Since 9/11 knee-jerk reactions to Islam have been built into the psyche of many Americans. News of foiled domestic terror plots have only accelerated negative opinions. The proposal to build a mosque near Ground Zero seized headlines — and hatred — while plans to build one in West Windsor have already caused some to balk at the idea.
On March 10 the first of New York Congressman Peter King’s Congressional hearings on “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community” kicked off amid a frenzy of protests and outcries. Allegations were made that a modern-day witchunt had been launched.
According to the Council on American Islamic Relations, the Garden State is home to more than a half-million Muslims and 100 mosques. South Brunswick, with a Muslim student population of 20 percent, incorporated Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha into its school calendar for the first time in 2010-’11 and generated calls for “focusing on American holidays” as a result.
But New Jersey’s diversity doesn’t always provide a model for the other 49 states to follow. If perception is reality, the public needs to look to the private sector to find fresh faces of Islam in America (see U.S. 1, December 8, 2010).
On Saturday, April 2, the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP) will host its fourth Leadership Summit at the Wyndham Princeton Forrestal Hotel & Conference Center, 900 Scudders Mill Road in Plainsboro. The day begins with registration and a networking breakfast at 8 a.m. and concludes with a reception and fireside discussion at 8:30 p.m. Cost: $150. Visit www.camp-online.org/summit/registration.
The event brings together many successful entrepreneurs, scholars, Fortune 500 executives, and even two Muslim American mayors — Mohammed Hameeduddin of Teaneck and Omar Ahmad of San Carlos, California. CAMP maintains a focus on professional enhancement for individuals ages 27 to 45. The aim of the annual Leadership Summit is to educate, inspire, and provide professionals a platform for dialogue on their work, contributions in Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and methods of helping people just starting out in their careers.
Zeba Iqbal, executive director of CAMP, got her start as an officer with the New York chapter in 2005. She became deputy director in 2007 when CAMP members were deciding on a central structure, which led to the inaugural conference in Princeton in 2008. Iqbal served as conference coordinator for the first two years before assuming her current position at the start of 2010.
“When the opportunity came up my friends said let’s do this together,” Iqbal says. “We ended up coordinating events in New York under the big umbrella of CAMP and we became more involved with the central leadership at one of our conferences.”
A year later Iqbal began working for Princeton University as a program manager for off-campus real estate development, after spending 10 years with Ernst & Young as a manager of real estate transactions. She commutes to Princeton daily on the train from her home in Manhattan.
Iqbal was born in upstate New York and lived in Westchester as a child. Her father was an engineer at IBM for his entire career. Over time her family moved to suburbs north of New York City. Iqbal remembers how her parents would take the pulse of Muslim life in each area before they ventured out.
“My parents come from the generation in the ‘60s and ‘70s that, in the Muslim community, there was a lot of community building,” she says. “When we moved one of the first things they would find out is where the local mosques were. Along with researching schools in different areas, they would find out what the structure was for Muslim Sunday school.”
When Iqbal was in junior high school the family moved to Bangalore, India, where her mother’s family is from. She stayed and studied in India through college and earned a bachelor’s in architecture there.
Iqbal would spend 13 years away before returning to the U.S. to pursue an MBA at George Washington University. Her eventual return to the U.S. marked her foray into professional development, which can be seen as a step into uncharted territory for a Muslim female.
Last year Iqbal was nominated for a fellowship program with the University of Southern California’s American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute. The program selects a cohort of established people involved in Muslim civic organizations such as chief executive officers, chief operating officers, program directors, organizers, and board members. Its focus is on empowering leaders within the Muslim community through a schedule of three-day retreats throughout the academic year. Her clients at Princeton who know about her tireless efforts in running the CAMP Summit were very supportive of her career success, she says.
“When I told them that I had gotten accepted they were so happy and they made it very easy for me to be able to do that,” Iqbal says. “They considered it professional development and gave me the permission to take nine days off to go to LA for it.”
