Taking Muslims out of their box: An interview with Hazami Barmada. By Sally Steenland

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Hazami Barmada, President and CEO of Al-Mubadarah Arab Empowerment Initiative, Programme Advisor for the Aspen Institute Global Initiative on Culture and Society, Founder and Executive Director of the Iraqi Orphan Initiative, and Founder and President of the American Muslim Interactive Network, recently spoke with Sally Steenland, Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress about international collaboration and community development with global Arab and Muslim communities.
I want to ask you about a new organisation you have created, the Al-Mubadarah Arab Empowerment Initiative. Can you tell us why you started it and what it does?
Hazami Barmada: For the past few years I have been working on public and cultural diplomacy. My interest has stemmed from a curiosity about how you can engage in discussions about international affairs that preach beyond the choir and involve non-traditional stakeholders in non-traditional diplomacy. This used to be seen as “froofy”. The real thing was considered government-to-government interaction, and everything else was just fluff – like cultural diplomacy, diplomacy of the arts and business diplomacy.
But increasingly there has been a shift to figure out how to engage people who ordinarily wouldn’t come to the table. How do you bridge those gaps and create a dialogue that engages people?
Al-Mubadarah is an Arabic word that means “the act of taking initiative.” It is shocking to see the state the Arab world is in – the lack of hope, the growing socio-economic gaps, the growing generational gap and lack of connectivity.
My colleague and I were having this conversation at an event: in essence, by not doing something, we are part of the problem. We have capacity; we have the ability; we have the resources. That concept of self-empowerment gave birth to Al-Mubadarah. We want to figure out how we can create global connectivity between diaspora Arab communities so that they can re-engage and reinvest in the Arab world.
We aim to strengthen Arab communities and bridge the growing gap between those who aren’t fortunate enough to leave the Arab world and Arabs who want to stay in the Arab world to help. We also want to address the brain drain, which is a crippling issue.
You’ve said many times that the Muslim American and Arab American communities are very diverse, and that to even use the word “community” in the singular is probably not accurate because there are many communities.
Barmada: Muslim identity is not monolithic. I use the phrase “putting a face to it” because that is what we need to do. Islam is a faith, something that is internal – a relationship, a mindset, a worldview. So how can you identify who a Muslim is unless you know that person?
Islam, like any other faith, is influenced by many things: interpretation, political climate, [and] social and cultural variations. Islam as a faith should be separated from Muslims as followers of that faith. We often use the term Muslim and Islam interchangeably. But it’s important not to collectively describe the actions of Muslims as the way Islam functions because there are so many different actions that might not be derived from the faith.
One of the things you have said is, “In order to be accepted as Muslims, we first need to be accepted as Americans. Don’t put us in a box because of our religion.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Barmada: Islam is a faith. It is not a scarf. It is not specific attire, and it is not how you wear your pants or don’t wear your pants. Islam is a spiritual connection. You can’t put us in a box because religion is self-identified. Islam is as much about your intentions as your actions. And your intentions are known to none other than your Creator. Islam is about how you treat people, how you respect those around you and how you view the world in which you live.
For someone on the outside to define me as a Muslim strips me of the power of saying that I am also a woman; I am also young; I am also a student; I am also a sister; I am also a daughter. There are so many ways that we self-identify. We are Americans who happen to be of the Muslim faith. We are Americans who can identify as Muslims if we want to, but we should not be instantly boxed into a Muslim American category.
What is a Muslim issue? And why is it that every time an issue happens that deals with the Muslim community, every Muslim feels the need to respond? I think we should also be – and we are – engaged in issues broader than our community – American issues because we are Americans. Healthcare, running for office, what is happening at the boys and girls club, or the senior centre in our local cities: these are Muslim issues as much as anything else is.

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* Sally Steenland is Senior Policy Advisor to the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress. This article was published by the Center for American Progress. This abridged version is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.americanprogress.org.

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