Mic in hand, 42-year-old Abdul-Rehman Malik, a Yale World Fellow, ushered the few stragglers toward tables with vacant seats. It was Saturday, February 17, the second day of the Ivy Muslims Conference. More than 100 students, split into ten groups, sat in a dining hall at the Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel & Center. Malik, a large man with gentle eyes, a full graying beard, and his trademark tan fedora, prepared to introduce the Coffeehouse Exchange activity to the students. An educator at heart, he could not resist a teaching moment.
“It was in Istanbul where the coffeehouse became an art form,” he explained. “It became a place for artists, writers, intellectuals, chess players, people from different strata to come together. The coffeehouse was and is a place for raw, unmediated dialogue.”
Conference organizers copied and distributed five different papers between the ten groups. On each paper was a paragraph of thoughts and questions about an intersection of Islam and social justice. The students at every table discussed their topics for half an hour. Then, after two students from each group were appointed ambassadors, the ambassadors rotated clockwise to fill the empty spots at a new table. The travellers carried ideas from the home table with them and infused them into new conversations, gaining new insights as they proceeded around the room. Malik zipped from group to group, picking up fragments of engaged discussion. He had designed the activity himself, drawing on years of experience writing, teaching, and organizing.
“I was a high school teacher for five years, then I quit,” he said. “I drove my colleagues up the wall because I made my classrooms laboratories for different sorts of learning.”
He describes his goal as the “cross-fertilization” of ideas. During the conference, he encouraged everyone to be bold as they informed their worldviews. The students would see the combined power of faith and education that has defined most of Malik’s life.
“One thing that’s become clear to me, since coming to Yale, is how lost even the most intelligent people feel,” Malik said.
Other people across the country and around the world feel similarly disoriented. With Donald Trump’s presidential victory and the rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe, demagoguery contends with rational discourse, alternative facts with academia, and atavistic national impulses with multicultural tolerance. These differences have uncovered deep divisions in our societies, and the question Malik asks is if and how those gaps can be bridged.
For Malik, a devout Muslim in an Islamophobic part of the world, the exchange of stories and experiences highlights what unites us. His appreciation for such exchange is built on a life of intellectual diversity, positive religion, and civic action.
Born in Toronto in 1975, Malik described his parents as “burn the boat immigrants.” They embraced their Canadian status, emphasizing hard work and assimilation to their children. Yet Malik could feel the weight of the past pressed against his back.
Malik’s grandparents and great-grandparents lived in the then-British Punjab Province, which comprises areas of modern-day eastern Pakistan and northern India. His father’s family came from Amritsar, while his mother’s originated from Jalandhar.
After the 1947 Partition split the Punjab between India and Pakistan, members on both sides of Malik’s family became migrants. His maternal grandmother, 21 years old at the time, was out in the field plowing and picking eggs from the hens when somebody from the neighboring village appeared. He told her his village had just been razed and that she had to evacuate immediately. Malik’s paternal grandmother fled Amritsar before a wave of violence engulfed the city.
Toronto is Malik’s home, but, growing up, his feet were planted in different worlds. His father was an activist in Pakistani politics. His mother filled the house with books in Urdu, Punjabi, and English that covered the Islamic Revolution, political parties, and cultural manifestos. To the Maliks, the politics of the Middle East and South Asia mattered as much as those of Canada. Journalists, artists, and politicians, including the future president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, debated politics in their living room. At his mosque, Malik learned about Mansa Musa and the Muslim empires of Timbuktu. Prayer, reading the Qur’an, and the devotional life were all indispensable in his confessional household.
“There was always a connection between the devotional life and the activist life,” Malik said. “My devotion meant certain ethics. That’s what I saw in my parents and in my community.”
When he arrived as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in 1993, Malik’s activist identity began to take shape. He became involved with student politics and rose to be the president of the Muslim Students Association. The group created the Muslim Voice, the first monthly Muslim newspaper on any Canadian university campus. Malik leapt at the opportunity to write, and his articles captured the attention of left-wing publications in the city.
In the spring of 1995, President George H. W. Bush was scheduled to receive an honorary degree from the University of Toronto. Students, staff, and faculty mobilized immediately, pressuring the university to move the ceremony from the convocation hall to a smaller venue. Demonstrating against Bush because of his policies in the Gulf War, the protesters surrounded the building and made enough noise to warrant a police presence.
“Wow, it sounds like happy hour at the Baghdad Holiday Inn,” the president said, according to Malik, who scoffed at the remark. Most striking to him, however, was the walk-out that a group of impassioned professors staged during the ceremony. The students applauded and welcomed them onto their own makeshift stage just outside.
“We were building alliances in those days,” Malik said. “And within Muslim communities that kind of alliance-building work had never happened before. We were seeing ourselves as a community tied to other social justice interests.”
Omer Bajwa, the Director of Muslim Life in Yale’s Chaplain Office, first met Malik in March 2001. The University of Toronto was hosting a weeklong conference on classical Islamic education, and Malik was one of the primary organizers. The organization and structure of the conference impressed Bajwa, and his respect for Malik’s prowess as an educator has only grown over the last two decades.