Professional development is prominent for CAMP’s outline as the April 2 event reveals a two-fold agenda. Basing itself on the business-centric perspective, CAMP designed its afternoon sessions of the Leadership Summit to focus on career techniques and how to make Muslim Americans and the larger audience more sensitive towards what it means to be successful in today’s corporate and entrepreneurial endeavors.
Panel sessions include “Bossing Yourself,” “Living Entrepreneurship from Inception to Success,” “Brand-Building and Reputation Management,” and “Crisis Communications.” Alongside networking opportunities, the format encourages interaction between professionals and those looking to establish themselves in professional and social services. Connecting individuals with high-profile Muslim professionals is a built-in priority for CAMP.
The morning half of the conference is dedicated to exchanging ideas on the Islamic identity in the American corporate world with two panel sessions: “Being Muslim in America” and “Faith at Work.” The first session raises the question “Can American and Muslim values coexist harmoniously or will there be perpetual friction?”
The moderator for the day’s opening panel, Wahajat Ali, is a successful playwright and journalist who, in life and in art, has amalgamated both cultures while entertaining audiences on both coasts.
Ali was born and raised in Fremont, California, where he still resides. Ali began his senior year at UC-Berkeley in the fall of 2001 and in the most turbulent of times wrote a 20-page play about a Muslim American family to pass an undergraduate class. Ali didn’t have a set direction back then, so he took another two years to put the rest of the story together. The play turned heads as the first of its kind, and he has been showcasing it nationally ever since.
On September 11, 2009, “The Domestic Crusaders” premiered Off-Broadway in New York City at the Nuyorican Poets Café. A comedic tale about three generations of a Muslim-American family, the play ran for five weeks and eclipsed box office records at the time. It has also been performed in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C, and Canada.
Ali focused on a writing career a few years ago and named his blog on Islamic identity and world politics “Goatmilk,” a bizarre moniker that began as his teenage AOL handle and turned into a political party at UC-Berkeley. He ended up winning student body elections three consecutive years.
“Even if for all the wrong reasons, the past decade has been an opportune and visible time for such ideas to be cultivated in America,” Ali says. “You’re placed in a situation where your story about fictional characters, which happen to be Muslim-Americans and Pakistani, can help eliminate in some small way the complexities, nuances, and realities of American Muslim life and replace the caricatures and stereotypes that exist,” he says. “A deeper level within it is that audiences engage with the fictional characters on a personal level. They learn from the story that plays out and the story resonates with them.”
Continues Ali: “The reality is that 60 percent of Americans say they don’t know a Muslim. Fifty percent have a negative impression of Muslims. The favorability rating of Islam has decreased since 9/11. We’re a politicized identity.”
Several scenes in Ali’s play satirize the current social climate of Muslims living in the U.S. In one memorable moment the matriarch of the family, who listens to Tom Jones’ music, chides her 21-year-old son for growing a beard and wearing his topi, the circular cap worn by some Muslim men. In front of concerned family members she tells the son “why don’t you just carry a sign saying one-way ticket to Abu Ghraib, please?”
“Aside from a mother simply being a mother, concerned for her child, it’s saying don’t rock the boat, just keep your head low,” Ali says. “That’s true for almost all immigrant and minority groups — play it conservative, check all the checkboxes, smile your best smile and don’t say anything the mainstream won’t like.”
Ali’s appeal as part of the CAMP Summit is as a person who followed a non-traditional career path as a very articulate Muslim American with growing visibility, Iqbal says. As an undecided undergraduate Ali simply fell into taking English as a college major. But he was encouraged to pursue writing since childhood, although his mom also encouraged him to study for a more practical profession. After Berkeley he studied law at UC-Davis and is a practicing attorney. His cases in immigration law represent another form of serving his community.
Ali has endured the naysayers and focused on building his brand of journalism and social commentary as well as securing stages for the play. He also is in the process of co-writing a pilot for HBO about a Muslim-American cop. It’s his creativity and public voice that drew the interest of CAMP’s leadership, including Iqbal, to approach Ali three years ago.
