Free Speech and Religion

Fighting Islamophobia and Hacking the Way to Social Change

June 27, 2017  • Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali is a New York Times op-ed contributor, a lawyer, a playwright, and a former TV host. Recently, he was creative director of Affinis Labs, working with Facebook and Google on social entrepreneurship initiatives that have a positive impact for marginalized communities. He will be speaking in The America I Know and Global Conflicts tracks at the Aspen Ideas Festival. 

How is your work at Affinis Labs driving positive social impact and promoting peace?

Well, I certainly hope my time as Creative Director at Affinis Labs created some positive social impact and helped empower change agents who seek innovative solutions to pressing challenges. Our entire goal is to unlock innovation in unexpected places. And, yes, that’s sounds like a sexy tweet and branding gimmick, but we mean it. The way to go about doing that is by identifying and working with passionate individuals on the ground, from the community, who are actually dealing with these challenges on a daily basis. Whether it’s religious intolerance, online bullying, anti LGBT harassment, misogyny, lack of economic resources, or violent extremism.

Specifically, we did social impact hackathons with Facebook and Google around the world to come up with some impactful and sustainable solutions to combat hate. Hackathons are intense, organized experiences in which teams compete with each another in fast-paced race against the clock (usually 2.5 days or less) to “hack” (creatively solve) a challenge and develop prototype tools, products, narratives, and initiatives.

We’ve held events in Manila, Dhaka, Jakarta and at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. We spent time selecting a diverse group of at least 20 people, from different ethnicities, regions and professions, and pair them into usually five groups. The first day, we give them hands on training on digital storytelling, marketing and how to use digital tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to communicate a message or idea to a global audience. We usually invite Facebook, Google, AJ+, and a local storyteller or entrepreneur to lead this workshop, which is always open free to the public at large.

Over the next 2 days, we create the teams and guide them through the process where they identify the challenges and then spend the next day creating – from scratch – the solutions. It culminates in a pitch session in front of a live audience, a panel of esteemed judges, and a streaming online community. The winning idea – chosen by the judges and the community – receives seed funding and we help mentor them for 6 months.

The winning idea in Jakarta was an original YouTube series moderated by a Christian Indonesian comedian that seeks to debunk false news and online myths. Over in Manila, the winning team came up with a brilliant Facebook app that audits your posts and checks whether or not any words or phrases can be seen as bullying or inflammatory. In Bangladesh, the winning team was a group of young artists and writers who created their own digital comic book series. They love American pop culture and comics but realize they need authentic Bangladeshi heroes who are the protagonists of their own narratives. The second place team, which also received funding, is creating an online community and app to discuss mental health issues, an often taboo subject in that country.

Over in the Bay Area, the winning team came up with a platform called ACTIVATE YOUR SQUAD, which allows you to call on your social media community to drown out trolls, haters and bullies.

Our goal is to unlock innovation in unexpected places.

Another recent initiative is Minbar, a digital platform we created in house that allows up-and-coming entrepreneurs from marginalized communities to pitch their ideas and receive feedback and funding from an online community. Our first run was in Tunisia where we offered a $25,000 prize to the best idea. We used social media marketing to reach young entrepreneurs who are talented but often never given a chance or an outlet. These individuals are not the top 5 percent, don’t go to English-only schools and are often, sadly, neglected but have immense talent. We also put on a entrepreneurial boot camp, choosing 40 applicants, for a hands-on, 3-day workshop on best strategies and practices.

It was a huge hit.

If you engage with these young change agents and their communities in a sincere manner, listening to them, working with them, and not parachuting in with a top-down approach, it usually leads to success and empowerment.

What do you think drives Islamophobia in America? What can those from other communities do to alter negative stereotypes and narratives about Muslims?

There are several factors that drive anti-Muslim bigotry in modern America. For brevity, it really boils down to the following: ignorance and misperceptions. Specifically, Muslims have been in America since the 16th century (some would say even earlier). However, that marked the first major arrival of black slaves who were forcibly brought to this country against their will. Estimates suggest nearly 5 to 30 percent of these slaves were Muslim. So, even though our blood, sweat, labor, dreams, lives, stories fertilize this country’s soil, nearly 65 percent of Americans say they don’t “know” a Muslim in 2017.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Muslims are also the most diverse religious communities in America, in terms of ethnic background, religious sects, national origin and so forth. Muslim women are the most educated women of any religious group just behind Jewish American women. But the mainstream image of a Muslim women is silent, oppressed, walking tragedy shrouded in a black veil.

What people do know about Islam and Muslims they sadly get from media depictions, which categorically have been flawed, sensationalized and use an extreme minority to paint the diverse narratives of 1.6 billion people and 1,400 years of Islamic civilization.

The current anti-Muslim trend seems like a remake. Tag, Muslims are it. But, back in the day, the bogeymen were Jews, Catholics and Japanese Americans. If you remove what some haters say about Muslims right now and simply replace it with Jew or Catholic, you will have a near perfect mirror of the conversations that were taking place in America during the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. White supremacy and bigotry is a helluva drug.

