A Drive With RIZ LA VIE: Meet The Lebanese-American Artist Behind The Hit ‘Napkins’

Meet RIZ LA VIE, the Lebanese-American artist that is making everyone in tune with their spirituality.

A Drive With RIZ LA VIE: Meet The Lebanese-American Artist Behind The Hit ‘Napkins’

Meet RIZ LA VIE, the Lebanese-American artist that is making everyone in tune with their spirituality.

By

Ameena Qobrtay
Photo - Felix Francisco / Art - Tasneem Sarkez & Shayma Al-shiri

 

It’s rare that music can seep into every aspect of my life as quickly as RIZ LA VIE’s work did. The last time I was this obsessed with a single artist was when I was 14 and exclusively listened to any song by Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys (I mean, come on, how can you listen to “Love Is A Laserquest” without thinking it’s the pinnacle of good music?). 

But after the persistent nags from my best friend, the love I had for LA VIE started with a single song – Saturn– and meandered into a whole ocean of obsession. Yes, maybe there’s still some unshakeable residue from my 2014 I’m-not-like-the-other-girls Arctic Monkeys craze. Or maybe I’m just really picky. But I found myself streaming LA VIE despite my best efforts to listen to literally anything else. Doing the dishes, going on my pensive pandemic-induced bike rides, hanging out with the people I was quarantined with – every activity somehow felt less complete without LA VIE’s coos, shouts, screams, and transient voice accompanying me. 

Riz’s music is addictive because of its undeniable authenticity. Streaming Riz is like listening to a roadmap of his soul, and while the exciting beats and different sounds he explores is one of the reasons many of his fans love to stream his work, it’s his lyrics that truly make him one of the most exciting voices of our time. LA VIE’s words reflect the intimacy with which he sees his world, and he conveys this with a noticeable tenderness. 

Ironically – or perhaps completely by fate, as LA VIE’s outlook might suggest –  the Nitetime in Atlanta singer and I spoke as he was driving to Georgia to create more music and at-home videos with friends.

 

Photo - Felix Francisco

 

In between soft curses due to car-merging incidents and cheers after finally reaching Virginia (“Virginia is for lovers, it says on the sign, that’s beautiful!”) the Lebanese Jersey-native spoke about his latest E.P. “Feed.,” activism, and spirituality.

“Feed.” is LA VIE’s latest project, consisting of five glorious songs that span from melancholy to upbeat to even melancholy-er. The sound, which is entirely different from his previous work, acts as a backdrop for a level of lyricism that Riz hasn’t achieved before. 

His She Said music video eerily predicted the future. Complete with a table and chair, tea set, and bustling street, outside dining couldn’t have been better foreshadowed in the video. But the fortune-telling didn’t actually start there. LA VIE talked about how he has been thinking about undergoing a “personal revolution” for months, and that the COVID-19 pandemic and BLM protests show that he was right to think that this year would be a reset. 

Riz wrote “Feed.” about an “internal revolution” and about changes on the personal level. But he said that he was, “blessed and thankful” to release his music while “the world is also going through a much-needed revolution, to make the changes that it needs to make as it is a living organism.” 

While the “She Said” video may or may not have predicted the future, an overall exciting aspect about LA VIE is his carefully-conducted music videos. When asked about them, he said, “I think music videos in general are a completely superfluous art form. I don’t think they need to exist whatsoever. Because music, as an art form, is whole and complete and often elicits a visual response in your mind. But I do think videos are perfect in their ability to add an entire new layer of art on top of art.” 

LA VIE’s obsession with day-to-day life is intoxicating – he described how earlier that morning, while renting a car for the road trip to Atlanta, the rental man gave him a 5% discount and how that example of impact-per-person makes all the difference in life. 

 

Outside of his art, LA VIE is also an agent for change. In addition to donating to different causes, with proceeds from “Feed.” going to the Loveland Foundation, he also encourages people to “speak out if that’s something they felt they had to do.” LA VIE stressed the importance of doing other things outside of donating if you don’t have the means to do so. In addition to sharing information, as he discussed many young people are doing right now, he also suggested that people should, “Spend 20 minutes (every day) educating yourself. I don’t mean to say this facetiously whatsoever, I mean, seriously, go read a book,” noting the importance and gratification of “tactile reading.” 

LA VIE spoke about the horrific August 4 Beirut explosion in a somber follow-up interview. After speaking about donating and wishing peace for all of those affected, LA VIE said, “Our people in Lebanon come from the Phoenicians and we were called Phoenicians because we rise again and again. For centuries and centuries and centuries we’ve been doing this, and we fall to ashes, again and again but we’re known to rebuild and come back stronger than ever before. I feel like that’s our ethos as Phoenicians and as Lebanese people. And I think that’s what we’ll do. I hope that we build a stronger and a more well-rounded, just society.” 

LA VIE is also concerned about an injustice that is rarely discussed but occurs in many Middle Eastern countries: the mistreatment of migrant workers. He made the connection to how although many are rightfully speaking about police brutality and Black Lives Matter, migrant workers from countries in Africa, South Asia, and the Far East are being exploited in Muslim-majority and Arab countries. He spoke about how atrocities like the Beirut explosion are just one of the ways that migrant workers are made even more vulnerable. 

 

Photo - Felix Francisco

 

But it’s impossible to talk about LA VIE without mentioning his connection to spirituality. He described how from when he was younger, his Mom had always informed him about the moon, chakras, and the importance of acknowledging and caring for the “essence” that exists in everyone. He joked about how when he was younger, his pockets heavy with the stones his mom gave him, he would tell his friends about the law of attraction whenever they would complain about wanting something. 

LA VIE thinks it’s exciting to see the increased popularity of a lot of the things he appreciated when he was younger that have gained popularity now, from hummus to horoscopes. (BTW: I had to ask. He’s a Pisces sun, Aquarius moon, Scorpio rising. After two conversations and binge-listening to his music, I can say with confidence that it definitely shows).

LA VIE’s interview ended with me feeling something entirely unfamiliar: hope. Talking to someone that was so in-tune with life and choosing to spread positivity and love was entirely refreshing. If you want to support an artist that is in pursuit of goodness, start by basking in the poetry that is RIZ LA VIE’s discography, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Meet Free Palestine, The Palestinian Ranked Top 100 In Super Smash Bros. Melee

Meet 21-year-old Anees Assaf, the man behind the iconic tag Free Palestine.

Meet Free Palestine, The Palestinian Ranked Top 100 In Super Smash Bros. Melee

Meet 21-year-old Anees Assaf, the man behind the iconic tag Free Palestine.

By

Ameena Qobrtay
Art - Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh

There it was, posted online in 2019 for all of the gaming community to see: Gamer Free Palestine ranked 72nd in the world for Super Smash Bros. Melee 

The man behind the controversial tag is Anees Assaf, a 21-year-old geography student at the Ohio State University who doubles as a Smash Bros. global champion. Assaf is more than just some gamer with a few wins – his tag makes him a unique figure in the not-so-political gaming spaces.

Assaf’s video game journey began at a young age, and as the internet age shaped his adolescence, he became more involved in the gaming community. In late 2015, Assaf started playing games competitively, finding a niche in Smash Bros. Melee, an older version of the video game. Assaf described his love for the early 2k video game as stemming from the game being more fast-paced and fun than the game’s newer versions. 

Assaf created his first gaming tag when he was 15, opting for a name that has nothing to do with Palestine: Milhous. 

If you aren’t a history buff or into specifically strange facts, you should know that “Milhous” was the middle name of President Nixon. 