Iqbal recalls learning about Ali’s presence in the media in 2008 through his writings on the presidential election in “The Guardian” and other publications. At the time Ali was in the process of raising money for his play and Iqbal took it upon herself to work on his public relations campaign.
“What I told him was that I don’t have much money to offer you from a fundraising standpoint, but I will give my time,” she says. “We then called him to a CAMP New York event in 2008 for one of our ‘platforms for professionals’ and later for another event through CAMP Philadelphia. We were the first Muslim organization to give him a platform in New York.”
Ali stuck with his ideas because of an innate passion to make a difference. Iqbal says that people look at Ali’s growing success and are inspired. “Wahajat’s work is from the perspective of a strong communicator and storyteller,” she says. “He has a story that we all feel resonates. If we want to change people’s minds through changing their hearts then we need to approach them through such stories as ‘Domestic Crusaders,’” she said.
Ali sees Iqbal as a crusader in her own right. “Zeba as a woman doing this, as a practicing Muslim woman, has come to show her strengths — the fact that she’s subverting traditional stereotypes Americans and even Muslims have,” Ali says. “She defines what it means to be a progressive, dynamic, and professional American Muslim woman.”
He continues: “It’s not only good for Americans to get a refreshing perspective on American females, but also for Muslims, who sometimes do not have an enlightened or progressive view of how things should be. In my opinion that’s antithetical to the life and mentality of the prophet Muhammad, who married Khadijah, 15 years his elder, and a wealthy businesswoman, more successful than himself.”
Taking the Bull by the Horns: Embracing Dialogues. The obvious turning point in the lives of many if not all Muslim Americans was 9/11. As a New Yorker Iqbal felt the pain firsthand and was immediately compelled to action. In the months after 9/11 she became a founding member of Muslims Against Terrorism and Muslim Voices for Peace. Iqbal remains a prominent participant in greater Muslim community affairs. She sits on the Muslim Public Affairs Council of New York City and recently served as an advisory committee member for Muslim Americans Answer the Call — a Muslim-American response to President Obama’s 2009 campaign regarding service and unity.
Since 2001 Muslim Americans and other minorities with similar physical features have faced plenty of stereotypes and speculation. Iqbal says that women who wear the hijab, the traditional scarf to cover their heads, felt that most people did not want to know them as a person because of the perpetuated association and images with terrorism, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic nations.
“For them the reality is that the conversation stops because you only notice that I’m wearing the hijab,” says Iqbal, who does not wear a hijab except to pray, when the Quran is being read, or in the mosque.
“My choice not to wear the hijab is not because I don't want to stand out,” she says “In fact, there are Muslim events that I go to where I absolutely do stand out for not wearing it.”
The reaon she does not normally wear one is that though her family is religious, her family never took to the hijab culturally. “I did not grow up in a family where hijab was the norm,” she says. “What people don't always understand about Muslims is that we have a strong faith tradition and a strong cultural tradition. There is obviously overlap, but our exposures and practices do vary from person to person and family to family because of our cultural traditions.”
The issue rarely if ever came up until 10 years ago. “I never had to wear my religion on my sleeve right until 9/11,” Iqbal says. “It wasn’t something people cared about or that I talked about specifically. Working side-by-side with people, it’s generally not going to come up in conversation. After September 11 people started recognizing that I was Muslim and they noticed when I was fasting for Ramadan.”
Since then Iqbal says she has received questions mainly out of curiousity. Co-workers ask Iqbal if she could tell them more about Islam.
Many in the professional world take the opportunity to reach out to their Muslim colleagues, asking if they needed anything. But there were (and still are) strong, negative reactions to scenes reported in the news.
After 9/11 Muslims from all angles of American life were suddenly expected to just understand public perceptions and their collective ability to forge enduring representations of Islam. CAMP focuses on helping those in today’s business world be responsive and responsible moving forward.
“What’s important for me is that right after 9/11, although I was involved in efforts to promote Islam, I was not feeling comfortable being a representative of my religion,” Iqbal says. “That’s where I think a lot of Muslim professionals are. We need to help them feel more confident and comfortable to acknowledge their roles as spokespeople so that if they’re asked questions they can give satisfactory answers to their peers.”
