By: Richard Stone
Kamal Abu-Shamsieh is the current (and first) director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno (ICC). With no precedents to draw on, he has been given the opportunity/challenge to create his own job description and design the center’s program. Before 9/11, the job would have been a lot simpler. Post-9/11, it has become a high-profile position.
Before the Twin Towers, the Islamic community of Fresno was purposely low profile and inward-turning, with the imam as the center’s religious leader and authority. After all, with negative stereotypes and misinformation flying around, a public face with strong communications skills was needed. That was Kamal, now in charge of the center’s public affairs externally, as ambassador-at-large, as well as internally as promoter of culture and social welfare. He is on-call at all hours to field questions from the media and to respond to the emergency needs of a large constituency-anything from medical to legal to domestic crises.
From a distance, I have admired Kamal’s skills as an organizer and a negotiator, chairing planning meetings (sometimes with his children on his knees), leading informational workshops, dealing with hostility or ignorance with resolute grace.
But in the hour I spent with him gathering information for this article, the quality of his work became even more apparent. In the course of our interview, he received five phone calls ranging from someone in need of a medical referral to negotiations about a cultural event. As he moved easily between English and Arabic, from assuring sympathetic tones to the toughness of a businessman, I could readily see his diplomatic abilities–and his commitment.
He says he tells the press, “If you want a representative response to your questions, come to us.” He accepts the inconvenience because “If I’m not there, someone else can be, casting a different kind of light on what Islam is.”
And there is always, it seems, the need to counter negative stereotypes about Islam and the Muslim culture. “They’ll come to me only to ask something like ‘What do you think about the killing of Shiah by Sunni in Iraq?’ I’ll say, ‘Come to our Center, let me introduce you to our community where Sunni and Shiah live as brothers and sisters.”
Kamal says that, from early childhood growing up in a Palestinian town, he learned the lessons of community activism. “We held our first elections under occupation, and our homegrown candidates won over the Israeli-backed candidates. But in a short time, every official we elected was deported, deposed or assassinated. In response, the garbage collectors went on strike, and garbage piled up dangerously. We students gathered: We wanted to support the strikers, so we decided to pick up the garbage ourselves.”
This began an ethic among Palestinian youth of “mandatory volunteerism” that has deepened into Kamal’s lifework. He recalls, for example, work gangs of students carrying poles to be used for electrification projects or traveling in groups to the land of poor farmers, camping in small shacks for several days while building terraces and harvesting olives to thwart Israeli “cultivate or confiscate” ultimatums. “Feeling unity with even our humblest people, building a deep sense of service and commitment–that is the true meaning ‘jihad'”. These actions of political expression, he says, were the seed of the Intifadah.
Kamal came to the United States without the intention of staying. He had been recruited to work on a PBS Frontline production about the occupation in Palestine. After he worked for two years as a researcher and production assistant, the director offered him, as a gift, the chance to visit the United States to explore filmmaking opportunities.
Once here, he decided instead to study broadcasting at the University of Michigan, where he also met his wife. They moved to California, where her family lived. Kamal took on positions of increasing responsibility, first with the Muslim Public Affairs Council, then with the national Interfaith Alliance. When his wife, a pediatrician, finally took a permanent position in Fresno, where she had done her residency, the family moved here to cut down their commuting. Soon after, Kamal was offered his present position.
From scratch, Kamal has gradually built a core of programs and connections emanating from the ICC. There is a weekly speakers’ series, with a major program about once a month. There has been an irregular but effective youth program. The month-long Ramadan is fully observed each year. Once a quarter, the ICC participates in interfaith events (and the imam is the first Muslim co-chair of the Interfaith Alliance).
The ICC has been a staunch participant in Fresno’s inclusive version of the National Day of Prayer. And the ICC has been annually commemorating the tragedy of 9/11-one year, for instance, by taking out a full-page newspaper ad and another year by a group walk to the nearby New Covenant Community Church to demonstrate solidarity against terrorism and for the healing love at the heart of all religions.
But Kamal’s face really lights up when he speaks about the pastoral aspects of his work. He has compiled lists of community professionals who he can call on to assist members in need. Out of Islam’s prescription to minister to the sick, he has begun a program to train lay chaplains to provide spiritual care to Muslim patients in the city’s major hospitals.
And he continually seeks creative ways to implement Islam’s Pillars of Faith. One such venture was a “celebration of holiday stamps” where nine leaders of different backgrounds thanked the Postal Service for its collection of stamps honoring the various winter holiday traditions.
Kamal, ever the diplomat, demurred at naming individuals he would like to single out for their help, but he did express gratitude to several groups whose example has inspired him in the way they have moved beyond resentment at injustice to strength, civic participation, and political activism: the Japanese-American community, the Hmong refugees community, the Latino-American immigrant community and the African-American community.
Kamal issues an invitation to our readers to move beyond our comfort zones and meet a Muslim face-to-face. A Friday night visit to the ICC would be an easy start. I can assure you, from personal experience, you will be warmly received.
Kamal may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 599-297-9535.
Birthplace: Ramallah, Israel/Palestine
Inspirations: Walter Cronkite (from a personal meeting) about upholding your religious identity and earning respect through your work. A Hiroshima survivor he met, for choosing life and hope
Motto: “I will not die before I die.”
Non-Job Activity: Working with kids, such as with a service project on April 17 at the Jefferson Elementary School
Unexpected Pleasures: Cooking and gardening
Richard Stone is on the boards of the Fresno Center for Nonviolence and the Community Alliance and is a member of Citizens for Civility and Accountability in Media (CCAM). Contact him at email@example.com.