“People Have Valid Reasons They Distrust”: A Minneapolis Imam Reflects on Vaccine Hesitancy
June 8, 2021
This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IFYC via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Imam Makram El-Amin, who has led the Masjid An-Nur (Mosque of Light) in Minneapolis for 25 years and serves as executive director of Al-Maa’uun, the mosque’s community outreach organization. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IFYC; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith America (IA): I’d love to get started by learning more about you. Could you share a bit about your religious community and where you’re located and the community you serve?
Imam Makram El-Amin (ME): This is my 25th year leading the congregation at Masjid An-Nur and we’ve grown from a small collection of families to a very large and diverse congregation. We are predominantly a historically African American mosque, but also East African, West African, with many converts to Islam as well. We have a really eclectic mix of folks and all have different stories, but we find some commonality together here at Masjid An-Nur. Covid has affected a lot of us in terms of activities and things of that nature, but nonetheless, I think there’s a real yearning and hunger, I would say, to come back together and to resume life in the community.
IA: And what can you tell me about your personal and professional journey that led you to the role you’re playing now?
ME: I was brought up in this community, I’ve grown up here. I didn’t foresee myself being in this role and definitely not 25 years into this role. It’s one of those things that, as we say in Islam, we plan and God plans, and surely God is the best of planners, right? So, I came into this work of ministry at the tender age of 26 and really began to find my voice. In our tradition we don’t have Islamic seminaries … things of that nature are more of a newer invention. We have more of an organic tradition where it is elders of our congregation that really affirm and choose and select its leadership. The elders allowed me to find my voice, they allowed me to make mistakes, they cared for me and nurtured me along the way.
IA: What has this pandemic has been like for your community? What has been significant about the role of the community or support of one another during this time?
ME: The pandemic has been extremely tough. In trying times, we find solace in coming together, we find peace in being together in a community. Even the way we pray, it’s very unique in the sense that it means shoulder to shoulder, it means being there. So, to social distance during our prayer services, some question it, like is that even legal? It’s been challenging to say the least because all the emphasis in Islam is about community. We talked about being connected yet at a distance, but we had to find ways to massage this language so it would be more amenable to our disposition, and it took a while to really catch on. The idea of going virtual on Zoom and on all these other platforms … While we love technology, we also understand there is nothing that will ever replace human interaction and I think that we’ve come to appreciate that more and more.
IA: This theme of in-person gathering and the community focus of a congregation and the hardship of that loss over the past year has certainly been something we’ve heard a lot about. That desire to come back together, has that been a motivator for people in your congregation to get vaccinated?
ME: It’s been very mixed. We have a complex history in this country, particularly when it comes to health and medicine. From the Tuskegee experiment to many others, even smallpox and all kinds of stuff. Folks are distrustful, and I think rightfully so. It wouldn’t be intelligent, experiencing all that we have experienced, not to take pause at some national rollout of a vaccine [from a system] that traditionally has not been kind to Black people in particular, but to People of Color in general.
I think we have taken a position of encouraging people to do their research, encouraging people to do what’s the very best for them. My wife and I are vaccinated, but my mother isn’t, and my sister is not either. So, it’s mixed even within my own family. I understand it and I don’t think it’s appropriate to use a bully pulpit scenario or to use my influence to press people to get vaccinated.
One thing we know from our scriptures is that Muhammad is cautioned by God, he’s cautioned by God who said, “I know that it grieves you, that they don’t respond to you. But your job is not to be a disposer of their affairs.” My job is to give the message plainly, to make the message plainly, right? Forcing people, I’m not supposed to do that. I think there’s a more organic way of urging people, of supporting people, of helping to relax some of their fears or apprehensions. I think there’s a way to do that without being overtly and literally demanding that people [get a vaccine].
IA: What does that approach look like for you? Can you give some examples?
ME: I try to lead by example. I’ve done my research. I feel comfortable and confident with doctors, with Black doctors, with Muslim doctors who I believe have our best interests at heart. And in the work that we do, whether it’s community service, faith, tradition, whatever it is, one thing that we know for sure is that the messenger matters, right? That’s something we have to embrace.
We have some key stakeholders that have been around for quite a long time and they’re simply trusted sources. All of them play a role in this work. But they all have different opinions about this matter, too, so it’s a nuanced conversation. But again, I think we need to just be cognizant and be aware that people have valid reasons that they distrust. To skip over that or not take it into consideration or take it lightly, that’s problematic and is really another demonstration of inequity.
IA: When you think about situations where people’s concerns aren’t heard or validated, are there specific examples that come to mind for you?
ME: Oftentimes through crisis, there’s a need to have a mobilization take place … The work of relationship building, trust-building, has been long absent, but the existential threat makes it necessary. It’s kind of like you’re trying to bake a cake and you don’t have all the ingredients, but you’re insisting that the cake comes out perfectly. But we don’t have all the ingredients, we don’t have everything that’s necessary, so how can you expect this to turn out? Communities of Color have been subject to that for far too long and I think people are just pushing back.
IA: Your analogy reveals a hugely important lesson that’s emerged during this pandemic: how do you move people to action when you haven’t worked to build trust? Do you have specific thoughts about how we do trust-building work more proactively before we find ourselves in another public health situation where there are opportunities for faith communities to be part of the solution?
ME: First, I think we need to name it. I was recently in a press conference about the pandemic in our state, and people kept throwing around this term, “healing.” And while I understand it and I believe in it and I believe in the power of it and it’s possible, if we think about healing without first thinking about acknowledgment, it furthers distrust. Offering an apology is to acknowledge that something was wrong here, something happened here. As faith communities, as governments, as institutions, I think there must be an acknowledgment on all our parts that wrongs have been done.
Once trust has been broken—it’s very damaging, but it can be rebuilt. And I think my religion, our tradition, teaches about redemption all the time. When it comes to trust, rebuilding trust is doing what you say you’re going to do consistently. It’s one of the most powerful things when it’s present and it makes everything fragile when it’s not. This is a way back. We need to urge doing what we say we’re going to do …Be consistent at it and be transparent about it and do that so even if something goes wrong, even if there are bad seeds that we’re bound to have because we’re human beings … The reason I can see through that bad situation is that I can give you the benefit of the doubt based on your proof of past performance.
IA: So, to close, I’d love to hear just a few sentences about your vision for consistently doing what we say we’re going to do. What does that look like in practice for building trust in public health in your congregation?
ME: Because we know the messenger matters, there has to be a heightened commitment to recruit and nurture folks from affected communities in these respective areas. The responsible response would be for there to be a concerted effort to engage my community to be educated and to become proficient and to become experts within our own community, so we can give voice and we can message to our community in a vernacular, with a cadence, with a rhythm, with a sensitivity that others can’t do. I don’t think it’s rocket science, I really don’t.
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