A former Spokane football player, who once was powerless to stop Washington Husky fans from mobbing him after games, now works to help empower Muslim children in a culture that seems all too willing to isolate them because of their faith.
Qasim Hatem, 35, is a red-blooded American kid who grew up among the cornfields of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before he moved with his family in 1993 to Spokane where he later starred at linebacker for the Mead Panthers.
His ability to disrupt opposing offenses landed him a scholarship to play at Washington. Hatem, who once spelled his first name Ossim, played defensive end as a sophomore on the 2000 team that finished 11-1 and beat Purdue 34-24 in the 2001 Rose Bowl.
“We were like gladiators,” Hatem said of his playing days at UW. “We would win a big game and I couldn’t get through the people. Random people would jump on me and hug me. They glorified me.”
A helmet collision to his leg in a game against UCLA caused a blood clot in his calf that eventually went to his lungs. Placed on blood thinners, Hatem chose to end his playing career just as NFL scouts were coming to see a player who had set Washington lifting records, bulked up to 285 pounds and could run an electronically timed 4.6-second 40-yard dash.
Hatem then had what most people would consider a dream, or a vision, that convinced him to dedicate himself to his religion.
He traveled and lived in Yemen for seven years and became immersed in the study of Islam before returning home with a beard and wearing traditional Islamic dress.
Instead of cheering his every move, Hatem now had random people calling him Osama bin Laden and suggesting that he “go home.”
“I look at that (football) life and how I’m treated now,” he said. “It’s almost polar opposites.
“It has a profound meaning how someone can be treated in one light and treated in another by simply the way they dress and simply the practice of religion in a country that honors freedom of religion.”
Hatem uses a football today as a way to break down barriers with children – to let them know that he’s just like them even though he wears a thobe, or traditional Islamic dress, and a kufi, or skull cap, on his head.
“I always joke with my friends. I still have two years of eligibility left at UW. What if I came back?” he said. “I still like the game. I’m still connected, but I do look at the game very differently now.”
Instead of reading keys on offense to find the ball carrier, Hatem channels his passion and work ethic toward his religion.
“At the time, my life was football. It was kind of like my religion at the time,” he said. “I loved the game. I thought it was my purpose in life to go to the NFL, make millions of dollars and be on TV.”
Instead, the injury forced Hatem to rethink his future without the cheering crowds. He earned his bachelor’s in psychology in 2003 and then came home to Spokane, where his mother and three younger sisters still live.
“Then I had a lot of reflection. Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” he said. “Then I started to realize there was a bigger purpose than the game.”
As he was sitting in a room alone, Hatem said he asked for a sign.
“I had a very powerful dream, if it was a dream at all. It was more like a surreal out-of-body experience,” he said. “It really shook me. All of the sudden, I had this mission.”
Hatem sought out all the books, information and videos he could find about Islam. He applied to more than 20 institutions of religious learning before he received an invitation to study at the Badr Language Institute in Yemen to learn Arabic.
After a year, he then spent the next six years at the Dar al-Mustafa seminary in Tarim, Yemen, to complete his Islamic studies.
Hatem is now known as Shaykh Qasim Hatem. Shaykh is a common term for a respected elder or, in Hatem’s case, used to denote an Islamic scholar.
In 2011, Hatem returned to Seattle where he became the executive director and resident scholar of the Mihraab Foundation, a religious-based, nonprofit organization that seeks to engage and educate Muslims.
Hatem also works as the Muslim chaplain for Harborview and University of Washington medical centers and for a Washington state prison.
“Now my purpose is to please God and serve the community and help society,” he said. “That is my new mission in life.”
Hatem said he began to understand the scope of how differently he was viewed when he arrived in JFK Airport in New York in 2011 after returning home from Yemen.
It was a “big culture shock,” he said. “I’m an American kid from Iowa. I ate corn. My great-grandfather came here from Lebanon. But now I’m a foreigner and a possible threat because of the way I dress and look?”
Hatem said he could see parents pull their children closer to them as he walked by in the airport. Hatem also gets selected for every “random” security check each time he enters an airport.
“It’s really interesting when I walk onto a plane and you can actually see the fear,” he said. “People are scared because of what they are seeing every day. That’s what my mission is to show the other side of Islam that is not shown in some of the media.”
Whenever he has random people say derogatory things, Hatem said he tries to shake their hand and engage them.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “That’s why we are trying to outreach to change people’s perceptions for the better.”
Hatem said he understands how Americans feel after the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But too often, people who are unfamiliar with Islam believe religion is the basis for extremist attacks.
“As Muslims, we condemn all terrorism,” he said. “It is against the teaching of religion and the teachings of Muhammad. We are trying to teach peace and tolerance and to love thy neighbor. It’s a principal in Christianity and Islam, as well.”
Those misperceptions often lead to confrontations, such as when 250 mostly armed people arrived in May and protested a mosque in Phoenix. Many protestors wore shirts with derogatory messages and one held a sign that said: “Stop Islam.”
“That would not work in front of a synagogue or a church, but somehow that is allowed in front of a mosque,” Hatem said. “It’s disheartening for me and other Muslims to go through this. It’s causing a backlash that is threatening their lives.”
The Pew Research Center conducted a study earlier this year that shows Americans, largely depending on their age and political orientation, rate Muslims about as unfavorably as atheists.
A different Pew study in 2013 showed that about 45 percent of all respondents believe Muslims are targets for discrimination, which was twice the rate for African-Americans (22 percent) and three times the rate of discrimination against women (15 percent).
“It is disheartening and hurtful,” Hatem said of the perceptions of his religion. “We want to unite Muslim and non-Muslim communities. When people can come together, it unifies us as Americans.”
Mamdouh El-Aarag, a board member of the Spokane Islamic Center, said he would suggest anyone with questions about Islam to attend a service at a local mosque.
“To me, this firsthand experience is better than any book or lecture,” he said. “That is one thing I love about this country and us as Americans.
“Hopefully, we don’t take things for granted and we find truth ourselves and not depend on a certain person or certain TV channel to tell me how I should think about a group of people.”
Hassan Hatem, Qasim’s younger brother and one of three Hatems to play football for Mead, agreed.
He told the story of sitting in a living room with his aunt in Lebanon as they watched the movie “Predator.”
“She said, ‘America is a crazy place,’ ” Hatem said. He then had to explain to her that not all Americans run around the jungle trying to kill aliens.
“But that low-level simplicity goes both ways,” said Hatem, of Bellevue. “I’ve had the benefit of traveling the world. But most people in Spokane haven’t had those little experiences.”
What has filled the void of understanding between cultures are “just hard, cold feelings,” Hassan Hatem said. “That humanity has to be restored and compassion has to be restored, regardless of ethnicity or religion.”
In the meantime, Qasim Hatem hopes to change perceptions one handshake, and perhaps one football throw, at a time.
“I want to make it easier for the next generation of kids growing up in America,” Hatem said. “I don’t want them to undergo the same treatment.”
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