Wondering how a Palestinian activist could possibly ever stan Nixon? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. 

Assaf laughed when discussing his old tag. “I really dislike Richard Nixon as a president and as a person, I just thought it was funny that (Milhous) was his middle name.” 

About a year later, the self-titled Milhous witnessed a Twitter trend that asked gamers to explain the meaning behind their tag, and Assaf decided to rethink his own. Suddenly the idea of having a joke as a tag didn’t seem very appealing – especially considering the reputation of President Nixon. 

Therefore in some sort of self-correcting Twitter-induced instant rebrand, Free Palestine was born out of the ashes that once was Milhous. Talk about a major switch-up (I’m sure good ol’ Mr. Richard Milhous Nixon is especially pleased about the change).

Tags are ways that gamers see each other digitally and often competitively. As a gamer, you’re somewhat obligated to say other gamers’ tag names, whether you like it or not. Assaf making his tag Free Palestine forces people to confront an issue that’s simply not usually discussed in his community of gamers. People began to quickly notice how badass it was for Assaf to change his tag, which unquestionably forces the situation in Palestine on people’s lips. 

Assaf described his community of fellow competitors as a group willing to listen to why he decided to change his tag to Free Palestine. Although some may have expected that many would be upset, Assaf stressed that his friends and members of his community were there for him. 

“It helps that we’re such a kind of tight-knit and small community that when you go to travel, you can just kind of talk to these people,” Assaf explained.

He highlighted that there’s far more to his tag than just making people uncomfortable, discussing how his tag brought Palestinian struggle to a space where this issue is never discussed.

“… As you can expect, people in the US kind of don’t really understand the overall issue (of Palestine) that well. And especially you know gamers who are like 18 to 25 don’t really have any stake in these issues,” Assaf said. “So they really come from a background of not knowing as much. A lot of times it’s just me explaining a lot of, you know, why I have (the tag) and why it’s needed and why it’s stuff I believe in.” 

It’s also about changing Palestinian representation for Assaf. “Whether for a political purpose or not, it’s just sharing my perspective,” Assaf said. “Which I think is the most important part to  understanding why these issues happen, and why or how I can explain where we’re coming from as Palestinians, so that we’re not painted in a bad light as we normally are.” 

READ MORE: Ramy Youssef: Millennial Muslims’ Favorite Conversation-Starter Is Back

But it’s not always acceptance. Assaf described how despite the “overall positive” acceptance and community dialogue, digital players can express annoyance at his tag. 

Assaf spoke about some of the backlash he’s received due to his tag. Some people refuse to say his tag or shorten it, which bothers him – what does “Free Pal” even mean? – but he says that most of the time, people just don’t understand why he chose to make a political statement using his gamer tag. 

Assaf stressed how the people who say things like “keep politics out of video games” can afford to say these things because they’re not in the same position as him or others. 

“People who come from a more privileged background, can separate politics from their regular lives, which a lot of people can’t do,” Assaf said. He explained that often, he responds to people who are offended by his tag by discussing how he doesn’t have the privilege to keep political discourse out of his life. 

“Palestine matters to me a lot more than gaming does,” Assaf said. He detailed his Palestinian heritage, explaining that both of his parents are Palestinian and that he visits the West Bank fairly often to see his family there. 

Assaf detailed how he’s in a kind of “sweet spot”: the game he plays isn’t as competitive as say League of Legends. On such a larger scale, Assaf says his tag would never have been allowed. 

If shows like Ramy are conversation-starters within Muslim communities and beyond, Assaf changing his tag name is a discussion-demander. Changing his tag to a subject that’s as fully-loaded and heated as the question of Palestine makes Assaf demand his gaming community to confront this issue. 

One thing’s for sure about Free Palestine’s story, it’s that small acts of resistance can make impacts in very niche spaces.

Aint Afraid Ain’t Your Average Rap Duo

Meet the twins who are absolutely killing it.

Aint Afraid Ain’t Your Average Rap Duo

Meet the twins who are absolutely killing it.

By

Elizabeth Aziz
Photo self shot by Aint Afraid / Art - Shayma Al-shiri

On a hot, sunny Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, I woke up bright and early at 7:45 a.m. to hit the streets for my signature drink – an oat milk mocha with an extra shot of espresso – ready for my 9 a.m. call with Aint Afraid, a pair of Black hijabi musical artists, that just so happen to be twins. I’d spent the few days before listening to all of their songs and watching a bubbly Q&A they’d just recently dropped. When the time came, I got back in the house, turned the A/C wayyyy up, and got situated. At 9:01 on the dot, I answered my phone to the sound of not one, but two refreshingly enthusiastic voices. 

It was already afternoon for Straingth and Wizdumb, who were already a few hours ahead of me time zone-wise. Their exuberant energy and joyful laughter quickly shook any bit of sleep out of me that might have survived the mocha I’d just downed. Although they prefer to keep personal details private, I had to at LEAST know their sign. “LEO!!” they yelled into the phone simultaneously with the correct amount of pride one would expect from the sign of the lioness. It’s only right.

When asked about their main musical influences, the first person who comes up is their mother, also an artist, who they say taught them the importance of artistic expression, whether musically or visually, from a young age. They pointed out that more than anything, their daily lives and the emotions they experience are the true source of inspiration for their music – but how long it takes to create differs each time.

Aint Afraid recording at the studio. / Photo - Aint Afraid for Muslim

Art has always been all our life, so we don’t have a process, it just kind of happens. A line will come in our heads and boom we’ll start making a piece. Once we get a piece or a line, it just flows, it just falls out, one after the other. Like literally, God is inspiring the piece through us. Most times, it’s not like let me sit down and write something about this. So we’ll have a conversation about something. Let’s say perhaps we’re talking about the Black Panthers, which is a real life example – we’re learning more about the Black Panther movement at the moment. As we have conversations, we’ll say a line or a sentence or something, and it’ll start something in us, and then from that it’s like oooh, this could be a piece. A lot of people are like oh my god you guys come out with something like every week, you’re just so talented, I’m like yo, this is something I’ve been working on for three years or sometimes three minutes. It’s always different.” 


One of the girls’ latest singles, the beautifully powerful anthem “We Will Breathe”, is a perfect example of how their musical influences and artistic process play off of each other. The chorus incorporates the line “by any means necessary,” a nod to the sentiment popularized by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers about Black liberation in the United States.

I asked the duo if there were any specific artists they look up to, to which they replied, “Just good music. Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston … one of the highlight songs growing up was ‘We Are The World’ (a charity single from 1985 written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie featuring some of the biggest stars of the time).”

 

Having had various artistic personas over the years and performing locally all over the girls were already used to being spotted out by fans in their community. Now with over 125k followers on Instagram, I was curious to find out what it’s been like for them being in the spotlight and sharing it as twin sisters.

The girls said, “Allah has blessed us with a well-known reputation, people know us for the good work that we do, alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah. All of our life we’ve kind of shared that. It’s always been that way. It feels like a team. For us, it’s not fame, it’s impact, you know? I don’t ever want to put myself in a place of feeling self-important, I never want to do that. But what I will say is that success is  really good, because I’m reaching so many people with my good messages.”

