People 2015: Imam Zia Sheikh Opens Minds to the Real Islam

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 20 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Can Turkyilmaz. Click here to find all our People Issue profiles.

When Imam Zia Sheikh learned that two would-be jihadists had been gunned down outside a draw-the-prophet-Muhammad cartoon contest in Garland this May, he braced for the inevitable surge of chatter about Islam and violence, which is exactly what he’d hoped to avoid. He and other Muslim leaders in North Texas had urged followers to ignore the event as a transparent provocation, and they did, but the exhortation to stay calm didn’t stop a pair of ISIS-inspired radicals bent on mass-murder.

Sheikh, born in Pakistan, raised in England, leads the Islamic Center of Irving, where he has spent years diligently trying to dispel anti-Muslim ignorance: Islam is not, at its core, a violent religion; Shariah law isn’t stealthily taking over American courts. He published a book to that effect in 2012, but his preferred technique is more personal. He encourages skeptics — anyone really — to visit the mosque during Sunday afternoon open house sessions, on the theory that the normal Americanness of real-life Muslims will overcome cable news-fueled prejudice. It’s hard to imagine a less threatening scene than worshipers padding barefoot beneath the Islamic Center’s gleaming emerald dome following midday prayer, mingling and greeting visitors with a handshake and a smile, just as it’s hard to imagine someone less threatening than Sheikh, whose round, contemplative face is creased with smile lines.

Battling ignorance can be a Sisyphean task, though. That’s particularly true when it swells to flood stage, as it did recently when Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne galloped into the national spotlight astride a swell of Islamophobia that followed a story by Breitbart, the right-wing news site, headlined “Islamic Tribunal Confirmed in Texas.” On Facebook, Van Duyne referred to it as a “Shariah Court” started by an Irving mosque and vowed to “fight [the court] with every fiber of my being.”

The Islamic Tribunal is in Dallas, not Irving (though Sheikh is one of its four mediators), and it neither possesses nor claims the authority to supersede American law. Rather, it’s a voluntary, non-binding mediation panel through which Muslims can adjudicate religious matters, just as Christian and Jewish mediators do routinely, and uncontroversially, for people of those faiths.

Sheikh responded with characteristic stoicism. He calmly explained what the tribunal was, that it wasn’t a threat to U.S. law or the Constitution, and welcomed skeptics to visit the mosque’s open house. Van Duyne, in turn, pushed a resolution through the Irving City Council supporting legislation banning judges from using foreign law in their rulings, a thinly veiled gesture intended to appease right-wing Islamophobia. Sheikh shrugs that off too as an ambitious politician pandering to a vocal minority. It’s not particularly helpful in establishing cross-cultural understanding, but he will continue trying to change minds, one at a time.

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