Listen to this interview (mp3)
Edina Lekovic is the communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. She founded Elev8, an arts-based youth program that has a mission to identify, train, and develop young community leaders. Edina has frequently appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, and The History Channel. She was managing editor of Al-Talib and editor-in-chief of the UCLA’s newspaper, The Daily Bruin. She has participated in a number of interfaith conferences and dialogues and is currently a fellow with the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, or AMCLI.
Edina participated in a roundtable meeting with other young leaders at CAP last November as part of our Young Muslim American Voices project.
Edina, you are a young Muslim American who was born in Montenegro and came to the United States with your family when you were a baby. You say that when you were growing up, you felt stuck between cultures. One of your struggles has been to figure out which part of you was Montenegrin, which part was Muslim, and which part was American. Can you talk about that?
I think that struggle stayed with me from when I was little until I was in college. I was born Muslim, but my parents came from a country under a communist-socialist dictatorship, so religion was squashed while they were growing up. My parents didn’t know much about Islam other than the fundamentals, which they passed on to my sister and me. Growing up—I think back to high school—I knew I wasn’t allowed to date or drink. But I couldn’t figure out if that was because my Montenegrin culture frowned on it or my family’s Islamic faith frowned on it. I struggled a lot with my parents, trying to have that conversation.
It was blurry for me for a long time. It was only when I went to college that I went on my own journey to figure out who I am and what my faith is. I started to read about my faith and culture and was able to assign certain cultural traditions in one column, and religious ones in another. Ultimately I felt more comfortable with the intersection of the two, but that has been a lifelong journey for me, and I’m sure for many people who grow up as a child of immigrant parents.
As part your faith you wear a headscarf—a hijab. You say you often get questions from strangers; you could be at the grocery store or the mall, and people walk up to you and say, “Why do you wear that thing on your head?” Tell us what you say to them, and also tell us about your decision to cover and what it signifies for you.
I remember the first day I wore a headscarf. I was a sophomore at UCLA and was walking down the street in Westwood, our college town. I saw this woman walking toward me. She was looking at me intently, so I figured she must know me and I felt terrible that I didn’t recognize her. She came up and I went, “Hello!” and faked knowing her because I felt uncomfortable. She put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Honey, you’re in America now. You don’t have to wear that here.” My heart and stomach sank into my shoes. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “I’m an American, thank you very much. I made the choice on my own”—or something like that.
That question in one form or another has cropped up over the years. I’m 32 now, so it’s been 13 years since I started wearing a headscarf. In the beginning, the decision was about wanting to represent a different kind of Muslim woman. My family didn’t go to mosque very often, so I never had the benefit of understanding Islam as it was practiced. When I went to college, I was forced to reconsider many of the stereotypes I had about Muslim women and what the hijab was about. When I read the Qur’an from beginning to end, I was surprised to realize that it embraced women as equal partners within society and equal in the eyes of God.
What I had seen on television and films and other places wasn’t accurate, and it angered me. I thought, well, I am a European-looking young woman, and for all intents and purposes no one would recognize I am Muslim because I don’t look the part. In my 19-year-old mind, I thought that instead of simply talking the talk, I wanted to walk the walk and show an accurate picture of what Muslim women could look like—that I could be career driven and successful, outspoken, and intelligent. I wanted to represent what the hijab really is about—that a woman should be taken for her mind and intellect, for her contributions to the world rather than just for her body. The symbolism of the hijab as a tool of modesty, a tool of equality, and empowerment was very powerful and led to my decision.
In the 13 years that have passed, every year I feel a little differently. In the beginning, wearing it felt like an honor and privilege, and then for a while it felt like a responsibility and a burden, and then for a while it felt like it was robbing me of my anonymity, and then it became a conversation starter—one that I embraced. For another period of time it became just another piece of clothing. Your relationship with your hijab evolves, and I’ve learned not to fight that. You go through different stages of life, and there are feelings that accompany each of those—so it is with a headscarf. Over the years, I have worn it in different ways, as an expression of where I am at that point.
You work as the communications director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles—and you call yourself a translator between Muslims and mainstream journalists. What do you mean by that? Can you talk about some of the challenges and successes of your job?