Despite their wide reach and impact, like so many young Black Muslim women in the United States and around the world, they’ve endured a lifetime of pushback simply for being who they are. Whether it be from members of the Muslim community for being Black, from the Black community for being Muslim, or either one for being women, their layered identities leave them on the fringe of each group: 

“The religion is not anti-Black… Some people choose to be anti-Black, and we’ve lived this all our lives. For me, it’s really hard being a Black Muslim woman, and a Black Muslim person, but especially a Black Muslim woman because all the communities you identify with end up not supporting you totally, or they’re against you in some way and you never find acceptance. Just as a child in elementary school, people were telling us we couldn’t be Muslim because we were Black… or they would ask are we converts. The only reason they would do that is because we were Black. Even the Black community, when they see me, they first see me as a Muslim, they don’t even see me as a Black person. I can keep going… even in the women’s community, they’re like ‘if you’re about women’s rights, take the scarf off!!’”

Photo self shot by Aint Afraid for Muslim / Art - Shayma Al-shiri

Thankfully, the stress of being pressured to fit in a box has not dimmed the light of these incredible young women in the slightest. “We’ve always been pushed out but that has not made us bitter people, as you can see. I love the world. I love the people. Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, Allah has given us a space, a platform, where now we can educate the world and open people’s minds. There are even people in Africa and other places now that feel represented because of our platform.” 

In fact, Aint Afraid now has an additional connection to Africa that goes beyond having fans in the continent – the twins are spearheading an effort to build a school in Gambia. In collaboration with the SPOT Project, they are currently raising funds between now and September 4, 2020 to build an academy that will provide free education to local girls aged 6-15 years old. This instance of activism is just one of many ways the girls seek to make an impact. Much of their work offline centers around building community, addressing local gentrification, and helping make connections between the arts and political strategy.

What else are the girls up to when they’re not making anthems and learning? Lately, they’ve been trying to cultivate a more sustainable diet. They said, “We were already exposed to corruption in the food industry and whatever ’cause our mother taught us about it growing up, but we decided to take our own journey to understanding more about what’s in our food, and what the human body needs.” Although they’re not totally vegan and don’t say they necessarily want to pressure others to take it on, they spoke about the power of implementing more whole, plant-based foods into one’s diet – especially for vulnerable people. “Just starting from changing our diet in the Black community, our community can thrive,” they said.

 

 

Aint Afraid’s latest release, “When I Praise Him,” honors Allah through carefully crafted raps and beautiful vocals. Between their thoughtful songs and amazing projects, the duo is an unstoppable force.  

It’s so hard to sit and talk to these girls without walking away feeling like, okay, there’s hope. We’ve all encountered people who know exactly what they’re worth and are very sure of themselves and it can be intimidating. The twins, however, are so grounded in their purpose as artists and leaders, you can’t help but think mashallah. The girls of Aint Afraid are very, very impressive and we here at Muslim can’t wait to see what lies in store for them in the coming years.

Aint Afraid’s latest song “When I Praise Him” is available to download and stream on all online music services. Watch their video here, and follow the sisters’ fresh come up on Instagram and Twitter.

Yuna Wants You To ‘Stay Where You Are’

Malaysian pop icon Yuna talks about going independent, dealing with societal expectations and staying creative during these challenging times.

Yuna Wants You To ‘Stay Where You Are’

Malaysian pop icon Yuna talks about going independent, dealing with societal expectations and staying creative during these challenging times.

By

Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh
Photo - self shot by Yuna / Art - Shayma Al-Shiri

Picture this: it’s 2016. I’m scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard at 2AM on a school night, as usual. Among the photos of inspirational quotes, white models and stylised flowers appears a GIF of Usher with a hijabi. Intrigued, I paused and hit the video link, only to see a woman in a turban taking the lead on the song. The R&B icon was only ‘featuring’. My jaw dropped. 

Her name was Yuna. 

I had never seen a Muslim woman artist that was the lead, ever. Not in movies, not in books, and certainly not in music. The industry was still adjusting to new female rappers. I hadn’t felt a sense of enlightenment in discovering Muslim representation since Janet Jackson’s apparent conversion to Islam was smeared all over headlines earlier that year. I immediately followed Yuna and deep-dived into a melodic journey as she dropped her album Chapters a few months later. 

Crush by Yuna featuring Usher immediately became my anthem as I dealt with the heavy transition into my freshman year of college. It was around that time that new artists began to emerge as mainstream media took a shift in becoming more inclusive. 

Yuna had already established herself in her home country of Malaysia after writing hit EPs in the early 2010s. As she grew in popularity, she went further by signing to major record labels in the US, allowing her to reach international audiences. Most musicians will tell you that their dreams are to dominate the industry and fall into the glamorous world of pop. Yuna, on the other hand, just wants the world to truly recognize her talent.

Photo - self shot by Yuna

Making it onto Billboard’s Top 10 R&B Albums in 2016, among many other achievements, Yuna is more than just the token hijabi in the music industry. Since representation is crucial in deconstructing societal norms, oftentimes Muslim creatives are pigeonholed into being “groundbreakers”, Muslims that dismantle stereotypes and set new standards. However for Yuna, she is more than a category. Her talents exceed her identity as a “Muslim singer.” 

By daring to exist outside of the mold, she reflects an authenticity that is evident in her work, and takes on a new meaning of representation. Being an icon in Malaysia while working with high profile artists like Jhené Aiko, Tyler, the Creator and G-Eazy – she embodies versatility and brings a fresh voice to the scene. 

After recently leaving Los Angeles, Yuna began to shed her skin, leaving her record label behind and going independent. Her latest single “Stay Where You Are” is the first release since her album Rogue dropped last year. 

The music video was shot entirely on an iPhone 11 during quarantine at Yuna’s home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and also features some of her fans’ submissions; friends like the musicians MadeinTYO and Jay Park, and Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad make special appearances throughout. 

Although stationed in Malaysia, Yuna stays on the forefront of pushing for social  justice – she recently sent proceeds of her music video to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, in an effort to help against racial injustices in the United States. 

Muslim sat down with Yuna for an exclusive interview after leaving her record label, going independent, and moving back to Malaysia with her family. We discussed her relationship with identity, her experiences in the music industry and what it means for her to give something back.

You recently broke out of your contract and became fully independent, congratulations! How is that, do you feel free? What led to this decision?

YUNA: You know, like, it’s actually a really good thing when you get signed to a record label, it means you’re doing something right. Your music is being heard, and people are actually paying attention to you and giving you the opportunity to make the music and for me, Malaysian Muslim girls sometimes don’t come by like that.

This is an exciting moment for me, I have full control. There’s definitely that feeling of being liberated in a way that you know now you don’t have deadlines, or that you can actually earn a huge portion and it’s yours. 

 

As a woman in the industry – as a Malaysian hijab-wearing Muslim woman – do you find yourself facing particular challenges?

YUNA: Regardless, even if you’re like an amazingly talented pop star and look like Dua Lipa – it is gonna be tough. It was tough in the beginning trying to break away from that stereotype. 

Wearing the hijab – I didn’t like the fact that I had a label. I was always the “Muslim singer” and I’m more than that. It’s more than just me being Muslim. I really want you to focus on my music and work. I understand representation is everything these days, but at the same time, you have to recognize the talents and the skills that I’ve worked on. Like, for so long it was really hard to get here. 

In the beginning people wanted me to change the way I look, or change the way I think or the things I sing about. 

I kept hearing “if you want to be a singer, you got to take off the hijab,” and this is before leaving the country and going to the US. This was like, in my country, in my city. I was told that by people from the label, “Oh, you know, this is how you got to look” –  and it’s just ridiculous to me.

 

You have a huge presence and fanbase in Malaysia. As a Malaysian-Muslim do you find yourself feeling under pressure for having to embody a perfect representation for your community?

YUNA: Oh, yeah! In the beginning, I had to deal with a lot of pressure – Malaysia is so close knit as a community.  Everybody knows everybody so people would go to my mother and say, “do you know what your daughter is doing online?” 

