travel to the U.S. by people from seven Middle Eastern countries, several experiences fueled a relatively new mission for her: to educate. One motivator happened when she was getting a haircut. Another stylist carried on a conversation with a client about Sharia law that was hurtful and misinformed. The women didn’t think a Muslim woman was overhearing them, because Chehabeddine wasn’t wearing her usual head covering. 

In another incident, a Muslim woman friend was accosted in the parking lot on her way into a Minnetonka grocery store. A man driving by shouted at her, made an obscene gesture and told her to go back where she came from. “I can’t imagine what type of man would attack a woman that way,” she says. 

Growing up in Lebanon, with its very diverse population, “made multi-religious diversity a very normal thing.” She says Muslims and Christians there have learned to distinguish political conversations from religious ones. “We even attended each other’s churches and mosques on wedding occasions and other special events,” she explains. 

As one example of how people get confused about the distinction between cultural and religious practices: the inability of women to drive in Saudi Arabia is “not Muslim law; that’s Saudi law.” 

A third motivator for her was seeing people discussing Islam on television. They were billed as experts, but they either weren’t Muslim or they had a compromised understanding of Islam. We were missing a voice.” 

Chehabeddine realized the urgent need to correct the mistaken notions of Islam, and that her background in journalism and advertising made her uniquely suited to speak out. “Islam,” she says, “needs rebranding.” 

She started meeting women over coffee, on FaceTime or chatting with other moms in Early Childhood Family Education classes. She tried to reach out for a conversation with that hairstylist, but was refused. However, the assistant manager of the salon approached her in a chance meeting at the gym and thanked her for her gracious approach, which then led to a longer conversation.

Signs of hope and healing

The immensity of her task seems exhausting, yet Chehabeddine gains peace and renewal from the faith that she feels she must explain and defend. She says, “God is a refuge, central in my life. Another name for god is ‘protector,’ ‘creator of peace.'” 

She is motivated by signs of hope. The post-inauguration Women’s March was a healing experience for her and friends, “to see that so many people are supportive, not hateful.” 

The growing interest in understanding Islam also brings satisfaction. She is beginning to deliver her rebranding message to larger groups, such as an after-play discussion at The Guthrie Theater during the run of “Disgraced,” a play that includes anti-Muslim sentiments. She gave a TEDxEdina talk, spoke at the 2016 Diplomacy Begins Here summit in Minneapolis and has been invited to be a U.S. State Department International Speaker. As a result, the city of Eden Prairie awarded her its Human Rights Award in 2016 for her work “to build bridges of unity by dismantling misinformation and fear about Muslims.” 

Not all Muslims feel confident enough to do what she does. She encourages non-Muslims to reach out to Muslim people in their communities to let them know that not everyone behaves like that man in the parking lot. She suggests inviting Muslim speakers to talk to community groups and to introduce new Muslim parents in your school to friends and neighbors. Perhaps most importantly, have real conversation over a cup of coffee or tea. 

“I believe Minnesota can set an example for other states to educate people and tackle these issues,” Chehabeddine says. “That’s what democracy is all about.”