What’s it like to be denounced by the Islamic State? “To be honest, I think it’s an honor,” said American imam Suhaib Webb — who was called a murtadd, or apostate, in the latest issue of Dabiq, the ISIS propaganda magazine. “To be denounced by a group that is so theologically anemic is a pretty good thing in my book.”
It’s an unconventional reaction since many would be scared of being on ISIS’s hit list; but Webb, who leads CenterDC, is an unconventional Muslim leader. He’s a strawberry blonde, blue-eyed, former hip-hop DJ who was born into a Protestant family in Oklahoma, and who came to Islam as a 19-year-old through friends in the hip-hop world. An alumnus of both the University of Central Oklahoma and Al-Azhar University, a prestigious Sunni institution in Cairo, he was named William Webb at birth, but changed his name when one of his religious teachers gave him the name Suhaib, which means “of reddish hair or complexion” in Arabic.
Webb, who is well-known for speaking candidly and publicly about matters related to American Muslims, was always well-known as a white imam, which is unusual, but his profile has risen considerably lately because of social media — namely his aptitude with Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook Live. It’s important for mainstream Muslim voices to populate the internet, he says, because the online sphere is filled with radical ones. His unique mix of classical theology and plainspoken charisma encapsulates modern Muslim America. It’s not just ISIS that has taken notice — so have thousands of young Muslims who follow him on social media.
A “Mainstream” Imam
Before his current residence in Washington, D.C., Webb was an imam at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center from 2012 to 2015. While he was there, the Boston Marathon bombing took place, and the fact that the bombers self-radicalized on the internet made him realize how important it was to spread his message of mainstream, peaceful Islam online.
That’s why he goes the extra mile to reach young people where they can be found: their smartphones.
Webb joined Snapchat in September 2015 (@imamsuhaibwebb) at the urging of his students and younger colleagues, despite what he described as a generational antipathy toward the platform. He was already on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube at the time, plus posting content to a “virtual mosque.”
“I’m a Gen X-er, and we like millennials as much as we like alimony or the IRS,” cracked Webb, who spoke to Huffington Post from Las Vegas, which was a pit stop on his whirlwind tour of ten West Coast cities with the charity Islamic Relief, which is raising money for Syrian refugees. “I initially refused to join, but I caved when I realized its potential to reach kids who might not normally hear my message.”
He now has 30,000 followers who view his “snapchat sermons,” “snap-was” (snapchat fatwas, or discourse on a legal issue), and “snap-seer” (snapchat tafseer, or explication of Quran verses).
He snaps at all hours of the day — from airports, cabs and beaches — and likes the immediacy of the platform and the fact that he generally gets positive and constructive feedback there. He also uses it to dispel myths that Snapchat users sometimes message him directly. For instance, he’s been asked whether mosques secretly conduct military training for Muslims… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“As crazy as these questions sound, I would much rather answer them than have people walk around believing them,” said Webb. “Human interactions dismiss fear.”
Webb is not the only Muslim leader on snapchat: @imammarc, @malm2014 and @abdulnasirj are other notable users. But Webb has the most followers and posts new content most frequently.
“Imam Webb is one of the best voices reaching out to Muslim youth today,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council for American-Islamic Relations. “Overseas extremist groups try to recruit kids online, so that’s where the biggest challenge lies — not in mosques, but the internet. The more we can amplify mainstream Muslim-American voices like Webb’s — and folks like Imam Omar Suleiman and the scholar Hamza Yusuf — the better for everyone.”
Some of Webb’s more contemplative snap stories bring to mind the world’s most famous Muslim on Snapchat: DJ Khaled — he even makes reference to like “keys to success” — but Webb denies following him.
But it would be wrong to credit Webb’s influence solely to Snapchat, although that’s his most novel medium. Webb also addresses modern Muslim life, like whether it’s appropriate to take hajj selfies on a pilgrimage to Mecca. (His answer is yes, if you have good intentions.)
As part of CenterDC, a faith based community space in Washington, D.C., Webb hosted an interfaith iftar at St. Stephen’s Church to educate non-Muslims about Ramadan. And last month, he hosted a traveling “town hall” discussion called “To prom or not to prom,” in which Muslim teens debated whether prom is haram, or forbidden, because of its proximity to alcohol and sex.
Webb believes such practical discussions will be crucial to defining Muslim identity in America. American Islam, perhaps because of its youth, is still fuzzy as a concept, unlike, say Indonesian Islam, which is well “branded” as diverse and tolerant.
“Muslims in general are not a monolith, and American Muslims are a microcosm of the larger world,” said Webb. “We have a beautiful ethnic mix. If you think about what the future of America is going to look like, we look like that.”
Progress and Privilege
“The challenge for American Islam today,” said Webb, “is that we’re so preoccupied with jihadists, at one extreme, and Islamophobia, on the other, that our regular social agenda is overlooked.”
Few people are aware of Islam’s progressive social stances, said Webb, like on abortion, which Islamic law permits up to 120 days. Islam also discourages the sale of water because water is a universal right — an opinion shared by most environmentalists today.
“Islam also has a lot to contribute in discussions of privilege, which is a huge issue in America. Just look at what Malcolm X found in its texts,” he said. “Islam’s intellectual capacity to contribute to complex issues like this is now threatened.”
Not all of Webb’s stances are accepted within the Muslim community: In recent years, he revised his stance on gay marriage from vocal opposition to tacit acceptance. But he was criticized on both ends, first by liberal Americans and then by conservative Muslims.
Still, is it possible that Webb has more latitude than the average Muslim leader because he is a white American man? He’s a vocal spokesperson for a community that is, statistically, much browner and less privileged than he is. Webb is acutely aware of how his privilege gives him an elevated pedestal.
“My white privilege will never leave me,” said Webb, “but I try to disinvest from it as much as I can.” He has taken his students to Black Lives Matter rallies, is well-read on social justice, and generally “woke” in conversation.
Webb shows no signs of slowing his work since the ISIS threat in its magazine. “I don’t think it’s an empty threat, but I don’t like to give those people a lot of credit,” he says. “If anything, it’s made me more determined.”
He’s working on a host of projects, including one to propagate Islamic education through smartphones. He’s happy to adapt to whatever screen or message reaches the most people.
“It’s up to us [American Muslims] to elevate the conversation,” he said, “because our culture won’t do it for us.”