SOURCE: CAP/Lauren Ferguson
Listen to the full interview:
For over two decades, the Muslim Public Affairs Council has been a leading national voice on behalf of the Muslim American community. MPAC works with policy leaders, law enforcement agencies, the entertainment industry, and others to shape policies and public opinion concerning Muslim Americans. MPAC also works within Muslim American communities to develop strong leadership and encourage civic participation.
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad is MPAC’s government relations director. She talks with Sally Steenland of CAP’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative about the challenges facing Muslim Americans in a post 9-11 nation, the images of Muslims in the media, and her community’s hopes for the new administration.
Sally Steenland: Safiya, you’re the Government Relations Director for the Muslim Public Affairs Council here in Washington D.C. Can you tell us about MPAC—why it’s needed, not just for the Muslim community, but for all of us?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad:The Muslim Public Affairs Council came about in about 1988, so we have been around for about 20 years. We originated in Los Angeles as the public relations wing of the Islamic Center of Southern California, and we’ve grown to expand our offices around the country. MPAC operates on the core belief that we’re trying to create a shift in U.S. policy, and that requires more from our community, but it also requires building bridges and coalitions with other groups at the grassroots and national level. We are trying to build those bridges, but we’re also trying to create a stronger voice in the media. There is a void of thoughtful analysis of the Muslim American community, of the issues at play.
Sally Steenland: Let’s talk about some of the policy issues you are working on and some of the media issues as well. I know that you have an office in Hollywood, and you have a project on Islam. What do those projects do?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: We instituted our Hollywood bureau about a year ago. We had been seeing a shift in public opinion of Muslims. A lot of what you see in the movies and TV is a Muslim playing the role of a terrorist. That becomes a formidable concept in the minds of Americans –that this is what Islam and the Muslim community represent. So we decided to create a Hollywood bureau which serves as a bridge between the Muslim community and the entertainment industry. We reach out to filmmakers, writers, actors, Hollywood professionals, and we talk about the issues that pertain to the Muslim American community. We also look at scripts and review shows, so we are able to say, “Look, this is how you portrayed a Muslim. Maybe you could do this instead or maybe you could show them praying in this way, in a more positive light.” And it’s actually been really positive. We’ve seen a lot of feedback from our Hollywood partners in asking us and seeking our advice.
“Project Islam’ is a program we implemented a few years ago [to equip] communities with the skills to address difficult questions….our religion [was] put in the spotlight after 9/11 and [we] were questioned about issues that are difficult—about polygamy, the role of terrorism or jihad. Sometimes our community members aren’t prepared to answer those [questions].
Sally Steenland: When you work with Hollywood and in communities so that there’s a more accurate reflection of who Muslims in America really are, what do you think some of those obstacles are?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: There are very few positive images of American Muslims portrayed on a broader level. So you’ll see Osama bin Laden tapes being played over and over again, where he is calling for jihad on America, but you don’t see, for example, an organization called Green Muslims that helps save the environment based on an Islamic perspective. Or you don’t see groups like MPAC that are calling out against terrorism and violence in any and all forms.
There’s a disconnect between what people are seeing and [who] Muslims [are.] Also, we’re still dealing with post 9-11 repercussions. We’re seeing an increase in employment discrimination, in cases where our community members are being questioned unnecessarily by the FBI and law enforcement.
Sally Steenland: Can you give us a sense of what a pre-9/11 world was and what a post-9/11 world looks like for the Muslim community in America?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: A lot of my work deals with young Muslims, and the reason we’re trying to engage [them] is because many who are reaching college age right now don’t remember a pre-9/11 world. They were very young when 9/11 happened and all they’ve seen is the backlash. They’ve seen Guantanamo, they’ve seen Abu Ghraib and this is what they’re beginning to understand of U.S. foreign policy or domestic policy. What we’re trying to do is to include them to be engaged citizens, to work with government officials, to engage their local law enforcement, to be active citizens.
Some of the post-9/11 repercussions have to do with “home-grown terrorism.” I know that the Senate and various government agencies are extremely concerned about young American Muslims who are born and raised here becoming radicalized and then carrying out acts of violence on U.S. soil. This is something that hits a nerve with a lot of us because it raises you to a suspect class. You’re born and raised here, but your allegiance to this country is still in question because you could be affiliating with terrorist groups or messages that are calling for violence.
Sally Steenland: If you could advise the Senate committees that are holding hearings and the FBI and the police forces that are working on this—and maybe in some cases you are—what would you say?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: I think the language that’s being used is extremely problematic. These hearings are called ‘Violent Islamic Radicalization,’ ‘Violent Islamist Jihadization.’ You are pushing people away from dialogue and discussion by language like that, because you’re equating violence and terrorism with our religion. Just like other religions, there are bad people carrying out acts of violence in the name of their religion…we don’t ascribe to those beliefs, but immediately are linked.
I have pushed the Senate Committees to change the language that’s coming out of our government to a more friendly, engaging atmosphere that brings young Muslims in….they’re always talking about young Muslims who are becoming radicalized, but they don’t have young Muslims testifying. They don’t have [them] coming forward to represent their own community.
Sally Steenland: Have you seen any hopeful signs based on your work?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: MPAC has testified before Congress on these issues, and I think they are reaching out to [us] and other Muslim groups for feedback, ideas, engagement….but in some ways, like the language issue, we’ve pushed for the last eight hearings for them to change the title, and that hasn’t been effective. But they’re trying to engage us and there’s hope with the new administration that there will be a shift.
