Muslim leader remembered as uniter

Hasham Hussein
Hasham Hussein, one founders and chairman of the board of the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, died over the weekend while visiting Saudi Arabia.
MPR Photo/Laura McCallum

Hesham Hussein was a large man -- over six feet tall. Had he grown up in Ely instead of Egypt, he could have been a lumberjack instead of a Muslim community leader.

With his traditional beehive of a beard and no-nonsense wire-rimmed glasses, Hussein looked like a stern man.

"Yet he had this wonderful laugh, and he was able to have a calm presence and sense of humor in just about every situation," Peg Chemberlain, executive director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, says of Hussein.

Three years ago, Hussein came to the council with an idea for an interfaith program called Taking Heart. The program brings Christians and Muslims together to talk in informal settings.

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"He was well aware that in the post-9/11 America, many people in the Muslim community continue to feel very vulnerable. And his answer was... to say, 'Well let's let the community know us.'"

"We used to ask him sometimes the stupidest questions," Chamberlain says. "My staff would report, 'I just don't understand how this works in Islam.' And they felt free and comfortable to ask him anything they could, and he would always respond with graciousness."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the only Muslim serving in Congress, says he considers Hussein a close friend, and is still in disbelief over his sudden death.

"He was also a man who believed in civic engagement," Ellison says.

According to Ellison, Hussein came here as an immigrant to contribute something, as well as reap the benefits offered by America.

"He was well aware that in the post-9/11 America, many people in the Muslim community feel -- and continue to feel -- very vulnerable. And his answer was not to be bitter or anything," Ellison explains. "His answer was to say, 'Well, let's let the community know us. Let's get out there. Let's talk to people. Let's meet the people.'"

And that he did. Hussein got involved with a St. Paul Police Department task force. There, he helped officers understand the customs and beliefs of Somali immigrants living in the city.

Hussein often didn't like how the media portrayed Muslims, so he did something about it as a member of the Minnesota News Council. He often made himself available to speak to the news media.

In 2004, Hussein spoke to Minnesota Public Radio about radical Islam. He said suicide bombers and terrorists are not unlike American children who grow up in gang-infested neighborhoods, and who eventually become criminals.

"The same as when you are growing up in a Muslim country, and it's occupied, and there's poverty and there is no chance for receiving a good education. There is no chance of getting good jobs, there is no hope," said Hussein at the time. "And for a lot of these families and these youth ... then you start seeing these things."

Hussein's cousin, Khalid El-Masry, says Hussein's personal life revolved around his five children, his wife and extended family.

El-Masry is the spokesman for the Muslim American Society in Minnesota, an organization co-founded by Hussein. He says for Hussein, Islam was a force to unite humanity, not divide it.

"I know my favorite verse of the Quran, and one of his, if I can speak for him, because I know we had discussed this in the past. 'We have created you into tribes and nations so you might get to know one another,' and Hesham really embraced that," El-Masry says.

Hussein was buried in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and his body was buried as soon as possible to adhere to Muslim tradition.

His cousin, Khalid El-Masry, says there will be another, larger memorial held for Hussein this weekend in Inver Grove Heights. Rep. Ellison and an interfaith roster of guests are expected to be there.