Additional reporting by Dylanni Smith
Wajahat Ali, journalist at the Associated Press and Muslim-American speaker, simultaneously taught and entertained the diverse group of attendees during his keynote speech for Ohio University’s International Education Week.
Ali uses his professional skills to be a voice for individuals who are misrepresented by the mainstream media. His speech transformed harsh — and what are often considered dull — facts into an interesting dialogue on life for Muslim Americans and the United States’ place in the global narrative about Islam.
“If you are not writing your own story, your story is always being told by others,” Ali said several times during the night.
He broke down the historical context of Islamophobia, including where it came from and how it has grown over the years. He connected that history to present-day affairs relating to President-elect Donald Trump, who has been called racist, xenophobic, sexist and a white supremacist. Ali also analyzed the reactions of many Muslim extremist groups to the 2016 presidential election, including ISIS’ continued support and even celebration of Trump’s presidency.
“Donald Trump tapped into old anti-Muslim propaganda,” Ali said. “Depictions of Middle Eastern people and Muslims in movies over the years has only aided in our racist and angry attitudes toward Muslims. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it was now Islam versus the West.”
Ali lamented the state of Muslim relations with the rest of the world, calling Islamophobia “anti-Muslim bigotry” and expressing his frustration about minorities’ inability to write a new narrative concerning their future and continued survival, especially in America.
“Islam has the lowest favorability of religions in America,” he said, encouraging the attempt to redraw the Islamic narrative. “The perception of Muslims is bad, but the reality of Muslims is good.”
Ali said America’s history has been shaped by Muslim people through their role in the slave trade and the continually growing tension between the Western world and the Islamic State. Yet, in 2016, 60 to 65 percent of Americans say they still do not know a Muslim person. Almost 900 hate groups were recorded in America in 2015.
Zamzam Jama, a doctoral student in the Scripps College of Communication, commented on Ali’s combination of the Muslim narrative with the overarching American one, as well as his emphasis on legacies and story-sharing to help shape the world.
“I thought he did an excellent job referencing how the the struggles facing Muslims isn’t in a space vacuum, it’s an issue many ethnicities and minorities in the American fabric face,” Jama said.
She thinks the next steps toward combating Islamophobia are connecting through conversation.
“I think there are a lot of discussions happening within the departments about how we can create safe spaces where students can have open dialogues and really hash out viewpoints so that we can truly get to truth,” Jama said. “We can get to the point where we see others not as others, but as extensions of ourselves.”
Ali ended his speech by imploring those who gathered to not give up and to strive for a unified country.
“We are not powerless, we are privileged, and thus, we have the opportunity to make a change,” Ali said. “I encourage us to write a new story for America. One that can stretch and accommodate America using our values to ensure that our vast freedoms are enjoyed by all communities. I want to be able to tell my kids that they can’t beat us all down. They can’t make us voiceless. They will try. But the best revenge against bigots has always been success.”