On Sunday April 3, 2016 Samina Sundas, an American Muslim and founder of the American Muslim Voice Foundation will be the keynote speaker at the Healing Arts Festival in Sacramento. Her presentation, A Open Discussion With An American Muslim was created as an opportunity to provide a neutral location and open forum for individuals to ask questions about the Muslim faith during this time of increased fear and misinformation. Below is an interview with Samina by the owner of the Healing Arts Festival, Prasanna Hankins.
When did you come to the United States?
A. September, 1978
What made you decide to come?
A. My ex-husband was doing his masters in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Did you feel welcomed when you arrived?
A. Not really because it took two years before my daughter received our visas from the US consulate. That did not feel very welcoming.
When 09/11 happened, did you feel supported or unsafe?
A. Both, supported by the people who knew me but unsafe from the ones who did not.
My journey to becoming a full time community activist was unfortunately motivated by pain. I was at Costco when I first learned about the tragedy. There were many people standing by the TV. I started crying as I was watching the destruction and pain caused by misguided individuals in the name of Islam. One of the men from the group asked me madly, “Why am you crying?” I did not say anything and looked around for some support. There was none. The man came even closer and yelled again, “I asked you why are you crying?” I politely replied as I walked away, Sir because I have not figured out yet how not to care about human beings. At that moment, I knew my life would be changed forever. As I who so proudly adopted America as my home became the other because of that tragedy. After the September 11 tragedy, I found myself suffering on two fronts. As an American, I shared in our national grief for such a senseless and shocking act of violence against our country, our people. Following that, the growing sentiment of Islamophobia underscored that my religion had been hijacked on that day as well, as Muslims in America became increasingly popular targets of harassment, discrimination, scrutiny, and violence.
The conversation in politics has changed a lot. Right after 9/11 I remember President Bush asking people to not fear but support our Muslim community. Why do you think the conversation has taken such a dramatic turn?
A. An analysis of Pew Research Center data from 2002 to 2014 shows that anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. has spiked temporarily in each of the past three elections, and is rising again now. Republican presidential candidates have consistently targeted American Muslims to mobilize support in current elections too.
Some people equate Muslims with terrorists and don’t want any Muslim immigrants here. How do you respond to this fear-based belief?
A. There are individuals who always focus on their personal gain without ever thinking of the country and long term effects of dividing a nation.
What do you think is the most misunderstood or wrong understanding that people have about the Muslim religion and/or community?
A. That all Muslims are terrorists. And the 2nd biggest is about Jihad. Jihad simply means struggle (personal struggle to be good and do good as prescribed by God.)
Why did you decide to create your foundation?
A. Imagine grieving over the loss of a loved one, and then facing accusations that you are somehow responsible for that loss. Like other Muslims in America, I carried this weight; this pain and burden forced many others to retract into utter silence and remain in the relative safety of their homes – hoping to weather the storm until that day when the American Muslim was once again relegated to quiet anonymity.
As difficult as it was to accept, I knew that would never happen. As a proud American and devout Muslim, I could not stand in silence in good conscious while my religion was blamed for the horrific acts of hatred committed that day. I worried constantly for my children’s safety. Would they be attacked? Harassed? Discriminated against? Would they be rounded up and arrested without as much as a phone call? Panic sets in for parents very easily when these thoughts circulate your head, but I refused to believe that here in America, the land of the free, would terror and fear prevail over freedom, justice, and understanding. I decided to get involved. I had to become the change I wanted to see.
My first efforts were to find an American Muslim community group that could guide me in my quest to help shake this nightmare, but most were either flying under the radar or focused on political issues at a larger national scale that seemed to have little effect on the growing problem of intolerance in America. From my own experience, I found an immense amount of support from my neighbors and friends of our family here in Palo Alto, California and globally. As a childcare provider for over two decades, I have been lucky to know so many wonderful families. We have stayed in touch throughout the years and there is a very real sense of being a part of one extended family that persists today. We celebrate holidays and our children’s accomplishments together, and so it was no surprise that in my bouts of fear, they were the first to empathize with and support me.
I realized then that the experience for my diverse group of friends was vastly different from the average American who had never encountered Islam before 9/11. My friends had a personal connection – a positive history we shared together that the nightly news could not usurp. They were repulsed with the hate mongering and negative rhetoric making its way around the country because they had witnessed firsthand the people being distorted by the mainstream media. In its very essence, this is the effect of community.
It became my inspiration; my sole motivation to be an activist. I realized then that to prevent any kind of otherness and prejudice in the future we needed to start at a grassroots level, building up the American community. I have dedicated my life toward this endeavor. I started American Muslim Voice Foundation in an effort to unite diverse American communities. We serve the nation, not just Muslims – in fact, most of the work done by AMV is actually directed at interfaith coalition, beloved community and peace building.
How have people responded to you and your work?
A. We have been able to change minds and heart of the individuals who have had a chance to be a part of our events and had 1st hand experience with their Muslim fellows. The coalition and alliances we have built have turned into friendships and the greatest asset as support for me and the organization.
Tell me something about your faith that brings you joy like a spiritual practice or a quote.
A. Your paradise/heaven lies under your mother’s feet.
A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the most worthy of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man further asked, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father. (Bukhari, Muslim).
What do you love most about being in the United States?
A. There are so many things I love about America and being an American. Individuals can change and improve their lives at any time they want. Hard work is rewarded and anyone can have a good life. But most importantly as an activist this fact is closest to my heart, that as an American I can raise my voice against injustice and people of faith and conscious support me.
What can we do to help bridge the gap and foster unity within our country?
A. You have already started by giving me this wonderful opportunity by inviting me to share who Muslims are and what Islam is all about. Please help us spread the true message of Islam and encourage your members to truly get to know Muslims. I can assure you that you will be pleasantly surprised how much we have in common as human beings.
About the American Muslim Voice Foundation
Their motto: From fear to friendship
Mission: American Muslim Voice Foundation was founded in July 2003 by American Muslims to work for and with ALL Americans. We work with all Muslim, multi-faith, community organizations, groups and individuals that share our vision of a peaceful, harmonious and an inclusive world.
Samina Sundas will be speaking from 2:00pm – 3:00pm on Sunday, April 3rd. The Healing Arts Festival will be held at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center @ 6151 H St. in Sacramento, CA. For more information about the Healing Arts Festival visit their website @ www.healingartsfestival.com. You can find more information about the American Muslim Voice Foundation @ www.amuslimvoice.org.