As I grow older, I realized that you know what, like, nothing I do is going to please everyone. Someone will find something that’s wrong with you, you know? So I decided to not fall into that feeling of being pressured. Especially not being pressured into being someone that I’m not.

 

You achieved so much with your music, what would you say was your biggest accomplishment?

YUNA: I think my biggest accomplishment is taking that first step going to Los Angeles for myself as a female and that is still my biggest accomplishment.  I think, like, it was the  first real time that I really felt like, “wow, I made it.” No one knew that I could do it. Not even me.

That was the turning point in my life. I think, like, when I got on that plane, flew out to LA I was a different person, the old Yuna was gone.

 

I just have to ask – how was it working with big names like G-Eazy and Usher? We have never seen such a prominent Muslim musician able to reach as far as you have within the music industry, how has your experience been?

YUNA: It’s really cool. Every morning I wake up, I know who I am. I’m a Muslim singer-songwriter who works in the music industry. I pray, fast and partake in Ramadan – that’s a part of me. But at the same time when I go into the studio, I meet people who are huge artists or huge producers that people can’t even dream of working with. They’re awesome people and they don’t treat me differently. I don’t treat them differently either. Like I see them as an artist as well. So, when we work together, it’s amazing. I don’t know how I got here, but I feel like this is meant for me. I don’t know how to explain it. So I just take it day by day and be very thankful and grateful for the opportunity. 

 

How has it been being an artist during this pandemic? Were you able to work?

YUNA: Well, I’ve started teaching music classes. My husband [Adam Sinclair] and I started this online learning platform because we were just like, we need to do something local to inspire people who want to be more creative.

During this time when it’s difficult for someone like me to be creative, I think, to give something back, like just do something for other people, really helps. I feel like that’s a better thing to do right now. Of course, I would love to be able to release more music in the future, but I think now that we’re just at home, it’s a really nice thing to be able to teach every weekend. I’m actually like a teacher – I like all the slides and everything! It’s kind of fun. 

 

So you just released your latest hit, “Stay Where You Are” and by the time this feature is out, your music video will be going live – Can you tell us a little bit about it?

This is my first independent release and we didn’t even plan to release the song! I played it on my piano and decided to post that video in March. So I posted that knowing, these are the kinds of things that independent artists can do now. It’s really exciting for me to just play unreleased songs like that randomly.

So I played it and people reacted to it.They connected to it and really loved the song. I told myself, you know what, I think this is something that more people would want to listen to during this time, we should release the song immediately – so that was it. I just felt that it’s a beautiful song and the message of the song – a lot of people can relate to it right now. Not just like staying where you are as in staying at home, but to stay lovely, stay positive. 

People are going through some really, really difficult moments in their lives and I just want something uplifting that I can share with the world.

 

Tell me about this music video! How was the process creating it? – I noticed it involves people from all over the world holding signs that say “Stay Where You Are” – Where did the idea come from?

YUNA: I work with my husband a lot. We would always brainstorm ideas for music videos. He’s a director, he shot a lot of my music videos and for this one, we were just like, I don’t know what to do. It was my manager who said, “Hey, why don’t you get your fans included in this? It could be a song where everyone joins in and you have a lot of fans who would definitely want to be part of it.” 

I knew straight away, that was it. It’s also a nice way to celebrate my first indie track and get everyone involved. 

 

What are you working on currently? Do you have any exciting news for our readers?

YUNA: I think now I’m just focusing on releasing singles. I’m currently back home in Malaysia. I’ve been writing, working on projects and staying with my family.

I’ve been traveling and working nonstop before. I haven’t had a proper vacation in 10 years. So this is definitely the rest that I needed, so I’m just gonna see this moment as a blessing.

 

Do you have any words of wisdom or messages you’d like to share with our young Muslim audience?

Wow, you know, just please be proud of yourself. I think that’s the most important thing. I always try to tell my Malaysian Muslim girls like… I feel as though they’re very timid. They’re very shy. So, I’m always like, “go slowly. If you have a dream, you’re good enough. You can do it and don’t listen to anything that’s trying to pull you down.” 

Like, don’t let life pull you down and just be proud of who you are. Be proud of your roots, be proud of your identities. 

Sometimes in life, you’re gonna come across people who will make you question your values because of the way you look or the way you do things or what you believe in, what you practice. But no. You know yourself, so just be you. Always believe in yourself. There’s gonna be a lot of people who are going to tell you no – just keep on going.

Yuna’s single “Stay Where You Are” is available to download and stream on all online music services. Watch her video here, and follow her new life and work as an independent artist on Instagram and Twitter.

One Year Later: The Effects Of Quebec’s Ban On Religious Symbols

Quebec Lawyer Nour Farhat tells Muslim.co how the Bill has restricted her way of life over the past year.

One Year Later: The Effects Of Quebec’s Ban On Religious Symbols

Quebec Lawyer Nour Farhat tells Muslim.co how the Bill has restricted her way of life over the past year.

By

Wali Ahmad
Art - Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh

 

A year ago on June 16, 2019, Quebec’s government passed Bill 21, a law which banned public sector workers from wearing religious symbols in the workplace. The law was passed despite Canada’s protection of the right to religious freedom, guaranteed by its Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The government invoked the “notwithstanding clause”, which allows the province to override a Charter right for any reason it chooses.

While the government argued that the measure was necessary to ensure secularism (no religious influence) within the province’s public services, many were forced to choose between their faith and their livelihood. One such person was Nour Farhat, who is all too familiar with the adverse, discriminatory effects the Bill has had on her personal and professional life over the past year.

Plans and Dreams Derailed

Farhat, who wears a hijab, has been a lawyer in Quebec since 2017. Born and raised in Montreal, she has lived her life under the protection of the right to freedom of religion, never imagining that this right would come into conflict with her career goals.

“Since I finished my Bachelor of Law in 2016, I knew I wanted to work in the public service,” she told Muslim. “I completed my Master of Laws in Criminal Law with the purpose and intention of becoming a Crown Prosecutor.” Crown Prosecutors are hired by the province of Quebec, and are therefore subject to the religious symbol restrictions put in place by Bill 21. 

“Two months before completing my Master’s degree in June 2019, Bill 21 became a law,” she said. “I still had two months to finish my degree. I remember thinking at this moment, ‘Why am I doing my Masters? What is the point if I won’t be able to work for the Crown?’ And it became very discouraging and difficult to finish those last two months of my degree.”

In Quebec, the lawyer licensing process is expensive, can take anywhere between 4 – 7 years and requires years of hard work and mental endurance. For individuals like Farhat, all that money and effort spent on working towards a legal position in the public service was immediately put at risk as she was forced to choose between her dreams and her faith. “I spent money and moved to another city to do my Master’s,” Farhat said. “All year I would complain about how difficult it was. I’d always tell myself it would be worth it once I’m a Crown Prosecutor. Then in June 2019, I got told that this dream would remain only a dream.”

Increasingly Discriminatory and Racist Attitudes

Speaking of Quebec’s history of discrimination prior to the enactment of Bill 21, Farhat emphasizes that the Bill only legitimized existing racist mentalities.

“The government has given a legitimacy to these kinds of racist, Islamophobic attitudes. People feel justified to act a certain way because they know the government is on their side. They know that people like me – people who wear religious symbols – are in a weak position and should not be allowed to work for the province,” she said. “They know that their dreams and their future is affected. It is a very vulnerable position to be in.”

