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.”
Turk’s childhood helped blend his dual identities.
He attended public schools and played on youth soccer teams (his teammates called him Jay), even as he learned Arabic in Sunday school and attended summer camps for young Muslims. In high school, he made the varsity football and track teams and spent his senior year reading books on Islam in his free time.
Although his parents came from different backgrounds, they reared their five children as Muslims. “It was my personal opinion to raise them in one faith rather than throw mixed signals at them,” said his mother, Carol. “I had no objections to the Islamic religion.”
Hafez Turk chose what he believed would be a noble name for his son -- Jihad -- long before the word entered the U.S. lexicon as an expression for “holy war,” a meaning that Islamic scholars say has been distorted by extremists and the media.
“We do jihad every day in our life -- the struggle to do good,” said the father, a refrain frequently repeated by his son.
Turk’s parents divorced when he was 17, driven apart to some degree by cultural differences, including disagreements about his mother’s work and activities outside the home, she and Turk recalled. The split had a lasting effect on Turk.
“I would listen and feel the pain and hear the point of view of each of my parents,” he said. “That experience highlighted to me the importance for cultures to communicate.”
The divorce also prompted Turk to explore his faith more deeply. An imam at a Phoenix mosque encouraged the young man to study Arabic and Islam at the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Soon, Turk left Arizona State University for the ancestral land of Muhammad -- a place that he said felt wholly foreign to him, with its ideological fervor, literal interpretation of the Koran and segregation of men and women.
“It was a complete culture shock,” Turk said of his two years in the country, recalling how a professor at one point offered him a free plane ticket to Afghanistan to train with mujahedin fighters (he declined).
Turk also spent six months in Iran studying Farsi and Shiite Islam before returning to the U.S. to finish his bachelor’s degree in Arabic at UC Berkeley, followed by a master’s degree in Islamic law and Arabic at the University of Texas. He started on a doctorate in Islamic studies at UCLA and four years ago began working at the Islamic center on Vermont Avenue. At the mosque, he runs youth programs, leads prayers, delivers sermons and officiates at weddings and funerals.
Leaders at the center said they hired Turk because he embodied their commitments to openness and integrating disparate identities.
“He fit our model,” said Maher Hathout, the center’s spokesman and one of its elders. “We coined the term, ‘Home is not where my grandparents are buried. Home is where my grandchildren are brought up.’ ”
Other prominent community members see Turk as representative of a new generation of American-born Muslims who can break down stereotypes and more easily explain the Muslim experience to those beyond the walls of their mosques.
“The presence of young Muslims who project a homegrown experience and understanding helps undo the psychological barrier of ‘us versus them,’ ” said Hussam Ayloush, the Southern California executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Turk is good-natured and quick-witted, often sprinkling humor through his crash-course presentations on Islam. During a recent visit to a world religions class at Hollywood’s Immaculate Heart High School, he read passages from the Koran about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to demonstrate that Muslims and Christians share the same creation narrative.
Then he tried to teach the roomful of seniors how to deliver the traditional Arabic greeting: “as-salaamu alay-kum” -- peace be upon you. The students stumbled over the words.
“A-salami-and-bacon?” he joked, drawing giggles. “Muslims don’t eat bacon.”
Turk is a relative newcomer to Muslim leadership circles in Los Angeles. Those interviewed said they welcome his interfaith work, but some objected to his use of the title “imam,” a designation they said should be reserved for the most learned Islamic scholars.
Turk is “not qualified to issue legal opinions or give legal advice,” said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA law school professor and Islamic law scholar who was once Turk’s graduate school advisor.
Turk said he gives advice on Islamic law or personal matters when asked to do so by members of the Islamic center. As for the title, he said he goes by “imam” only when outside audiences introduce him that way and never uses it in the mosque.
Turk is continually in motion. When he’s not at the center, teaching Arabic at UCLA or coaching soccer (he has three young children), he can be found engaged in one of his many interfaith endeavors.
In March, he will help lead a mission to Israel and the West Bank with Jewish, Muslim and Christian representatives, his fourth such trip. The group will visit sites holy to all three faiths. And early next year, another group he co-founded, the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California, will begin pairing local churches and mosques in a relationship-building exercise.
Turk’s co-leader, the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest, said Turk’s dual background is a useful tool in his efforts to establish trust.
“Because he was born and reared in this country, I think it’s easier for people who are not Muslim to understand him,” Guibord said. “He is deeply American and yet he is Muslim.”
Yet bridging the two worlds remains a challenge.
The day after the Ft. Hood shootings, Turk hosted at the Islamic center a group of seventh-graders from New West Charter Middle School in West Los Angeles. The students observed midday prayers inside the mosque. Then Turk gave them his abbreviated course on Islam, explaining that Muslims observe five pillars of faith that include daily prayer, fasting during the Ramadan holiday and making the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which he has done twice.
“Muslims believe in the Torah, the New Testament, the Old Testament and the Koran,” Turk told the students.
Then he asked: “My name is Jihad. What does jihad mean?”
One boy answered: “It means to fight.”
Turk, responding with the firm but friendly tone of a teacher, offered an alternative. “It means the inner struggle to do the right thing,” he said.