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Safiya Ghori-Ahmad


MPAC Government Relations Director Safiya Ghori-Ahmad

 The Center for American Progress (CAP) is a think tank dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through ideas and action. CAP combines bold policy ideas with a modern communications platform to help shape the national debate, expose the hollowness of conservative governing philosophy, and challenge the media to cover the issues that truly matter.

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. Below is an abridged transcript. To read the full transcript, or to listen to the interview, click here.

Sally Steenland: Can you tell us about MPAC--why it's needed, not just for the Muslim community, but for all of us?

Safiya Ghori-Ahmad: 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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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 Qur'an, 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: 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 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: 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.

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.

[CONTACT: Government Relations Director Safiya Ghori-Ahmad, 202-547-7701,]

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