Since the enactment of Bill 21 just over a year ago, Farhat has definitely noticed a shift in the province’s socio-political environment. “The environment has been very heavy. You receive comments from people online and in the streets about your hijab. You receive comments on your hijab from strangers and even people you know. Each time the government makes a law or a bill against religious people, you see it in the streets, you see it in the people, you see that they’re affected. They become more prone to being openly racist.” 

The phenomenon draws many similarities to the racial tensions fueled by the divisive policies of the latest United States government. Led by a President that has openly promoted discriminatory laws and policies, his supporters have become more open in expressing their racist, Islamophobic and otherwise discriminatory sentiments. “There’s a definite duality in being categorized as either a white person or an ‘other’ when it comes to going in front of the police or others in positions of power. They don’t view freedom of religion of religious minorities as something that is as important as the freedoms of the majority. It’s the majority deciding the destiny of the minority,” says Farhat in light of the current global civil rights movement led by Black Lives Matter.

“We have laws that protect us as minorities, like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You see that the police are not applying it equally. They do arrest more black, indigenous and Arab people in Canada. And this type of disproportionate treatment is further strengthened against religious minorities through the existence of discriminatory laws like Bill 21.”

“What does the government expect when they violate your rights like that? When they violate the freedom of religion? When you violate someone’s freedom to make a living? All the intended and unintended consequences of Bill 21 were all very predictable – it resulted in open racism and discrimination being made acceptable. Even though Francois Legault [Premier of Quebec] said there isn’t racism in here, I can personally say that I am experiencing systemic racism.” 

Farhat is referring to Legault’s refusal to acknowledge systemic racism within the province in light of the Black Lives Matter and civil rights movements which have rapidly grown across the globe. “For me, we have Quebecers of different colors, different origins, but we are all human beings and we’re all equals, no exceptions. But we must face the reality and the problems lived by some of our fellow citizens, and we must act,” said Legault, despite spearheading the law which effectively renders religious minorities unequal to the majority population.

“There’s racism in the law. This is something I’m living every day. It’s not just the law, it’s affecting all aspects of my life,” said Farhat, referring to the countless amount of hate messages she receives online on a daily basis.

Quebec also makes the argument that Christians are equally affected and therefore, the law doesn’t explicitly target the Muslim, Sikh and Jewish population. However, the Christian religion does not commonly require any sort of visible garment to be worn. “Observant Christians can easily hide a cross they might be wearing on a necklace; I cannot just hide my hijab under my shirt or take it off,” said Farhat, pointing out how the law disproportionately affects certain religions over others. “When it comes to Muslim’s hijab or a Jew’s kippa, you’re asked to go home, or you’re told that you will lose your job if you don’t conform.” 

“The only reason why I’m going through this is because I’m a Muslim woman. I’m a minority, I’m different. If I were white and atheist, I would never have this issue; I would never have to be concerned that a law like this will take away rights that existed since I was born.”

Photo - Nour Farhat

Blessings in Disguise 

Though the attack on her faith is aggressive and apparent, Farhat reflects on the positive that has come from this experience. 

“I’ve actually been receiving a lot of support outside of the Muslim community. I’ve received messages from the Christian Legal Fellowship, which is active in Ontario, and they’re really active on anything that has to do with freedom of religion,” said Farhat. “It’s crazy how something like a discriminatory law has strengthened interfaith relationships. It made religious people of all faiths much closer to one another.”

Nour Farhat now works at a private law firm in Montreal, practicing in the areas of Civil and Constitutional Law. “I’m one of the lawyers who are working against the Bill. It’s a privilege to be in this position, to represent my client in this case, and to be able to fight against the violation of human rights, especially as a Muslim woman,” Farhat said. “Bill 21 is a sad story, it’s a deceitful move of the government, but I’m in such a privileged position to be able to go to court and to fight the Bill using the abilities and knowledge I’ve gained to become a lawyer.”

Farhat’s trial involving the discriminatory law is expected to start at the end of October 2020. “There are four plaintiffs, my client is one of them,” she told Muslim. “There’s maybe 25 lawyers involved. It’s really amazing to be able to work in such a big constitutional law case, which would not have happened if Bill 21 didn’t pass.”

Farhat speaks of the motivation she gained after the Quebec government had betrayed her despite her work in the public service wearing a hijab. Having earned multiple law degrees, gone through the necessary legal training, learned the inner workings of the provincial government and is fluent in both French and English, she believes that she has acquired all the necessary skills to combat the oppressive law.

“You don’t want me to work with you, so I’ll work against you. It’s the best way to respond to this violation of many people’s human rights.”

A Message of Hope

Given all of her experience in dealing with the negative consequences of a law that openly attacks her way of living, Farhat has a message for those who wish to build a future within the province.

“I’ll tell you what I was thinking for myself at the time the law was created,” she said. “Never change who you are. We should never change our principles for someone else, even less the government, who shouldn’t be controlling what you believe in or how you practice it. It is not the place of the government to tell us how to live and who to be.”

“Be open about fighting violations of human rights. They took away my dream but they will not take away my faith and beliefs.”

Meet Dilshad D. Ali, Journalist And Autism Activist

"Journalism is my career, my autism activism is passion."

Meet Dilshad D. Ali, Journalist And Autism Activist

“Journalism is my career, my autism activism is passion.”

By

Aishah Goumaneh

Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

Meet the journalist who serves the Muslim community for a great initiative. Dilshad D. Ali is a first-generation Virginia native writer, and autism awareness activist who studied journalism at the University of Maryland. 

Dilshad is known for her work as an editor for Haute Hijab, a modest fashion wear company, and the activism work she does with MUHSEN and Virginia Autism Project

MUHSEN is a nonprofit serving Muslim children and adults with any intellectual, mental, or physical disability. The organization was co-founded by Imam Omar Suleiman, a prominent Muslim scholar who saw the need within the community. 

Dilshad has worked for autism advocacy for 16 years and has dedicated her work to it.

Muslim had the opportunity to interview Dilshad to know more about the work she does for the Muslim community and how it helps at a greater scale.  

You have many careers under your belt, journalist, editor, and writer. Do you feel as if they are all connected somehow?  

Yeah absolutely. Journalism is a whole body of work. The way it has evolved from where I started to where I am now encompasses everything. Whether you’re a writer, or an editor, or a reporter, or an op-ed writer, it is under the body of work of journalism. Journalism itself is where you learn the fundamentals of reporting, broadcasting, radio work etc, all of this stuff is very technical.  

I understand that you work with autistic people, was this always something you wanted to do or was it a sudden realization?  

No, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do. When I got married and I had children my first son who was born, he was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. That was 16 years ago. So when you have a child with disabilities you are thrust into that world. It was something I had no knowledge of beforehand, and I never thought about it. But he was my son, and this is the world I live in now. I am going to advocate for him and help him advocate for himself. Journalism is my career, my autism activism is passion. 

Can you tell me more about the work you do with the Virginia Autism Project?  

This Virginia based group is something I have been involved in for as long as I lived in Virginia, which is about 16 years. The Virginia Autism Project lobbies state legislators for autism health insurance bills and other projects. We work on having meetings with representatives and state senators and talk about autism insurance bills, and hope to talk about medicaid waivers and funding for autism programs at public or private schools.

I was appointed to the Virginia autism council by the governor at the time. I was nominated by a Muslim who worked for the governor and I served on the council for four years. 

Can you tell me about MUHSEN? 

I joined MUHSEN about five to six years ago, from the time they were created. The co-founder of MUHSEN asked me to join the advisory board. As an advisory board member, our job is to help guide and give advice to muslim groups and help with fundraising, and sharing knowledge. Whether this be media work, marketing, fundraising, etc.  