“He is deeply grounded in traditional Islamic values, spiritual leadership and academic scholarship,” Bajwa said. “And he’s able to articulate these things in a very contemporary voice. He can be in conversation with multiple perspectives.”
This semester, Bajwa and Malik are co-teaching a discussion seminar at Yale called “A Change is Going to Come: Exploring Islamic Theologies of Political and Social Transformation.” The class takes inspiration from the Arabic world halaqa, meaning circle or ring. In the Islamic faith, a halaqa is a religious gathering for the study of Islam and the Qur’an. Malik and Bajwa apply Islamic theology and philosophy to critical debates about difficult political topics such as war, occupation, corruption, and political instability, including the state of the Muslim world post-Arab Spring.
“Abdul-Rehman Malik knows how to navigate the complexities and tensions of these issues,” wrote one of Malik’s students, Zeshan Gondal ’19, in an email interview with The Politic. “He brings the compassion and wisdom that comes with working actively in local communities across the UK and around the world.”
Malik spent part of his summers in the U.K. from 1995 to 2003, when he moved there full-time. London is his “first love,” he said. He studied for a Masters degree at the London School of Economics and immersed himself in journalism, writing weekly at Q-News, a British monthly magazine that published cultural, political, and religious Muslim stories. In 2010, he became a regular contributor to BBC Radio, discussing spirituality on the air for Radio 2’s breakfast show and in documentaries for Radio 4 and the World Service. London’s diversity dazzled him. He described a November 2003 demonstration against the Iraq War as a “victory,” where traditionally-clad Muslim women and men marched alongside LGBTQ+ activists.
Building coalitions is not always easy. While working on the Stop the War movement in Toronto around the same time, Malik learned about the complexities involved in bringing diverse people together and steering them toward consensus and action.
“Our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters came to the table and said they didn’t know if they could work with the Muslim community,” Malik said. “We can’t change prejudices overnight. But we can begin with respect and what we find common ground on.”
The London bombings on July 7, 2005 pushed Malik to translate his blend of faith and education into activism. He helped found the Radical Middle Way non-profit shortly afterward. The organization works with grassroots partners in the U.K. and around the world to create platforms for debate and spiritual reflection. “Middle Way” refers to a moderate understanding of Islam, free of the extremism that often defines it in the public imagination.
“The problem of violent extremism is not too much religion, but not enough good religion,” he said. “Religion has an ethical dimension that should ground and guide us as citizens.”
These are the lessons that guide Malik in his work at Yale, both as a World Fellow and a Postgraduate Associate at the MacMillan Center’s Council on Middle Eastern Studies. Since he arrived in New Haven in August, Malik has organized 17 events. He chaired “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: The Politics of Storytelling” in October, a panel to discuss how storytelling can promote resilience in unintended ways. In November, he brought award-winning Canadian journalist Nazim Baksh to reveal how the West covers Islamist terrorism in a talk called “Jihad in the Newsroom”.
“AR [Abdul-Rehman] makes ‘ordinary’ folk feel that they are citizens,” Lucy Sternbach, ’19, who worked on the “Politics of Storytelling” panel, wrote in an email to The Politic. “He makes them feel that they have to pay some dues, that they have power in making everyday decisions.”
In December, Malik joined English professor David Kastan and English Touring Theatre theater director Richard Twyman to host “Moor, Monster, …Muslim: Rethinking Shakespeare’s Othello.” The event explored how the famous tragedy, and art in general, forces us to think about identity and community.
“What Abdul-Rehman is, I suppose, is a joiner, a mender, a healer,” Kastan said in an email interview with The Politic. “The example of his own generous and capacious mind shows a way out of the constraining boxes of our thinking.”
Since Trump’s election, Malik has continued to think critically about “this thing called America”—an “empire,” he said, that is trying to come to terms with itself and its legacy.
According to Malik, our democratic political system is broken, and the gender divide remains vast. There are deep, racial fault lines. In his view, we have yet to address our nation’s original sin: the genocide committed against the indigenous population.
“And as a scholar, as a journalist, where do you want to be? You want be in a place where all these discussions are happening,” he said.
Over 9,000 miles away from New Haven, in Jakarta, Bandung, and other cities, another coalition-building project is happening in typical Malik fashion. Kafe Cerita, The Cafe of Stories, pairs Muslims and non-Muslims to share their stories about leadership, resilience, and progress and pushes the participants to find common ground. Americans that Malik has spoken with about this project identify a need in our culture for a similar sort of reconciliation and commitment to change—for a new American story. Malik isn’t sure that America is ready to find that new story, but he has more than enough faith.
“I am in many ways an intellectual child of what America has given,” Malik said. “I’m a product of Malcolm X, of Walt Whitman and Thoreau and Emerson. Of John Coltrane and Bob Dylan. I’m deeply invested in this thing called America.”
Correction, March 15, 2018: The printed version of this article misstated the date of the London bombings; it was July 7, 2005, not July 7, 2015.