When he moved to the United States from Pakistan in 1975, Ashfaq Taufique was in for a few surprises.
“Openness in gender relationships was shocking, illicit relationships were shocking, freedom was shocking,” said Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society (BIS), “freedom to do anything you want, whether good or bad.”
A lot has happened since Taufique came to the U.S. 41 years ago. First, he considers himself fortunate.
“I have never been subjected to a racial slur, at least verbally,” Taufique said. “I like to think good of people until they prove otherwise.”
However, many others in the Muslim community have not been as fortunate.
“My son after 9/11 got an email saying ‘Go home.’ He comes home and asked, ‘Where does he want me to go? North Carolina?’ because that’s where my son was born.”
Taufique, 66, came to Birmingham in 1989 –- after living in Texas, North Carolina and Georgia – to work as a mechanical engineer. The father of four, grandfather of nine has been married to his wife Rita for 37 years.
Another change since his arrival in the U.S. is the constant need to dispel negative stereotypes of Muslims.
“The terminology ‘radical Islam’ is very bothersome to us as Muslims,” Taufique said. “When Eric Rudolph bombed the abortion clinic, he did it for his Christian values … he was radical, and we all agree with that. But no one said ‘radical Christianity.’”
That is hypocrisy, Taufique said.
“Religion is not radical; Christianity is not radical, Judaism is not radical, and Islam is not radical,” Taufique said. “To call faith radical because of the action of a few is like associating Christianity with the KKK. We know the KKK is doing what they do for Christian values but we don’t believe that is what all Christianity represents.”
There are 1.2 – 1.5 billion Muslims around the world who are often labeled unfairly, Taufique said. “Every time a bomb hits that part of the world, more innocent people are killed . . .” he said.
Taufique said he is pleased that the BIS works with other faiths on issues that have an impact on residents. In 2003, the state proposed an ordinance to require Muslim women to remove their hijabs for driver’s license and state-issued IDs.
“We managed to get the Catholics’ support, because of the nuns and the headdresses they wear, and the Sikh communities because of their turbans,” Taufique said. “The governor’s office was able to change that course.”
The BIS has also helped bring three Masjids – the Arabic word for mosque – to the Birmingham metro area: the Hoover Crescent Islamic Center, the West Side Masjid located in Fairfield and the Homewood Masjid. In addition to providing worship centers, the BIS also provides marriage services, burials, divorces, family and group counseling, and social needs of the Muslim community.
BIS has three charters: provide spiritual, social and personal services to the Muslim community; provide outreach to the community at large; and speak for the Muslim community “whether we like it or not.”
“When there is a legislation in the state of Alabama that would negatively work against Muslims, we have to let our voices be heard,” he said.
The recent presidential elections put the spotlight on Muslims. After a hard fought and sometimes divisive campaign Taufique said he welcomed Donald Trump’s statement that the president-elect would represent all people.
“I pray for him . . . I pray that he does the right thing. We will support him in things he does right,” Taufique said. “Prophet Muhammad said ‘help your brother if he is oppressed; and if he is an oppressor.’ We can see helping the oppressed, but we should help someone in making sure that they do not do the oppressing.”
Following the presidential election, the BIS has received great interfaith support from a number of other religious leaders, Taufique said.
“We got a bunch of emails of love, compassion and support,” he said. “A pastor in Hoover came to our congregation to speak and provided love and support.”
Taufique is also on the board of the Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM), where the organization recently held a Prayer Unity Walk. The walk was to show unity for groups affected by any hate that had developed during the recent election.
“The purpose of that walk was so we can stand as one,” Taufique said. “We need to show the strength of peace-loving people, who are not going to, in the words of President Obama, ‘get into fetal position.’”