Can families reach out to these organizations for help, and if so how are they able to receive help? 

Well with MUHSEN families can definitely reach out, that is the whole point of what they do. All the different programs revolve on how to help individuals with disabilities. You can start by going to their website and look at their programs based on where you are. They even have online programming. MUHSEN helps low-income families who are struggling to put food on the table as well. There is an application that can be filled so they can get funding. There are autism society chapters across the country that people can reach out to as well.     

I have two younger siblings with autism, I was wondering what piece of advice can you give families that have autistic family members?  

It depends on where you are on your journey. Are you diagnosed, or is a family member? The whole idea of it is embracing it for what it is. Autism is different from one person to the next. We need to be inclusive of each other in our abilities and also with our feelings. You guys need to have a lot of patience with each other. Be understanding of the challenges they have. Being annoyed, feeling grief is normal.   

What do you think bringing autism awareness to the Muslim community will bring?  

It can only bring good. It allows for more understanding and more inclusivity. We want to be acknowledged and included. We can’t be included all the time because of the challenges we face, but acknowledge those challenges. You never want to be forgotten, the simple act of calling and checking on you is the best that you can do. It all means something. There is only stuff to gain by being inclusive to families with disabilities. Everyone has complications, the more patient we are with each other, it can only be a good thing.  

To learn more about Dilshad and her work, be sure to follow her on Twitter.

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About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.

Wardah Khalid Is Pushing Muslim-Americans To Be More Politically Active

"Okay, you voted – now what? How do you engage past the ballot box?"

Wardah Khalid Is Pushing Muslim-Americans To Be More Politically Active

“Okay, you voted – now what? How do you engage past the ballot box?”

By

Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh

Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

For Wardah Khalid, advocacy goes a long way. The Houston native is the founder of Poligon Education Fund (Poligon), one of the only few organizations made to uplift Muslim-Americans running for office and help guide Muslim-Americans in holding their representatives in Congress accountable. 

After moving to Washington DC, the last four years Khalid had dedicated her time in pushing for change at Capitol Hill. Prior to devoting her time in pushing for Muslim-American legislation, she was doing Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and then working at Church World Service doing refugee and immigration advocacy. Now, Khalid finds herself working at Capitol Hill as an anchorage Congressional Fellow with APAICS (the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies).

“I’ve been working in Congresswoman Judy Chu’s office, which has been a really interesting experience to see advocacy from the inside. Or like how we make policy from the Inside while I have been advocating for it outside.” 

Currently, Khalid finds herself writing about different foreign affairs and national security issues or Islam in America while running Poligon, a national nonprofit dedicated to amplifying American Muslim voices in Congress.

Muslim asked Wardah about Poligon, the initatives she’s currently working on, and the future of politics for Muslims in America.

 

Photo - Flickr

Tell us about Poligon, what do you guys do?

In our first two years, Poligon trained over 5,000 Muslims on web training and in-person training. We also advocate with Members of Congress and educate them on issues that the Muslim community cares about. We also have educated Muslims themselves on what’s happening on Capitol Hill, we have a weekly newsletter that goes out that talks about what’s happening called Hill Happenings. It’s a very quick digest, I would encourage everybody to sign up so they can keep up with issues. We make it very easy for people to understand what’s going on and how they can engage.Less than 17% of our community reached out to their Members of Congress in the last year and so we’re the lowest of all faith groups. So there’s definitely a lot of work to do.

What Poligon does is it teaches you like, okay, you voted now what, like, how do you engage past the ballot box. How are you holding your elected officials accountable after you elect them? Normally our community is doing fundraisers for these people. This is photo ops, you know, photo ops and then they don’t ask them for anything. 

 

What prompted you in creating Poligon?

I worked with Quakers, a smaller Christian lobby group that has a lot of international presence, on the Iran nuclear deal and getting that through Congress, how much their network was mobilized, how engaged they were with their representatives, how much influence they had on the representatives. My job was to educate them and educate the representatives about the policy. I was just able to see how they were interacting with the White House and they were interacting with the State Department and then the Congress. So I was like, what’s stopping us (Muslims)  from starting something up like this, when we have anywhere from three to 8 million people in the United States? 

So actually, even before I started that fellowship, I came up with the idea and just  did a lot of research, figuring out why something like that hadn’t been started before, starting training groups on how to engage with their representatives, and then put together a team of people to help bring that vision to life. We made sure to do everything from the ground upright before the 2017 inauguration. So basically, we launched in January 2017, a few days before Trump was elected. People were really excited to see some way they could engage. Which, you know, worked out really well. 

 

What are the current initiatives Poligon is working on?

One of the big things that we’re working on right before this Coronavirus issue happened was the NO BAN Act to repeal the Muslim travel ban, which was first issued in 2017 banning immigrants from Muslim countries and refugees.  We were actually very close to getting a floor vote in the House of Representatives. It was actually already scheduled, but then Coronavirus happened and Congress delayed it. But you know, we were working to collect cosponsors. We were delivering petitions on the Hill with 150,000 signatures of people who supported this legislation. So we were very active in that coalition and working on that. 

During this pandemic, Poligon has actually one of the few Muslim organization that actually focuses on domestic human needs and helping the marginalized and economically disadvantaged, achieve economic justice. We’re working on issues like hunger, poverty, health care, housing, for since our inception, so when Coronavirus hit, it was very natural for us to work on that issue. We actually created this policy update center on our website where people can go and see what’s like the latest thing that happened with Coronavirus because there’s so much legislation moving there’s so many different packages being introduced it’s confusing.

 

Are there any comments or messages you’d like to share with our audience?

Don’t underestimate the power that you have. I think I’ve heard somewhere that over like 50% of Muslims in the US are youth. They’re a big population – and being a big population and coming into voting age, you guys are going to have a lot of power. This includes determining who are your elected officials, so please do not be afraid to hold them accountable.

A lot of the older generation Muslims have “the old way” of how our community was engaging with candidates. Like doing photo-ops without asking the candidates for anything. We have to change that dynamic. We have to ask, we have to push for our community members. And if they’re not doing what we’re asking, you know, don’t be afraid to vote them out. We saw that in Virginia – one of the first things that Poligon worked on was an ant- hate resolution that was actually a local Member of Congress had introduced. Unfortunately, she had been endorsed by another Muslim civic engagement organization. So the first thing when we came in it was like, why did you endorse somebody who has a 95% Trump rating when they’re doing all these awful things to our community? 

So if you feel a certain way about a policy, if you’re impacted by health care, or Coronavirus, or whatever it might be, or Islamophobia or bullying in schools, then make your voice heard and let them know. You can do a phone call to a Member of Congress, it only takes like 30 seconds or a minute. Poligon provides scripts that you can follow word for word, the only thing you have to do is add your name.

Social justice is a big part of our faith, that it would seem very natural that we’d be engaged in this. But we’re not, we’re still not fully there yet as to how other communities are. So that’s gonna take us to get involved and be pushing that, and pushing our Muslim community. So yes, get out the vote, definitely. But also think about what happens after you elect your candidate. How are you holding them accountable? How are you making sure that they represent you?

To learn more about Poligon, and what Wardah Khalid is doing, be sure to follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and subscribe to Poligon’s mailing list to stay engaged.

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About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.

Lisa Vogl On Why Muslims Need To Understand Domestic Abuse

I feel like I naturally work with projects that are geared towards my community. Even with domestic violence.

Lisa Vogl On Why Muslims Need To Understand Domestic Abuse

I feel like I naturally work with projects that are geared towards my community. Even with domestic violence.

