Bilal Abdul Kareem was born in 1970 in the US state of New York. There he grew up in a small suburb playing baseball and attending church services on Sunday. While still in primary school, he entered into an oratorical contest wherein he won 1st prize for his recitation of former US President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech “Gettysburg Address”. It was at that point Bilal saw the power of communication and expression. “I knew from a very young age that I loved people and loved to get to know them”.
After graduating from high school in 1988, he attended a performing arts University in upstate New York where he began writing and performing in professional stage plays. Some of them played in small venues in Manhattan and Harlem revolving around spreading AIDS and domestic violence awareness. Bilal’s sister Sheila Jackson was shot to death by her live in boyfriend in 1994. Bilal himself also performed in several stage plays and toured with a small theatre company that reached out to students around the United States educating them about the dangers of drug abuse. However more than acting he loved stand up comedy most and performed around the comedy circuit in the New York city area.
In 1997 he moved into a new apartment near to a Mosque in Brooklyn, NY. where he heard the Muslim call to prayer (athaan) for the first time. After observing the Muslims for some months and reading about their religion he accepted the faith of Islam.
After becoming Muslim he decided he did not want a life in a faith where he would be forever reliant on someone to tell him what was and was not acceptable to his Lord. Therefore he decided to go and study the Arabic language. So he could read and understand the Quran and books of hadeeth for himself. It was then that he decided to journey to Sudan and study at the International University of Africa in Khartoum. However, the university was having severe financial problems and would not start the semester on time. Sudan was an intense experience for him. “My flight landed in Khartoum at 2am and it was 100° F! The food was awful and at night frogs and mosquitos were everywhere. Coming straight from New York to Sudan was big culture shock. I just wasn’t ready for that!” A week later he decided to leave Sudan and try to seek Islamic knowledge in the more modernized country of Egypt.
After arriving in Egypt he immediately began studying. He found an Arabic teacher named Yasser who would go on to be on of Bilal’s lifelong friends. Bilal studied under his young teacher at his house for approximately two years where he then branched out and began learning Arabic from other teachers. Additionally he studied Tafseer (explanation) of the Quran as well.
A Saudi based TV company launched an English language Islamic TV channel based in Cairo, Egypt. Bilal’s unique background of Islamic study and prior career in entertainment made him a favored candidate to be the new channel’s first program director. After a battery of interviews with the channel’s supervisor Ahmed Fahmy, he was officially taken on board. He also hosted a talk show for Huda TV called “Solutions”.
After producing countless programs for the channel he became unsatisfied with his role. He saw much turmoil in the Muslim world and wanted to use his position as program director to establish a current news based program with hard hitting documentaries from around the Muslim world. However, the channel’s board of directors in Saudi Arabia were not interested in any programming that focused on current events. This fundamental difference in ideologies alongside other disagreements with the channel’s management eventually led to a split. Not long after resigning his post at the channel Bilal traveled to Rwanda for his first documentary. “There was so much the world needed to know about Muslims and it was either not being reported or it was grossly misrepresented by most major news companies.
Bilal Abdul Kareem traveled to Syria for the first time in 2012 to document resistance fighter’s activities who were fighting against the rule of Bashar Assad. “I had an idea about the Mujaahideen after producing my documentary “Torture Agreement” in post-Qadhafi Libya. There I met many respectable Islamic fighters calling for Islamic Law. I was curious as to what kind of fighter I would find in Syria. So I decided to go and document it”.
Bilal has been documenting foreign fighters in Syria and has produced reports with Channel 4, BBC, Skynews, and the Dutch program Newseur.
“Most people are approaching the Islamic Fighters issue as it was a given that the West and Muslims have to continue firing on one another. I don’t believe that to be the case. Being an American and having spent extensive time documenting the Mujaahideen fighters, I think there is much common ground between them. It would take courageous leadership on both sides to explore the idea of getting to know one another and seeing if there is common ground. I think there is much common ground.
Are those leaders currently present? That’s the question. Usually this type of broad minded thinking comes about after huge massacres on both sides. Hopefully we can avoid that kind of killing and create a situation wherein both parties can feel safe.”