By Andrew Kosorok
The Minaret of Freedom Institute was founded in 1993 as an educational touchstone and resource, dedicated to expanding the minds of both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. From the website: To build upon the words of Thomas Jefferson, in fulfilling these goals we pledge to wage unending holy struggle against every form of tyranny over the minds of man.”
During its almost 30-year history, the Institute has made remarkable strides both expanding non-Muslim understanding of Islam and increasing opportunities for Muslim peoples mistreated around the world.
Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D. (President and director) was able to spare some moments from his hectic schedule to talk about his life, his work, and some accomplishments of the Institute.
Andrew: Where do you come from, what was your family like, and what was life like growing up?
Dr. Ahmad: I was born on a ship on the Atlantic Ocean as my parents came to the U.S. during the nakba (the Zionist conquest of most of Palestine in 1948). I was raised in a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania in a tight-knit family that included three younger brothers. For most of that time we were the only Muslim family in town and one of only three Muslim families of which I was aware in the area.
A: What are your unique experiences and qualifications which prepared you for the work you do?
Dr. A: Having been raised by a highly educated (college educated teacher and award winning radio broadcaster) Muslim mother, having made a conscious election to be a practicing Muslim as a teenager, and having studied for a career in astrophysics (which trained me in a rigorous methodology not often found in either religious nor even in the social sciences), having access to wonderful libraries at Harvard and the Library of Congress, the opportunity to meet a number of excellent Islamic scholars, and a history of libertarian political activism that started with the anti-war movement in college, all contributed to prepare me for the work I have been doing.
A: What was the one miracle or tragedy which led you to build the Minaret of Freedom Institute?
Dr. A: It was the convergence of two events: the fact that so-called “experts” on Islam in the U.S. did not see the Iranian revolution coming and then in retrospect gave incoherent accounts of its genesis made me realize that my talents and experience were more badly needed in Islamic studies than in astrophysics. At the same time Leonard Liggio (who was to become a mentor) was involved in the founding of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. He introduced me to the people of Atlas where I met the head of a libertarian think tank in Turkey who agreed with my views about the connection between Islam and classical libertarianism but said that because of the high regard of the Muslim world for the U.S., organizations like his needed a sister organization in the U.S. Thus, the Minaret of Freedom Institute was conceived.
A: How diverse is your team with the Institute? How many countries and backgrounds are represented?
Dr. A: Over the years the boards, staff, and interns have included people of African, Arab, European, and Asian nationalities, Muslims, Christians, and a Jew, men and women, immigrants, American natives, and foreign students, professors, business people, IT experts, teachers, an economist, writers, a civil servant, college and grad students, and even one high school student.
A: What are the principle needs or concerns the Institute addresses, and how do you address them?
Dr. A: We have a four-fold mission: to counter distortions and misconceptions about Islamic beliefs and practice; to demonstrate the Islamic origins of modern values like the rule of law and sciences like market economics; to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims on the importance of liberty and free markets; and to advance the status of Muslim peoples maligned by a hostile environment in the West and oppressed by repressive political regimes in the East.
A: What has been your single most remarkable challenge? Your most profound success?
Dr. A: I think the most remarkable challenge is the disparity in funding between our tiny organization with its annual budget of tens of thousands of dollars against the gigantic Islamophobia industry’s annual budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps our most profound success was in breaking the log-jam in Sunni-Shia relations by including ordinary Muslims in the dialog. Our modest, but unprecedented, public program at American University in 2007 was undertaken against the advice of many who warned that it would only further deteriorate the relations between the two communities, but it was so successful that it was emulated by the largest Muslim umbrella group in America soon after, followed by the signing of a “Code of Conduct” between the two communities in Detroit and then by the “Amman Declaration” that recognized eight schools of thought in Islam rather than just the Sunni or Shia schools.
A: What impact are you making? What are your next big projects/goals?
Dr. A: Sometimes I feel that we are only holding back a tide of ignorance and hatred rather than pushing it back. But even if that pessimistic view were correct, it would be worth the effort. Then every once in a while I see an idea we have championed go viral and I think our impact is greater than we have the ability to quantify. Our next big project is to hold a workshop on entrepreneurship in Tunisia. Tunisia has been the only successful Arab spring country, making significant progress in democratization, liberalization, and civil society. It has not done as well in liberalization of its markets, despite the enormous potential and the fact that the Arab spring started in Tunisia when a fruit vendor set himself on fire to protest corrupt government officials shaking him down under the cover of government economic intervention.
I think that our organization played a significant role in the 1990 reforms in Turkey. Because Turkey at that time was oppressively secular (on the model of the French in which religion was barred from the public square rather than on the American model of a wall separating church and state) Turkish organizations could not explore the liberalizing role of religion as we, an American organization, were free to do. I also think that we played a significant role in opening the way for JCPOA (the nuclear treaty between Iran and the EU and six other nations) which provided a peaceful resolution to concerns about Iranian nuclear proliferation. Of course there have been recent setbacks on both of these fronts, but to me that just underscores the importance of our work.
Andrew Kosorok is a traditionally trained stained glass artist, who has also studied traditional bookbinding techniques. In addition to commissioned studio work, designing, building, and restoring stained glass windows, Andrew work with sculptural stained glass. He enjoys looking for opportunities to explore dialogs of pluralism and shared community. —> View all posts