By

Ameena Qobrtay

Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

Lisa Vogl is on the forefront of changing the game for Muslims. She is the co-founder of Verona Collection – the first modest clothing line to be sold at Macy’s and ASOS – is an award winning fashion photographer, and a mother to two boys.  

Vogl is a survivor of domestic violence and continually uses her platform to empower others to speak out and call attention to these issues that are all too often not discussed in many communities. 

Muslim asked Vogl about Verona Collection, her Muslim identity, and raising awareness about domestic violence. 

What inspired you to launch Verona Collection?

 There are two main reasons why myself and Alaa Ammuss started Verona Collection. One, was out of pure need. We just like many of the millions of Muslims in America and across Europe felt it was hard to find modest, affordable, yet fashionable clothing. Shopping for new outfits always seemed like a dreadful task. The clothing that was available either seemed to not fit my American Western style or it was extremely overpriced. The second reason and the reason that is near and dear to my heart is I want Verona to give women like myself in America the confidence to be proud of their Muslim identity and even more proud to wear their hijab … All of this negativity directed towards muslimahs staying strong in who we are may not always be the easiest task. Meanwhile, another struggle we face is constantly bombarded with images of women wearing next to nothing photo-shopped head to toe giving women a false sense of what it means to be beautiful. So I want to send a strong message that you can still be fashionable, chic and feel beautiful but you don’t have to uncover to do so.

 

Has your Muslim identity informed all the different projects that you do?

 I’d say so. My Muslim identity is everything to me, so I feel like I naturally work with projects that are geared towards my community. Even with domestic violence. I fight against domestic violence regardless of one’s race, religion or gender but I feel like I’ve been able to use my voice more within our community.

 

How has coronavirus (Covid-19) impacted your work? What does this mean for the future of Verona Collection?

We have a lot planned for Verona. When we launched with Macy’s and then soon after with ASOS our resources and manpower were tied up with the department stores. However, over the last 9 months we have been focusing on a relaunch coming out with lots of new designs and a fresh marketing perspective. 

Due to Covid-19 our relaunch has been delayed. I don’t know the exact date when we will release our new items but I’m hoping within the next few months. I felt a bit defeated when it happened, but that’s a part of business. You have to roll with the punches and sometimes you have to learn to take a few steps back in order to move forward. And that’s what we’ve done. 

 

You have been brave and courageous to share your story of domestic abuse. Thank you so much for sharing this story. What made you come forward? 

Thank you. I only pray that speaking out helps others. In 2017 and 2018 I was in many major articles as I was being interviewed left, right, and center due to our partnership with Macy’s. And as a result of my interviews I gained a small platform. Many looked towards me as a business woman who had it all together but nothing was further from the truth. 

I had escaped an abusive husband in 2015 and finally divorced in 2017. However, at that time my ex was always harassing me and threatening me. I couldn’t go a day without experiencing anxiety or fear of what he would do next. Although he was extremely physically abusive in our marriage it was the mental abuse that I was traumatized over. He was no longer able to physically harm me so he did everything he could to make my life miserable. So I felt it wasn’t just my right but my responsibility to come forward with abuse that I had faced. 

I realized that women who were suffering abuse needed to know that they were not alone. That if I was able to leave and make it they could too. When I went public with my story I received thousands of messages mostly from women within our community. I still to this day receive messages daily that I’m often not able to keep up with but do my very best.  

We need to be better. We must be better. As a result of the way it’s handled women lose their life. Women are often told to have Sabr in the face of oppression. The perpetrator is told to pray more and read more Quran. 

We of course have exceptions and there are many Imams who speak out against abuse. I’ve always applauded Imam Khalid Latif and Sheikh Omar Suleiman who take a public stance against domestic violence. This is what our religion teaches us. 

However we don’t need Islam to tell us speaking out against injustice is the right thing to do. We really don’t. We just need to be human. But our religion does teach that. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught us when faced with abuse or witnessing it we must try to change it, and if we can’t change it with our hand we must change it with our tongue (speaking out against it), and if we can’t do either at least hate it in your heart. But our Prophet (PBUH) said this is the weakest of Iman. So it’s clear what our religion teaches us, we must never tell a woman who is faced with abuse to have patience. This is one for the most backward mentalities I have seen and unfortunately it’s prevalent within our community. 

 

What more do you think can be done about domestic abuse in Muslim communities? Do you think it’s a taboo subject? 

I believe we must all learn to speak out against abuse. The more we collectively speak out it will start to become less of a taboo topic. Pretending abuse is not an issue in our community only makes the problem worse. We also have this idea that the victim must feel shame there for must stay quiet. We need to reject this idea. The perpetrator needs to feel the shame, not the victim.

 

What work do you do to help victims of sexual assault/domestic violence? 

I’ve raised money to build women shelters for both Penny Appeal USA and ICNA Relief. I serve on the advisory board of ICNA Relief and help them whenever they call upon me. I try my best to help individuals when I’m able to and last but not least I speak out. 

I use my platforms to educate people on the effects of abuse and how we must take a stance against it. There is not a day that goes by that I am not working to fight domestic violence at least in some capacity. I do as much as I can and pray it’s helping.

 

Are there any messages you’d like to share to our audience regarding domestic abuse and relationships? 

Yes, I think it’s important to note that abuse happens to men as well. 1 and 9 men have suffered abuse and we don’t speak about it as much, me included. I need to make a conscious effort to address this more. 

We also need to understand that abuse is not just physical. Mental abuse is  often way more traumatic and can sometimes take longer to heal from then physical abuse. 

And lastly, one myth I’d like to break is when a victim leaves an abuser she/he is “breaking up a family.” A single parent home that is healthy full of peace and laughter is way more beneficial for the children than one with two parents and abuse. This is not my opinion, this is what studies have proved to be true.

To learn more about Lisa and her work, be sure to follow her on Instagram.

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About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.

Combatting Coronavirus As The First Female Muslim Mayor In The U.S.

Mayor Sadaf Jaffer describes the feeling of responsibility to protect the residents of Montgomery Township during these times.

Combatting Coronavirus As The First Female Muslim Mayor In The U.S.

Mayor Sadaf Jaffer describes the feeling of responsibility to protect the residents of Montgomery Township during these times.

By

Ameena Qobrtay

Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

Sadaf Jaffer is not your average local politician. The Ivy League graduate and postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies is the current Mayor of Montgomery Township in Somerset County N.J., on the frontlines of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

And if that’s not impressive enough, Dr. Jaffer is the first female Muslim mayor in U.S. history, and the first woman of South Asian descent to serve as Mayor in N.J. 

Mayor Jaffer took office in January 2019, deciding to run for the position after the Muslim Ban was enacted. 

Dr. Jaffer explained how people in her community were scared about what the Muslim Ban meant for them. She said, “The elected officials at that time said, ‘just think about Montgomery, don’t worry about what’s happening elsewhere.’ Obviously as Muslim Americans, we know that you can’t get away from that, you know it’s it’s a part of your reality.” 

Although one of the reasons she ran was to address Muslim discrimination, Mayor Jaffer faced exactly that on her journey to political success. She described how her opponents called her ideas “dangerous” and “extreme” – a rhetoric that many Muslim politicians are attacked with in the U.S. – which made her feel targeted for her faith. 

But Mayor Jaffer didn’t let any of these types of attacks slow her down. Focusing on community-building and good governance, Jaffer tackled shifting demographics and other problems in her town by organizing a platform based around communications, transparency, diversity, and inclusion.  

In the past year Mayor Jaffer has already worked to ensure the environmental health of her town, preserving over 100 acres of land. She also organizes intercultural holiday parties like an interfaith iftar, that accompanies over 150 people in attendance. 