I was actually a journalist before I was a communications director, so I’ve seen both sides. I wanted to be a journalist from when I was 8 years old. I fell in love with Peter Jennings, sitting on my father’s lap and watching the evening news with him every night. I studied journalism and wanted to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. After I graduated from college and started to interview for jobs, I found that wearing a headscarf and being in front of a camera as a news reporter didn’t go hand in hand for a lot of producers and hiring directors. So I had to reassess.
I served as managing editor for a Muslim-American magazine, The Minaret, thinking I could bring together my passion for journalism, and my passion for Islam and Muslim-American activism and political and social issues. I pursued my master’s degree in communications, which made me see the need for translators. So much of the coverage of Islam and Muslims is one dimensional and unbalanced. I think most reporters strive for balance in their individual stories, but when we look at the collection of stories about Muslims and Islam, it’s lopsided—covering the exceptions to Muslims worldwide rather than a majority of Muslims. I have taken it upon myself to try to eat away at that a little bit and get better stories in the broadest sense possible.
In my media relations role, I get calls and make calls to reporters and producers on almost a daily basis. Half the time when I get calls it’s because a reporter wants a comment from somebody in my organization about international news events, violent extremism, you name it. We try to fill that role and add to the public discourse. I also get calls from reporters looking for good sources. Sometimes I think of myself as a dating service–a matchmaker. One time I got a call from a reporter looking for an Iraqi refugee family who had come from Iraq after the war started. They wanted a two-parent family with children who lived on the western seaboard so it would fall within the coverage zone of the newspaper. For these things, I go into my rolodex and talk to community leaders and identify people who fit the bill, and then try to convince them to talk to reporters. It’s challenging because even when I find good sources, particularly with many recent immigrants, there can be a hesitation and fear of talking, of being misrepresented.
I originally saw myself as a translator for journalists, but now I also realize that I’m a translator for Muslim Americans, helping them have a more three-dimensional understanding about “the media.” I say there is no such thing as “the media,” just like there’s no such thing as “the Muslim.” Every outlet has its own quirks, and you’ve got to give every reporter a chance before you judge them.
You talk about stereotyped portrayals that don’t reflect the Muslim-American community. Do you think things are getting better or getting worse?
I think things are getting better. What 9/11 did was create a crisis and then create an opportunity for greater understanding. It created a level of curiosity—particularly in the entertainment and the news industry—about Muslims. They realized that there were some interesting stories out there. What’s happening in the entertainment industry is very interesting. Post-9/11 we expected that portrayals were going to get worse. But by and large, TV production companies and filmmakers stayed silent on terrorism-related stories for a few years, until they found a way to deal with it intelligently and sensitively.
There are good examples and bad examples. One of the worst examples was a plotline of “24” on Fox that focused on a sleeper-cell family who were obviously Muslim. One of the parents ordered their child to get rid of a friend because they knew too much. The billboards for this were ominous and fear mongering. We reached out to the executive producer of “24,” Howard Gordon, and to the diversity development department at Fox television. They agreed to meet with us, although they didn’t fully understand what we were so up in arms about. But in that meeting, we were able to lay out our concerns and share the outrage and the hurt within our community to be portrayed in this way. After that, producers agreed to run a public service announcement with Kiefer Sutherland, the star of the show, making clear the story was fictional and describing contributions of Muslim Americans to society.
Out of that crisis, the show has evolved to where the producer attended a Brookings Institution-sponsored U.S. Muslim World Relations forum in Qatar. He has engaged policymakers and think tanks about these issues and brought that back into the show. That’s a success story because the relationship today could not be more different than when we started. We’ve also launched a Hollywood bureau where we go to industry functions and let people know that we’re here not to make sure that only positive stories are told but that authentic and multidimensional stories are told.
On top of that, we’ve realized that we need to identify and promote talent within our community. The industry tells us, don’t wait for other people to tell your story right, get in there and do it yourself. Nothing speaks like talent. So we’re also trying to nurture and provide opportunities for aspiring Muslim artists
I want to flip from entertainment to news, especially given the news in the last few months of the Fort Hood shootings and other incidents of what some are calling homegrown extremism or terrorism. Can you tell us how your organization is responding?
