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Breaking Through Misconceptions and Stereotypes

An Interview with Hazami Barmada

Hazami Barmada discusses the incredible diversity among Muslim and Arab Americans and how public and cultural diplomacy can help break through stereotypes.

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Hazami Barmada is the president and CEO of Al-Mubadarah Arab Empowerment Initiative. As a public and cultural diplomacy professional, she focuses on international collaboration and community development with Arab-Muslim global communities. Barmada is also a program advisor for the Aspen Institute Global Initiative on Culture and Society, founder and executive director of the Iraqi Orphan Initiative, and the founder and president of the American Muslim Interactive Network.

Sally Steenland: Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama held an international summit here in Washington on Muslim entrepreneurship. More than 200 people came from 60 countries, and they connected with experts, government officials, business leaders, and citizens. You participated in many events surrounding the summit. Can you tell us what you learned and what was surprising about the summit?

Hazami Barmada: Honestly, the most surprising thing was the fact that people thought the concept of the summit was revolutionary. I don’t see the summit and initiatives of the Obama administration as a luxury but a necessity. I think we need to move beyond the idea that this is an aside to head-on diplomacy and see this type of initiative as instrumental to advancing national security and global connectivity.

S: How would you rate what happened in those two days?

H: I think it was as important for the administration to engage summit delegates with the government as it was to engage them with American companies and organizations. That was one of the most powerful parts of the summit. Having talked to delegates, I found that what was empowering to them was seeing not only what the American government was doing but also seeing the support of the American people—of the Muslim-American community and the Arab-American community—of our administration.

As Arabs and Muslims, we say that America tends to look at the Arab world as monolithic when it is actually so diverse. It also happens the other way around. When Arab communities talk about America, they see a monolithic country. And we know that is not reality. One of the most powerful things for delegates on a personal level was to get to meet and interact with Arab Americans and Muslim Americans.

S: I want to ask you about a new organization you have created, the Al-Mubadarah Arab Empowerment Initiative. Can you tell us why you started it and what it does?

H: For the past few years I have been working on public and cultural diplomacy. My interest has stemmed from an interest in how you can engage in discussions about international affairs that preach beyond the choir and involve nontraditional stakeholders in nontraditional diplomacy. This used to be seen as froofy. The real thing was government to government, and everything else was just fluff—like cultural diplomacy, diplomacy of the arts, business diplomacy.

Increasingly there has been a shift to figure out how to engage people who ordinarily wouldn’t come to the table. How do you bridge those gaps and create a dialogue that engages people beyond “kumbaya” discussions?

Al-Mubadarah is an Arabic word that means “the act of taking initiative.” It is shocking to see the state the Arab world is in—the lack of hope, the growing socioeconomic gaps, the growing generational gap and lack of connectivity, and also this idea, “oh poor Arab communities, look how bad the situation is.” Yet we are Arabs living all around the world who aren’t doing anything much to help.

My colleague and I were having this conversation at an event. In essence, Mr. Shiblie and I said that in not doing something, we are part of the problem. We have capacity, we have the ability, we have the resources, but in just talking, we are fueling the problem. That concept of self-empowerment gave birth to Al-Mubadarah. We want to figure out how we can create global connectivity between diaspora Arab communities so that they can re-engage and reinvest into the Arab world. We aim to strengthen Arab communities and bridge the growing gap between those who aren’t fortunate enough to leave the Arab world, and Arabs who want to stay in the Arab world to help. We also want to address the brain drain, which is a crippling issue.

S: Let’s talk about the American-Muslim and the American-Arab community here in the United States. You’ve said many times that this is a very diverse community, and that to even use the word “community” in the singular is probably not accurate because there are many communities.

H: Muslim identity is not monolithic. I use the phrase “putting a face to it” because that is what we need to do. Islam is a faith, something that is internal—a relationship, a mindset, a worldview. So how can you identify who a Muslim is unless you know that person?

Islam, like any other faith, is influenced by many things: interpretation, political climate, [and] social and cultural variations. Islam as a faith should be separated from Muslims as followers of that faith. We often use the term Muslim and Islam interchangeably. But it’s important not to collectively describe the actions of Muslims as the way Islam functions because there are so many different actions that might not be derived from the faith.

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about what a Muslim looks like. I am a woman who is very active in the Arab-Muslim community. I am nonveiled and do not “look Muslim.” Although I hear that all the time, I am not sure what is meant—I am not dark complected; I am tall. Even so, that makes absolutely no sense to me because there are Muslims of all shapes and ethnicities—the conversion rate is very large. So how do you move beyond this idea that there is a face of a Muslim or a face of Islam?

I try to showcase an appreciation for the beauty and unique creation of Muslims as individuals, which is often stripped out of how we define Muslims in mainstream America. Once you start seeing the many faces of Muslims, you can no longer say Muslims are “X” because you have a pool of people who identify the same way but look different, talk different, act different.

