Jihad Turk — clean-shaven and youthful — is telling an interfaith audience that the prophet Muhammad traces his lineage to Abraham, the biblical patriarch.
Turk explains to the crowd of mostly Christians and Jews that Muslims also revere Jesus and Moses as prophets, and that Islam cherishes life.
But some in the Pepperdine University audience are skeptical. One man wants to know why so many Muslims are “willing with perfect ease to kill,” as he puts it, drawing brief applause.
A woman later needles Turk about what she views as Islam’s suppression of women. “You guys really need a good PR firm,” she tells him.
Without missing a beat, Turk responds: “If you know of one, let me know.”
U.S. Muslims are struggling mightily these days to win over a wary public. In Los Angeles, part of that task falls to the 38-year-old Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of Southern California, one of the region’s most influential mosques.
Earnest and doggedly optimistic, Turk is an unflappable ambassador for an often embattled faith — a man whose American upbringing gives him a foothold in two sometimes colliding worlds.
The son of an American Methodist mother and a Palestinian Muslim father, Turk was elected homecoming king at his Phoenix high school and took some time off from college to explore his Islamic roots in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Now, as an emerging leader in local Muslim circles, he spends much of his time patiently trying to spread his message about Islam’s peaceful intentions, the importance of tolerance and the ancient thread shared by three monotheistic religions.
Some who encounter Turk commend him for breaking down walls of suspicion. Others doubt that he represents mainstream Muslim belief. Turk acknowledges that it can be difficult to convince skeptics. The recent deadly rampage at Texas’ Ft. Hood, allegedly by a Muslim Army major, has made the job even tougher.
“I’ve come to realize that there is a certain segment of the population that is impervious to what I have to say,” Turk said. “But there is . . . usually a good number of people I will get through to.”