Q&A: Amjad Tarsin, U of T’s new Islamic chaplain, on Gaddafi, TIFF and moving to Toronto

Q&A: Amjad Tarsin, U of T’s new Islamic chaplain, on Gaddafi, TIFF and moving to Toronto

Amjad Tarsin, a 28-year-old law school dropout with a fondness for fantasy lit, is the new Islamic chaplain at U of T

U of T’s Muslim Chaplaincy hired you in September after a lengthy search process. What will your role be?
I’m essentially a counsellor who has a religious background. The concept of the chaplain was originally a Christian idea, but nowadays you have all kinds of chaplains—Jewish,
Buddhist, Muslim.

You’re 28. Was youth something the search committee was looking for?
I’m not sure. I have a master’s degree in Islamic studies, and I worked for a year as chaplain at Fairfield University in Connec­ticut, but it also wasn’t that long ago that I was at university myself, so I can relate to the students. My focus in undergrad was English, Arabic and Islamic studies, and then I did two years of law school at the University of Michigan.

Why did you leave law school?
I enrolled for the wrong reasons. In undergrad, I’d get into arguments about all kinds of things, and at some point I thought I should be a lawyer. But Islamic studies were where my
heart was.

How would you describe your upbringing?
My parents are very religious. They emigrated to the U.S. from Libya in the early 1970s to escape political persecution under Gaddafi. They were very involved in speaking out against
his dictatorship.

Did you share their views of Gaddafi?
No. I would usually just say, “Forget about it; it’s not that big of a deal.” But when the Arab Spring started, I recognized that they had been protesting against that kind of dictatorship all my life. I started to appreciate their sacrifice.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the people who want to screen Innocence of Muslims here. Should they be allowed?
I haven’t seen the film, but my understanding is that it’s an unfortunate, unproductive sort of expression. You know, the Prophet lived with people who mocked and ridiculed him, and he was forbearing and patient and didn’t respond in a negative way. That’s my inspiration.

I read a testimonial on the Chaplaincy website about a U of T student who felt a religious duty to wear the hijab but whose parents didn’t want her to wear it. What advice would you give her?
I’d need more info. What’s her background? What’s her relationship with her parents like? My job isn’t always to give answers, but to help people find them.

Should Muslim women wear the hijab?
I think they should have the freedom to make their own choice.

Does your wife wear the hijab?
Yes, she does.

You’ve been here for about two months now. Is it difficult to be a devout Muslim living downtown, what with its abundant temptations?
I’ve lived all over the world and actually find it easier in many ways to practise my faith in North America than in countries where Islam is the dominant religion. There’s more curiosity about Islam and room for discussion here.

What do you do for fun?
I’m really into photography, books and movies. I arrived in Toronto during TIFF, which I love. I’m a big fan of Lord of the Rings and can’t wait to see The Hobbit. One of my favourite books is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carn­egie, which is important if you work with people.

That’s a surprising reference for a 28-year-old, since that book is from the 1930s. What do you like about it?
Much of the advice relates to Islam: putting others before yourself, asking how people are doing and acknowledging their concerns. Essentially, how to treat others.