S: One of the things you have said is that, “in order to be accepted as Muslims, we first need to be accepted as Americans. Don’t put us in a box because of our religion.” Can you explain what you mean by that and also in a related question—it’s hard to get away from the headlines—can you talk about the challenge that the Times Square failed bombing presents to the Muslim-American community?

H: Islam is a faith. It is not a scarf. It is not specific attire, and it is not how you wear your pants or don’t wear your pants. Islam is a spiritual connection. You can’t put us in a box because religion is self-identified. Islam is as much about your intentions as your actions. And your intentions are known to none other than your creator. Islam is about how you treat people, how you respect those around you, how you view the world in which you live.

For someone on the outside to define me as a Muslim strips me from the power of saying I am also a woman, I am also young, I am also a student, I am also a sister, I am also a daughter. There are so many ways that we self-identify. We are Americans who happen to be of the Muslim faith. We are Americans who can identify as Muslims if we want to, but we should not be instantly boxed into a Muslim-American category.

What is a Muslim issue? And why is it that every time an issue happens that deals with the Muslim community, every Muslim feels the need to respond? I think we should also be—and we are—engaged in issues broader than our community, American issues because we are Americans. Health care, running for office, what is happening at the boys and girls club, or the senior center in our local cities. These are Muslim issues as much as anything else is.

To go to your question, I witnessed something last week that really caught me off guard. After the Times Square failed bombing, I posted something on Facebook about the racist video that Dan Fanelli had done on racial profiling for his campaign in Florida. I said it’s unbelievable that this man created a video saying we should racially profile. He had an Arab in his video and also a white, gray-haired man. He said if this is what a terrorist looks like, then I would racially profile this type of man. But this is not who bombs a plane—and he pointed back to the Arab man.

I posted something to the effect of “this is not right.” One of my colleagues, who I work with in the interfaith community, posted a response that said he was shocked and disappointed that I did not condemn what happened in New York City.

This really caught me off guard because here I am, doing positive work and trying to make people realize that there are a whole slew of Arab Americans. I do not feel the need to be apologetic for a man who does not represent my faith, my community, or my mindset.

S: One of the things that is so troubling is that when there is an attempted terrorist act, you hear a chorus of voices saying, “Why isn’t the Muslim community condemning this?” First of all, they are. But also there’s this sense that every single Muslim American needs to stand up and apologize. That doesn’t happen when a Timothy McVeigh bombs a building in Oklahoma, or a guy flies his plane into a building and kills IRS workers.

H: That is the exact argument that I recently gave to someone who said that Muslims need to be apologetic for terrorism because it’s a Muslim problem. I said, “Do you even know how the U.S. government defines terrorism?” Terrorism, if you look at the definition according to our State Department, is the act of violence that affects innocent lives with a political motive.

The IRS bombing and Timothy McVeigh bombing were politically motivated. Abortion clinic bombings were politically motivated. And what about the recent D.C. story where a woman chopped up the bodies of her four children and froze them because she said that “God told me to do it—it was the sacrifice?” Why don’t we hear about people who are threatening violence in the name of Christianity? And back to the man who responded to my posting on Facebook—I don’t want to be on the defensive when I say that I shouldn’t have to stand up and condemn violence of anyone who claims to act in the name of Islam.

This is the reality of the matter. Although we promote free speech, it comes with a price tag. Often it constricts the civil rights of Muslim Americans engaged in these issues because people start questioning their motives, especially if they’re critical of certain policies or practices. I feel that a lot of Muslim Americans who would add a lot to the dialogue stay away because there is this legitimate fear of the Patriot Act and racial profiling. It’s a complex problem.

It is important for me to say to people who question why Muslim Americans do not stand up that they do, sometimes very loudly, and sometimes in a way that is not necessarily apologetic. We are saying we do not associate with people who are trying to “hijack” our faith. That is a very important differentiation. Rather than apologizing for the actions of these people, we are saying their actions do not relate to our religion—we are distancing them from the Muslim-American mainstream community.

S: As you look ahead, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing us? What gives you hope?

H: One of the biggest challenges facing me personally is lack of sleep! In looking forward, I am passionate about connecting diverse people with similar aspirations and hopes. There is not one face to an activist. There is not one face to a global citizen. An IT engineer is just as capable of creating international impact as someone who works in a soup kitchen or someone who weaves fabric. We all have a place—an important place—and we should find ways to engage people who can bring diverse talents and skill sets to the table.

I get a lot of hope from seeing how many people are global citizens. How many people, when you give them the right leadership and tools and resources, feel like they can be part of change. That is, in essence, what Al-Mubadarah aims to do. It aims to empower Arabs around the world to say, “I matter. I have a story and I can contribute positively. I am a being that also has a place in society.” That is what ultimately gives me hope, having more and more people who believe they have something to give not only their fields but also the larger community.

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Sally Steenland

Former Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

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