Sally Steenland: What are your hopes for the new administration?
Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: On the campaign trail where we reached out to the American Muslim community [with] the get-out-the-vote initiative, I saw that so many people felt a change in rhetoric, a shift in the tone of the government in how they are going to engage the Muslim world and Muslims in general. Young [and] older Muslims felt like they were being included in this message of change and hope.
Sally Steenland: If you had to give us a snapshot that was reflective of the realities of Muslim American communities, what would you say?
Ghori-Ahmad: There’s always a preconceived notion that when you say “Muslim” you’re thinking South Asian, Pakistani, Indian, or Arab; but in fact the majority of American Muslims are native born, so they’re African American Muslims; they’re indigenous. About 35 percent are indigenous Muslims, which is more than the other groups. Arabs come in at about 24-25 percent, then South Asians at about 18 percent, and so you’re seeing this shift, especially[with] young American Muslims, where we’re not as affiliated with our ethnic background. Many times you’ll ask young Muslims where they’re from and their first response is, “America.”
Steenland: I want to go back for a minute and talk about some preconceptions people have and some things people say that they may not be aware of. One of the things you hear people say is, “He’s a moderate Muslim” or “She’s a moderate Muslim.” And that word “moderate” is meant to be a compliment, and I think you would probably say it is not. What’s wrong with saying that?
Ghori-Ahmad: I am one of those people who don’t like being called a moderate or progressive Muslim because moderation, to me, is a mainstream term. Moderation is inherent in our religion, in the Qu’ran, in what we’re taught all our lives. You can be an American and you can be a Muslim at the same time. Right now the definition has taken on a political twist where, after 9/11, you’ll see groups use “moderate Muslims” to portray themselves as a watered-down version of being Muslim.
Steenland: Can you talk about any generation gap that exists in the Muslim American community?
Ghori-Ahmad: I definitely think there’s a generation gap in our community right now. Often times our parents came here as immigrants, or if they are indigenous, their main priority was to build Mosques and community centers as a place for worship and gathering as a community. …..you’re seeing a shift in our generation into civic engagement and political activism. That’s a divide. The elder generation doesn’t think that is a priority. It’s sort of the immigrant mentality where, “we’re here, we want to make money, we want to have families, and we want to have a place to pray.”
But we’re seeing a more nuanced understanding of being an American Muslim in our generation where we’re trying to get more involved, whether politically or civically. I think that has caused rifts in some communities. Additionally, you’re seeing a void in some Mosques where the leadership is still the elder generation and you don’t see as many young Muslims stepping up to the plate to take leadership roles in their communities. Now that’s not universal, but those are some issues that are definitely inherent in the community right now.
Steenland: Let’s say you’re coming from a traditional community….Can you talk about the desire and appeal of assimilating and being an American, but at the same time, the appeal of tradition and of deeper roots within one’s own circle?
Ghori-Ahmad: I definitely think there is a conflict that probably many young Muslims feel in terms of, how far can we go? And these are issues we’re trying to have addressed in our Mosques and with our leaders…you do see that struggle and you’re constantly questioning, “Am I American? I’m South Asian at home.” You speak a different language, you pray five times a day, you dress differently, you eat different foods, and then it’s like you’re two lives.
I think everyone comes to a point, usually in college, where they reconcile those two identities and begin to understand what being an American Muslim is, and that you can be both. You can wear your jeans and go to the movies and talk about sports, and at the same time you can still make time to pray five times a day, you can make sure that you’re following the traditions that are set forth by the religion.
Steenland: If you had to list some of the top issues facing the Muslim American community this year, what comes to mind?
Ghori-Ahmad: Unfortunately we’re still dealing with post-9/11 issues. We’re still engaging with federal agencies and members of Congress to address issues like the Patriot Act, to address the ramifications of legislation that adversely affects the community. On the flip side, we’re also hoping that our community is beginning to understand and engage in the civic process at a more enhanced level. I think that this election brought the community to the forefront in terms of voting and volunteering for campaigns, and that was a good thing…. But we need to see more of that on the local and the grassroots [level].
Another issue is shifting from foreign policy to domestic policy. You can ask our community members, “What’s the most important issue to you?” and for the most part – this isn’t even a generational issue – you’ll hear, “Palestine” or “Kashmir” or “Afghanistan.” I think that we – MPAC – we’re trying to shift the focus from foreign policy to domestic policy because health care is just as important to us; we’re living in America. Immigration is just as important. There’s a host of domestic issues that are equally important but may not get the kind of relevance in the community that they should.
Steenland: I have one last question, and that has to do with your hopes for the next four years and beyond. If you had a wand and could help shape the Muslim American community in this country, what would you like to see and what are your hopes?
Ghori-Ahmad: I really do hope that we’re going to see a more diverse administration. We’re already seeing that, but I hope to see more Muslim Americans involved in the political process, more engaged, and not just in the law enforcement field. We’re not just here to talk about national security, but to address a whole host of issues and be looked at as equal stakeholders in the progress of America and the economic outlook for America. I do think we can look beyond 9/11 and the level of suspicion that we’ve seen ourselves cast in for the last few years and move beyond that. I hope for the next four or eight years that this administration will bring change to where our community will begin to feel like they’re a part of the system.
Steenland: Thank you very much, Safiya. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.
Ghori-Ahmad: Thank you.
Note: On April 25, MPAC will hold its 18th annual media awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Awards will be given to “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Simpsons” and Amy Goodman, founder and host of “Democracy Now!” on Pacifica.
This transcript has been edited for length.