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Alumnus documents trip to explore Islamic culture and faith

Ammar Asfour, LGO ’15, is spending the summer traveling to Muslim communities in six countries

July 9, 2015

Young Girls

Young girls in Senegal

One faith. Six countries. 21,000 miles. That’s the tagline for Ammar Asfour’s trip to photograph and document his personal exploration of Muslim faith and culture in China, Brazil, Bosnia, Senegal, Malaysia, and Japan. Asfour, who graduated from the Leaders for Global Operations program in June, titled his personal blog “The Eye in Islam,” and he answered a few questions from MIT Sloan while on his travels.

You just finished the rigorous Leaders for Global Operations program and will start a new job at Boeing in Salt Lake City. Did you consider taking the summer off?

This is a project that I have been thinking about for a long time and a topic that I am deeply passionate about. I have the opportunity to make it a reality, so why wait? I will have plenty of vacations to kick back and relax, but I will only have few large windows where I can complete this project. Moreover, I am having a blast! True, it is work and not a leisurely trip. There are days where I forget to eat a full meal because I have to run from one place to the other and meet people. I am learning a lot about faith, cultures, and myself.

What is your background?

I identify as American by culture, Muslim by faith, and Arab by ethnicity. I was born in Saudi Arabia and also lived in Jordan before moving to the United States.

Why is it important to look at the world’s little-known Muslim communities?

Simply, because they have a story that needs to be told. A few countries and regions dominate the news and discussion of Islam. Such narrow views, coupled with misunderstandings, create a regressive outlook of “Us and Them.” No single region, country, ethnicity, language, or community has exclusivity of Islam. Nor is Islam giving superiority and preference to a single community.

2015-Mosque2.jpgThe tomb of Imam Ahmadou Bamba within the Great Mosque of Touba in Senegal

Where did you get the idea for this kind of trip?

I had three major sources of inspirations for this trip. During my own prior travels, I always made it a point to visit the local mosques and meet the local Muslims. My own personal journey started when I moved to the United States for undergraduate studies. I realized that to fully embrace my own faith and its values in the new culture, I had to first reflect and understand the difference between my own faith and the culture within which I grew up. Also, I met Bassam Tariq, a TED Fellow and movie maker while I was an undergraduate student in Texas. He was one of the co-creators behind 30 Mosques in 30 Days. I thought, “I wish I could do that.”

How did you choose these six countries?

I first set a few criteria for the countries to visit. I wanted to cover at least four continents and visit places I have never been. I mostly looked for countries with Muslim communities that are not as well known to the general public.

How did you connect with people in these countries?

The production and logistics of this project have taught me to never leave a stone unturned when dealing with such ambiguous and open-ended cases. I never turned down a lead and the most random leads were often the most fruitful. For example, I was directed to the story about Islam in the slums by a Brazilian journalist who wrote about Muslims in Brazil. I had found his article because I asked an LGO friend to talk to his family in Brazil and they sent me this journalist’s article.

Claudio, president of an Islamic center in BrazilClaudio, president of an Islamic center in Brazil

Are the people you meet in your travels opening up to you?

Yes. I have been amazed by how much people have shared with me. I ask very intimate and personal questions and it is rare that people shy away from answering. I tend to share personal stories with them as well. If they mention that this is an interview, I correct them and say that this is only a chat to get to know each other. This skill and approach has allowed me to take very close-up pictures.

Have there been any surprises yet in your trip?

There are many surprises. The first of which is gender relations in Senegal and how culturally it finds a respectable and healthy balance. I write about that in my post: An unplanned meeting of the parents. Moreover, I find myself looking at community leaders and analyzing their approaches and leadership styles against what I learned in the Leaders for Global Operations program.

What do you want Americans to know about Islam?

I am not trying to teach anyone anything about Islam. If someone is trying to make sense of Islam, my blog is not it. I am an engineer with an eye on business, and not a religious scholar. I am simply trying to show the state of Muslims in these communities with little to no additional commentary. It is up to the reader to research, ask, and learn about principles of Islam.

To read more about Asfour’s travels, visit The Eye in Islam.