Ali to communicators: We have to tell our own stories

By Nadine Hasenecz

Wajahat Ali at RCC 2017

Photo by Andy Rawls

Wajahat Ali received a standing ovation for his dry humor-infused pre-luncheon keynote “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to be a Moderate Muslim” Saturday at the Religion Communicators Council’s 2017 annual convention in Chicago.

As creative director of Affinis Labs, Ali creates social entrepreneurship initiatives for marginalized communities. In addition, he’s a TV host, consultant to the U.S. State Department and lead author of the Center for American Progress’ “Fear, Inc.” investigative report.

“I am an American Muslim of Pakistani descent – nothing helps one’s popularity more than saying that,” quipped the California-born son of immigrants, referring to the U.S.’ post-9/11 climate of Islamophobia.

“In all seriousness,” he added, “if you remember one thing from my talk today, it’s that if you aren’t writing your story, your story is always being written for you or told to you by others.”

Ali said that “1.6 to 1.7 billion Muslims in the world today have been reduced to the stereotype ‘Rage Boy,’” a bearded, brown-skinned male, shouting and raising his fist.

Muslims have lived in the United States since its inception, he said, noting that they arrived in slave ships from Senegal.

“Muslim blood, sweat and tears have fertilized this country’s story from the beginning. Their legacies are part and parcel of the United States of America,” he said. Yet, in 2016-2017, 60 to 65 percent of Americans say they don’t know a Muslim.”

Despite negative perceptions of them, Ali said, American Muslims are politically moderate, optimistic about the U.S.’ future, believe in the American dream, reject violence, support law enforcement and enjoy educational and economic success.

The number of hate groups and hate crimes has risen exponentially since the election of former President Barack Obama, Ali said, citing the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ali attributes this phenomenon to three groups: white supremacist, nativist anti-immigration, and radical anti-government.

He pointed out that anti-Muslim propaganda has existed for 1,000 years, beginning when Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to reclaim the Holy Lands from the “Infidels.” Ali provided a variety of examples from throughout the ages – from the 11th-century “Song of Roland” poem to the stereotypical villains of 1994’s action thriller film “True Lies,” starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Yet Ali remains hopeful, both because of those everyday Americans who protested the immigration-related executive order – whom he calls the “inspired coalition of the willing” – and because of Muslim role models, such as deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee Keith Ellison and Minnesota state Rep. Ilhan Omar.

“Muslims are not the pretty cheerleader or popular jock. We’re the fat kid who wears husky pants with lentil stains on our shirt,” he said. “But the fat kid with husky pants can emerge as the protagonist of modern America.”

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