Now, Mayor Jaffer is shifting her focus to face the COVID-19 pandemic in a state at the epicenter of the pandemic. She explained how her town was one of the earliest to begin closing schools and government offices before the rest of the state did.

Photo - Courtesy of Montgomery Township

 

Jaffer said that she is working with other leaders in her town to help mitigate the effects of the virus. 

“I’m proud to say that our township’s health department received accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board, and a commendation from the CDC, just within the last month,” she said. “So they’re doing an amazing job, and we’re very lucky that our rates of infection and fatality have been relatively low as compared to other municipalities in N.J.” 

Dr. Jaffer is doing everything she can to maintain the community bonds that she worked hard to establish and maintain during her time in office. She holds weekly videos featuring some of Montgomery Township’s leaders to help keep people informed about the situation. The town also launched a site that includes artwork and musical performances of students to create a sense of community and a digital public sphere. 

Jaffer described the feeling of responsibility to protect the residents of Montgomery Township while also managing her home life. As a Mayor, mother, wife, scholar, and active member of her community, Jaffer is managing many roles and doing her best to meet the needs of each. 

She said, “You know, it’s hard to take a break when you’re in an emergency. And this is kind of a protracted emergency. So, I’m trying to do it the best that I can. I have my good days and my bad days …” 

Jaffer discussed what gives her hope during the pandemic, mentioning how COVID-19 related deaths have been dropping in N.J. due to efforts from social distancing. She also discussed the wonders of “the spirit of service” during this difficult time. 

Mayor Jaffer uses a skill to inform the decision she makes that is all-too-familiar to scholars: research. She explained how leaders who use expert advice usually make better decisions than those who rely on instinct. This research-based approach to leadership is how Jaffer is working to mitigate the effects of the virus on her community. 

Although Dr. Jaffer is facing the crisis head-on, she also discussed how she would never have expected to be involved with electoral politics, mentioning that when she was sworn in as Mayor, she told her husband she “crossed an unexpected life milestone.” 

As a word of advice to young people who may be feeling uncertain about their future job prospects or who may need some general advice, Jaffer reminds everyone to “just keep trying.” 

Dr. Jaffer said, “Not everything will work out. But the more different opportunities you try to go after the more likely that something will work out.  I have applied for so many things in my life and probably most of them I have not gotten. But some of them I did, and that is probably the only thing that I remember now.”

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About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.

Muslim-American Maha Elgenaidi On Advocacy And Experience

"Be first and foremost clear on your intentions for why you want to do this work."

Muslim-American Maha Elgenaidi On Advocacy And Experience

“Be first and foremost clear on your intentions for why you want to do this work.”

By

Srihari Nageswaran Ravi

Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

Meet Maha Elgenaidi, a well-established American Muslim advocate. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Islamic Networks Group (ING) and an author of training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims and training seminars for public institutions on developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community.

Recently, Muslim interviewed Maha on the impact of Islam on her American Muslim advocacy, the development of ING, and its more controversial approaches to her work. Maha shares her hopes for future generations of Muslim advocates.

Being the Executive Director of ING, what do you believe is your organization’s mission?

Peace-building. We started out by teaching Americans about Islam, which then evolved into doing the same work in the context of religious pluralism where we teach about Islam alongside people of other faiths, because we realized that the more Americans understand their own faith, the more they’re likely to understand Islam’s diversity in its interpretation by both historical and contemporary Muslims. 

We’ve also branched out into anti-bias work by tackling Islamophobia in the context of other forms of bigotry, by looking at both the history of bigotry and racism and the interconnections between Islamophobia and different forms of bigotry such as anti-blackness and anti-Semitism.  

Our stated mission now is to promote peace among all by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other religious, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.

How has your personal background informed your work and what aspects of your life have made you interested in Muslim advocacy?

I grew up in a secular Egyptian-Arab home where we didn’t practice or even learn about Islam. In fact, I was pretty cynical about religion in general. Growing up in the United States and watching how Muslims were portrayed in the media, in books, and in my own public education instilled in me biases against the religion and its people, even though I still identified as both Arab and Muslim.

It wasn’t until I read the Quran for the first time in my life during the first Persian Gulf War in the early 90’s that I made a 180-degree turn and started exploring both the community and the religion further by first reading several books and then meeting and participating in the Muslim American community. A year later, after studying how the community was organized, I started ING to have Muslim Americans teaching other Americans about Islam, which is exactly what we continue to do today.

What actions have you taken that may be deemed controversial, but that you believed were important in furthering peace and justice for the Muslim community? Why so?

Everything we did was first deemed controversial! Controversy is never-ending in my line of work. If I had to name the most controversial work we’ve done, it is continuing to work with the Jewish community despite the criticism and threats and charges of “selling out Palestine.” 

Unless you work with pro-Palestinian organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, which is a political organization and something we’re not, then you’re considered to be selling out. Some Muslims miss the fact that all organizations evolve over time and are not monolithic. They’re not going to change without our engagement with them, which is something I strongly believe in. Unless the organization is a hate group or is fomenting bigotry against a group of people, then we shouldn’t be afraid of engaging with them if our interests intersect.

Have you experienced any setbacks in your advocacy and if so, how have they affected you? What have you learned from them?

I’ve experienced many setbacks from the very start of the organization as an independent-thinking woman who was accustomed to leading and managing before I became active in the Muslim community and as a virtual unknown, so my experience was probably similar to that of a convert. I was first accused of being a spy for Mossad, the FBI, and the CIA, and these rumors lasted for more than a decade and had a devastating effect on funding. I became so poor at one point that I didn’t even have enough money for food or gas for my car. But I didn’t give up, and people didn’t know my circumstances because I still had my old nice clothes from my days of corporate work. Then they accused me of desiring fame and fortune even though I was neither paid nor the subject of any of the media interviews I initiated for community members with news agencies. Then came the accusation of the work itself having no value, until 9/11 happened and then everyone was doing education and interfaith work and seeking our ING material. 

Honestly, I still don’t feel appreciated by my own community, nor is the work of education and engagement taken as seriously as is civil rights work, for example, or political engagement. That doesn’t make me happy, but it doesn’t stop me from doing the work because I am clear on my motivations and objectives which have always been about peace-making, and this overrides any criticism or lack of appreciation. My faith in God and worship and the impact of our work based on surveys from our clients is what sustains me, quite honestly.

What advice would you give to young Muslims and especially young Muslim women who are interested in interfaith/intercultural, Muslim-centered advocacy?

To be first and foremost clear on your intentions for why you want to do this work. If it is to convert others to our religion, then this is not the work for you. But if you’re humble and sincere and your motives are to build bridges based on an Islamic theology of pluralism that sees everyone as potential friends of God, who might be nearer to God than yourself, then that’s the prerequisite for doing interfaith/intercultural work. 

For women who are working for male-centered organizations it’s an easier lift. But if you’re independent and starting out on your own, then it’s a much heavier lift because it’s very challenging for women to fundraise in the Muslim community, as it is for women to raise funds anywhere, and that’s part of the reason why we’re starting an endowment to carry this work and support the people who initiate it in their local towns and regions. 

In my opinion, education about Islam and interfaith-intercultural work for peace are the most important works we could be doing as Muslims apart from charitable works in feeding the hungry and taking care of people. And if we’re going to fight for civil rights, then let’s do it for all marginalized groups and not just ourselves and make sure our political system is just and fair for all.

To learn more about Maha and ING, you can visit the organization’s site here.

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About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.