We need more education. More awareness. More allies and people of good faith coming together to inoculate their community and children from fear and hate. We need schools to strengthen their anti-bullying measures. We need equal standards – not double standards – across the board when it comes to employment, housing, media representation and the label of “terrorism,” which has been rendered almost meaningless with its lopsided application to only Muslims suspects.

You need more lawyers and law firms taking on pivotal cases that defend religious freedoms and liberties of Muslim communities, which in turn ensures all of our freedoms. You need more political representation by American Muslims. Right now we have only two elected Congressmen – that won’t cut it.

You also need more storytellers. And we’re seeing people pick up the mic and run with it. Folks like Dave Chappelle, Aziz Ansari, Hasan Minhaj, comic book writer Willow Wilson, athletes, entrepreneurs, doctors, activists, and more.

Finally, we all have to carry each other’s water. Hate has gone intersectional. The forces of anti-Muslim bigotry also have their targets on women, LGBT, black communities, Latinos, and the undocumented. That means love must go intersectional and be just as audacious and replace miserliness with generosity. Muslims are stepping up for black lives, climate change, living wages, women’s rights, and so forth. It has to be reciprocal, and it is.

One strange twist of fate is that Trump has actually made Muslims cool in certain circles and inspired folks to bust out of their cocoons, learn more about their neighbors and reach out a hand in good faith. So, for that, thanks Trump!

Politicians from both parties courted the Muslim-American vote in the 2016 election. Yet you believe both Democrats and Republicans still don’t fully understand your diverse community. What do you wish they knew?

There is no such thing as a Muslim community. There are Muslim communities. There are 3 to 4 million of us, making up the most diverse religious communities in America. You can’t and shouldn’t take our votes for granted. We live all throughout America, but coincidentally happen to be in many swing states. Some Florida Arab and South Asian Muslims voted as a bloc for the first time in 2000 – sadly, they went for Bush. He went on to win that election by 500 or so votes.

Democrats and Republicans, please realize the utility of American Muslims goes far beyond national security.

Don’t use Muslims as a token. Either as a piñata, to beat us up to inspire your base that loathes and fears immigrants and people of color. Or as a club, to beat up Republicans and nativists. Reach out and engage us. Work with us and vice versa. Realize many Muslims take their faith seriously, so don’t create ridiculous litmus tests to gage our civilizational capacity. This is for progressives who are often deeply critical of religion and mock and condescend towards faith communities. You potentially lose allies, who otherwise align on health care reform, climate change, a living wage, and criminal justice reform.

Republicans, what can I say? Many Muslims used to vote Republican because they believe in “traditional” values and many well-off immigrant populations appreciated your “generous” tax cuts. However, you’ve allowed toxic White nationalism to overtake your party and now the White House. What role, if any, do Muslims play in your America? We’re either ISIS or folks who might become ISIS. That’s it.

For both Democrats and Republicans, please realize the utility of American Muslims goes far beyond national security. Since 9/11 it still seems the “good” Muslim is he/she who will accept the national security paradigm and hunt Al-Qaeda. The “bad” Muslim is potentially everyone else. My mother doesn’t have time to go after ISIS. She is busy working, making biryani, and watching the Golden State Warriors. There is more to our rich history, our talents, our contributions and lives than just “fighting ISIS.” Engage the entrepreneurs, the doctors, the academics, the engineers, the storytellers, the activists. See us for who we really are. In order to do that, you’re must be willing to step off your island and follow the smell of falafel and biryani to our mosques, community centers, businesses, and homes.

When reporting on today’s political environment it is easy to be weighed down by cynicism and negativity. Who or what keeps you inspired?

I have two babies. I don’t have the time, luxury or patience to be weighed down by cynicism. It’s easy to be cynical and nihilistic, snarky and perpetually outraged. To sit on the sidelines and do nothing but throw social media grenades and emojis. Cynicism requires zero work and investment. It’s cheap and lazy. Hope requires work. It also requires vulnerability, because you risk exposing yourself to failure and pain. But hope is needed. Hope can fuel a new narrative and vision in which our kids, regardless of their multisyllabic name, their religion, their sexuality, their national origin, can stand up and throw down with humble swagger and contribute a verse to the evolving rough draft that is America. I’ll be damned if they end up as antagonists, sidekicks, tokens, footnotes, or worse of all, excised completely and existing only as a number in a camp.

Cynicism requires zero work and investment. Hope requires work.

So, I do it for my kids. And I do it because I still believe in people’s better angels. Right now, it seems those angels are either drunk and passed out, or held hostage, but people and generations before us have been through worse. We are privileged folks, especially individuals reading this on the prestigious Aspen blog. You can whine and complain on the sideline or you can throw down in the ring. I choose the latter.

There’s a great saying of the Prophet Muhammad: Even if you see the day of judgement coming around the corner, plant a seed.

My faith compels labor and hope even in the most dire of times. So I plant the seed.

And my kids, inshallah, will grow up and dominate the spelling bees. 

The views and opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.

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