“To serve God properly we need to serve His creations and make sure they have freedom and a life worth living; otherwise we’re not doing our work as religious individuals,” says Imam Ismaeel Chartier, adding: “In Islam, God commands us to join good versus evil, to side with the oppressed and those in need, to always push justice through and stand against injustice.”
Imam Chartier is the Imam of the Clifton Mosque in Cincinnati, a mosque that serves the local Muslim community while remaining open and welcoming to all. Raised Catholic in his native Ireland, he came to the United States (Denver, Colorado) at the age of 17 when his father relocated for professional reasons. After college and going through a personal spiritual search, questioning his relation to God and what religion meant to him, he discovered Islam, studied it, deepened his understanding of it, and converted to it. He joined Cincinnati three years ago, chosen by the board of directors of the Clifton mosque to serve as its spiritual leader.
Imam Chartier’s upbringing was engrained all along in social justice. As a child growing up in Belfast, his grandparents constantly reminded him to fight, until independance, the English occupation of Ireland. When seeing freedom fighters on television, his grandfather, himself a member of the IRA, would praise them, commenting that they were fighting for people’s freedom and liberation. His grandfather would also praise, for the same reasons, the Palestinian Liberation and American Civil Rights movements, comparing the plight of Palestinians resisting the occupation and of African Americans fighting the injustice of the Jim Crowe laws to that of the Irish people trying to be free. “I was raised with the ideas that freedom for me meant also for all the others, anywhere and everywhere,” states the Imam, “and that I was equally responsible for both.”
In college, Imam Chartier studied journalism and sociology and spent 2 years in Egypt researching a master’s degree thesis in Near East studies. This initiated him to the Arabic language.
Back to Denver, Colorado, he met his wife, also a Catholic Christian, and got married. Dealing, however, intensely, with the issue of his religious identity, after serious consideration and study, he felt Islam to be the most in tune with his values and beliefs and decided to convert to it. His wife fully approved and followed suit few days later. One year after, Imam Chartier, dissatisfied with the approach to Islam he was experiencing in the US, and wanting to demystify the perceptions Americans had of Muslims and of Islam in general, decided to become an Imam. And there he went, accompanied by his wife, on a 7 year-trip to Muslim countries, including Egypt, Morocco, UAE, Kuwait, India, studying the Coran in Arabic, learning from scholars and spiritual leaders at their feet, obtaining permission to teach at his turn.
In 2009, at his return to the US, he worked for a short while at the Colorado Muslim Society in Denver, then joined a 3rd space mosque where everyone, irrespective of who he/she was, was welcome to freely worship God, with no formality and a liberal rather than litteral understanding, connecting back to the spiritual essence of Islam, also to others. This mosque became very popular and attracted all kinds of people, Muslims and non Muslims alike. “This is the kind of Mosque I would like to grow in Cincinnati,” he says.
While in Denver, Imam Chartier got involved in many social justice issues, supporting environmental movements, working actively to repeal mandatory sentencing for juvenile offenders, helping pass a wage theft law to protect fair pay for minorities, refugees and undocumented workers. One of his big achievements there was helping found, and get the Colorado Senate to endorse, a new taxi company owned and operated by immigrants. These latter thus became free from the enslavement other taxi companies were keeping them under.
Since his arrival to Cincinnati 3 years ago, Imam Chartier has been constantly involved in many local and national social justice and peace issues. He is part of the Palestinian Coalition Liberation, the Black Lives Matter and the American Indian movements, participating in their activities, supporting their rights, offering his Mosque to facilitate their events, making sure their voice is heard. When Sam Dubose was killed, he worked actively at pursuing justice. He recently married 2 leaders of Black Lives Matter, both non Muslim.
“33% of our congregation are African Americans or Africans,” he precises, “and 25% of Muslims living in America are undocumented workers. Our community consists mostly of blacks, refugees, immigrants… I personnally strongly identify with them.”
He is currently working on the cases of 2 Christian women, one from Kenya, the other from Lebanon, both threatened of deportation despite having lived in the US for more than 20 years. Actually he has made the Clifton Mosque the 1st and only mosque in America and the West to be a sanctuary congregation, offering refuge for such individuals.
Imam Chartier wants his mosque, its members and Muslims in general to reach out to their entire community, become socially and politically engaged, create bridges wherever they are and with everyone. During the recent presidential election campaign, he went on a 6 city tour in Ohio, encouraging Muslims to vote. After the Orlando shooting, he was the MC of a vigil on Fountain Square stressing that not all Muslims were violent. With the support of Jonathan Cohen, dean of Hebrew Union College, he started there a Muslim-Jewish interfaith service and is planning, on the ground of the College, a Muslim theological seminary, the 1st such located one in history. He recently invited youth from Temple Shalom to visit the mosque and teach its own youth Hebrew. He is in constant exchange and dialogue with many of the local Christian churches and congregations and serves on the National Organizing board of PICO, a national network of faith-based community organizations, which try to create innovative solutions to problems communities face.
“I am always trying to shatter the negative image people have of Muslims,” he states, “shattering the boxes people build around Islam, but also the boxes we build around our ownselves.”
Imam Chartier believes not only in being an active part of the community but also in giving back to it. His mosque operates a food pantry, offers every sunday 140 free meals to the homeless, and during the month of Ramadan, 400 free meals a night to anyone in the community.
“If we want to change the world we need to work where we are, be grass root workers. From Adam to Mohammad and passing by Jesus, all were grass root organizers,” he says, adding “Real change starts locally.”
Imam Chartier starts his day every morning with this verse from the Coran: “God is constantly inviting people to the kingdom of peace”. It is his daily prayer reminding him of the better world in the afterlife, but also and as importantly of the kingdom of peace that we each need to build on this earth, by getting rid of our ego, our lust, our divisive nationalism; fighting for justice and equality for all; spreading love. For Imam Chartier, these 2 invitations are inseparable, sowing peace and justice in this world and harvesting them in the future one. This is how he strives to live his life and make a difference.
What Is ISLAM Islam is a faith and a comprehensive way of life that litterally means "peace through submission to God." Muslims worship the One God, Allah, and revere Prophet Muhammad as His last messenger. They also believe in all the prophets who preceded and the holy books which they brought, such as the Psalms, Torah, and the Gospel. Islam believes in the Day of Judgement, when all humanity will be recompensed for their deeds in this world; also in angels, and in predestination. Islam has Five Pillars of Worship which enable Muslims to cultivate their relationship with God. They are: Testimony of Faith (Shahadah); Prayer (Salat); Charity (Zakat); Fasting (Sawm); and Pilgrimage (Hajj). There are between 1,2 and 1,6 billion Muslims across the world and around 7 million Muslims in the United States.
Religious Peacemakers is a regular column published in Streetvibes; it highlights Greater Cincinnati individuals who use their faith and religious beliefs for peace and justice and for a better world.
It is authored by Saad Ghosn, founder and president of SOS (Save Our Souls) ART.