This is a dominant factor in our work. We walk the line between dealing with national security issues and civil rights issues because they’re equally important. When it comes to the rash of incidents we’ve seen recently, we have a couple of responsibilities. The first is to clearly and unequivocally condemn these actions. I can’t tell you how horrifying it is as a Muslim to wake up to bad news and have my stomach and fist clenched, thinking, “Please don’t let it be a Muslim.” It’s extremely sad and painful to know what a deep violation of my faith these kinds of actions are. We have a responsibility to make the public aware that Muslims across the world are condemning these actions—that we’re outraged and horrified.
Second, we have an opportunity and responsibility to advise policymakers and law enforcement about how to do their jobs well. As Americans, we have that right and that responsibility. We all share the concern about keeping our country safe, but the tactics shouldn’t strip the rights of individuals. In the last year, there have been these counterterrorism arrests. On day one, they sound awful and frightening, but on day two and three we often learn that there was a paid informant, and more often than not, it was the paid informant who proposed the idea for the alleged terror plot and offered the supplies. It’s up to a court of law to decide, but it often seems like dimwitted individuals or petty criminals are being entrapped. Again, I leave it to the courts, but the facts in these cases haven’t won the confidence of Muslim-American communities.
When paid informants wander into American mosques, it creates a chilling effect for Muslim Americans who want to worship freely. They don’t know if the white convert next to them is really an undercover agent. It’s a sad day when you go to your house of worship and don’t know whether you can trust the person sitting next to you. That said, law enforcement has a job to do and we support that, but doing it right and doing it well requires a more thoughtful approach.
Can you tell us about MPAC’s new report, “Building Bridges to Strengthen America”?
We had two goals when we started this paper. The first was to analyze the theories out there about the process of radicalization. So much has been said that doesn’t carry water. The second goal was to examine and make recommendations about the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim-American communities.
On the first goal, our author analyzes many radicalization theories and debunks them. The reality is that there is no one single process of radicalization. If we’ve learned anything from cases over the last year, it’s that each case has its own intricacies. The more we try to spell out a single process, the more we create blind spots that can undermine our work in keeping our country safe. We believe in a hybrid theory—in different situations where the factors are different.
In the second goal, we spell out the need for stronger engagement between Muslim- American communities and federal and local law enforcement. Our communities and law enforcement need one another; they also need to respect one another. There needs to be a separation of labor and responsibilities. Law enforcement needs to focus on criminal behavior, not political speech or religious activity, which has been wrongly connected to criminal behavior. When it comes to issues of extremism within our community, it is our responsibility as Muslims to deal with those issues head on. Law enforcement should not serve as religious police. So we advocate for a separation of responsibilities and a greater degree of respect and trust building.
As you look ahead, what challenges do you see facing Muslim-American communities? What concerns do you have, and what gives you hope?
Our primary challenge is self-definition. We who are mainstream and proud Muslims have lost control over our authority regarding religion and our communities. We are proud of who we are and our role in our country, yet we have to prove our religious credentials, while extremists and hateful voices don’t. Our challenge is to put forth who we are and define ourselves.
Last week I was at a talk by Dr. Sherman Jackson, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan. He talked about the need for Muslim Americans to create an indigenous American racial identity. That struck a chord with me because it confirms my own experience and is connected to another challenge concerning young people in our communities.
One of the main fallouts from cases we’ve seen and questions of homegrown terrorism is the potential to cast further suspicion on young Muslim Americans who are struggling with their identity. They are trying to get a good education, to understand their faith and live it to the best of their ability, and to be [a] contributing member of society. Frankly, they’re the best thing we’ve got. They’re talented, passionate, engaged in community service, and civic engagement. They want to be part of the solution and are working with people of different backgrounds and faith.
Yet in many ways they face the same thing I faced the first day I put on my hijab—my nationality, loyalty, and intelligence were questioned. I see support of our young people as our primary challenge, but also the thing that gives me the most hope. Ten years ago when I was in college, it was strange that I was going into journalism because the acceptable careers for many of my Muslim peers were medicine, engineering, or business. Since 9/11, law and the media have become the new medicine and engineering. That makes me hopeful. Ten years—or more—from now when these young people become a force in these industries, we will define ourselves on a public stage. I hope it doesn’t take 10 years. I’m counting on the talent of young people who are spreading out to new and interesting fields, and taking ownership of their identity and their country. The possibilities they will take us to are the things that make me most hopeful.
Listen to this interview (mp3)