Iqbal says that one of CAMP’s strengths is as a platform to a new dimension of the American Muslim identity, one not framed by terrorism or national security concerns.
“The Muslim part of our identity has been focused on so much that we don’t focus on the other parts of our identity,” she says. “The way we are portrayed, not to blame media, is that the visible face of Islam is not a Muslim professional or the Muslim CEO.”
Nor is it that someone is a CEO “and oh, by the way, he’s Muslim,” Iqbal says. “CAMP says ‘Hey, we’re professionals, we’re entrepreneurs and businessmen from diverse fields, and we also happen to be Americans and we also happen to be Muslims.”
Iqbal, Ali, and those involved with organizing the CAMP Summit agree that Muslim-American success stories need a boost. A deeper look into CAMP’s membership reveals a bounty of Muslim and South Asian business success stories. For Iqbal the professional story is a success story. She feels that with so many contributors to American markets, the need to start highlighting Muslims’ accomplishments is evident.
Eventually society must catch up with rapidly changing demographics. Population projection data released in January by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life estimates that the number of Muslims in the U.S will more than double over the next two decades, from 2.6 million in 2010 to 6.2 million by 2030. Muslims in the U.S. are overwhelmingly American immigrants or children of immigrants.
One necessary payoff of meetings and networking that Iqbal and her contemporaries within the Muslim community have identified through the professional conduit is sparking interesting conversations among Muslims of different backgrounds. South Asians, Arabs, and others who have immigrated to the Unites States will be well represented, but CAMP also has a sizable African American presence at the conference. Iqbal says half the battle is won by having strong allies.
“We’re trying to engage the people for whom America has been home for many, many generations,” she says. “We are part of the long-term history of America.”
Such examples serve as a counterpoint to the kind of negativity seen in the political arena,” she says. “We too are second and third-generation Americans, so we don’t want being Muslim to be seen as one or the other.”
Allies in politics and mainstream media can help disburse more information on distinctive and innovative Muslims in boardrooms across the country. But an active approach takes more than relying on the conventional. The work of Muslim journalists in the mainstream, Goatmilk, CAMP’s website, and Islamic faith-based publications offer an outlet. But increasing use of the Internet and social networking can lend any person a voice.
“Our story is not only going to be told through a writer in ‘The Guardian’ or the writer of a play, but by engaging our coworkers, our employees, and those who fill classrooms,” Iqbal says. “If we don’t proactively bum-rush the show and grab the microphone, write or tell our stories, and form a narrative, then our stories will be told for us, by others.”
About the Writer
Rikki N. Massand is not Muslim. He is Indian, though, as Zeba Iqbal, one of two people he interviewed for the above story shows, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Though Massand was born in the United States, his heritage (and much of his family) is based in India.
His family and friends, he says, encompass the panoply of races and religions including Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity.
Massand, 30, lives in Somerset with his wife and two daughters, Shakira and Desiré. His father is an architect and engineer who started his own business (Massand Engineering in New York) in the 1970s and has worked on such projects as the Verrazano Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and terminals at JFK airport.
His mother, who studied economics in Mumbai and the United Kingdom, is the CFO of the company. His sister also works for the family business, as its chief marketing officer, though she does so from Mumbai, where she lives with her husbnd and three children.
Massand earned his bachelor’s in communications from St. John's University and his master’s in journalism from Quinnipiac. He began his career as a sports reporter in 2005 and later became a correspondent for AsianWeek and Hyphen magazine.
He then became the first U.S. Correspondent for China Daily, China's English language newspaper.
He currently is working on his second master’s degree.
Moreover, he is aware of the ghosts of 9/11 and the perceptions many people have about those who look like the men responsible for that day. In the days that followed 9/11 some friends who share some physical characteristics with Massand “told me, with half a smirk, ‘They think we did this,’” he says. “There was the acknowledgement of the ridiculous notion that people are too ignorant to know who’s who. The guys I was hanging out with were from Trinidad. The sentiment remains a decade later.”