In the 1960s, his Jewish parents converted to Islam, and after he was born, he followed their adopted faith.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tariq Sharif, 50, of Mendham, N.J., was preparing for an event at Rutgers University later in the evening entitled 'True Islam and the Extremists' hosted by his Islamic organization, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Central Jersey, which is based in Old Bridge. He serves as a spokesman for the organization.
Sharif, who spoke to NJ Advance Media in a telephone interview, said the event aimed to act as a counter-narrative to extremist ideology. State Senators Raymond Lesniak (D-Union County) and Samuel Thompson (R-Middlesex County) were expected to attend.
As a Muslim, he said he feels a responsibility to speak out against acts violence committed in the name of Islam — a perversion of the religion, he said. He cited the attacks in San Bernardino, in Paris, and most recently in Brussels.
"In light of the escalating extremist activity we've been hearing about," he said, "there is a need for peaceful Islamic organizations to raise their voices in protest."
The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Sharif said, is a nonviolent, peaceful organization that advocates reform of what he says has become a perversion of the faith.
"Our intention is to return back to our faith," he said.
The organization's views are closely tied to the teachings of Ahmadiyya, a sect of Islam, whose founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmadiyya, members say, "divested Muslims of fanatical beliefs and practices by vigorously championing Islam's true and essential teachings," according to the organization.
"Absolutely this all needs reform, this is a reform movement, there are many practices that need to be stopped," Sharif said.
Sharif said the organization aimed to highlight at the event 11 main points of which include stances like rejecting all forms of terrorism; equal rights for women; freedom of speech, religion and conscience; separation of mosque and state; and universal human rights, to name a few.
More information on the 11 points can be found on TrueIslam.com.
The timing of the event, Sharif said, was not accidental. With the most recent attacks in Brussels still fresh in everyone's minds, along with continual anti-Muslim rhetoric being touted by some Republican presidential candidates, Sharif said it is more important than ever to communicate what he says is true Islam.
"When I meet with the public, one of the most common things I'm asked is 'Why aren't you more vocal to objecting (against) this violence?'" he said.
And what he has learned is most people are genuinely interested in hearing the point of views from Muslims firsthand. He said he feels a responsibility to make American Muslims accessible to the public.
"There are so few accessible American Muslims," he said, "I don't have a choice. I need to be out there. We are trying to put ourselves out there, to be a resource, to tell our story and build bridges. When I go to these events, I tell my story, (others) tell their story, and they say 'I finally met a Muslim, someone who I feel comfortable with, who I can ask the hard questions to. I feel it is an opportunity."
He said people ask all sorts of questions that he welcomes, like should people be afraid of Muslims? Do Muslims believe in the United States Constitution? What is Muslims' philosophy about women — do they have rights? Are they forced to cover themselves?
He said he expected such questions at the event, and looked forward to discussing them.