Taking Back the Narrative

Our priorities must shift radically in proportion to the stark social need around us.

By Nadeem Mazen

We are sitting in a univerity with the largest endowment in one of the wealthiest cities in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. In Cambridge, we have approximately 50 percent of public school kids living at or near the poverty line. Despite the fact that we spend three times the national average per student on education, these kids, we know, will have fairly poor economic and educational outcomes and opportunities, comparatively. This is happening against the backdrop of and in the shadow of the Kendall Square and Alewife biotech corridors, a concentration of tech firms, tech jobs, and high wages that is unprecedented in the history of humankind.

We’ve been asked to look at our resistance and our complicity in today’s sociopolitical realities. When we look at our complicity, we also have to look at the scale of the problem. It may have been easy for our forebears in the 1980s and the 1990s to say: we really need to focus, as young immigrants, Muslim or otherwise, on putting down roots in America. It may have been reasonable, even, for upper-middle-class folks to say that they were just getting by. But I would hark back to the Islamic value of fard kifayah, which is echoed across many different traditions: if a certain social or government obligation is not being met, it is incumbent upon each person to set down some or all of what they’re otherwise doing in order to meet that obligation themselves. Now more than any other time in United States history, I would say it is clear that this is incumbent upon each of us.

However, in my experience at MIT and my run-ins with Harvard and other institutions, I would also say that, for the most part, scholarship is not that permeable to activism right now. And scholarly communities are not really permeable to their local neighborhoods—Harvard borders the poorest community in Cambridge and has relatively little to do with it; MIT borders the second poorest community in Cambridge and has relatively little to do with it. Within this context, we have one of the easiest choices and one of the most straightforward turning points in history: Will we establish, each of us, a daily practice that allows us to take an interest and a part in counteracting the inequity around us? Or will we simply, as scholars and learners have done since time immemorial, come out, be inspired, leave, and keep busy on our own projects?

We are not refusing to correct these social ills because we wish them to persist, because we are not equal to them, or because we are bad people. We are failing to counter these social ills sufficiently, in my opinion, simply because our priorities have not shifted radically in proportion to the social need around us; this despite the fact that the situation has become stark, that there has been a slow march of increasing socioeconomic and gender inequity—among many other types of social and economic inequity. If, ten years ago, we made a list of those hallmarks of social inequity that would cause us to drop everything we’re doing in order to serve, I believe that everything that’s happening around us now should certainly constitute that “trigger” causing us to commit our lives to these issues. But given the way that society works, and the unusual nature of social inequity and violence today, it is all too easy to slide slowly into this state of affairs, making it the new normal.

The standard local political opinion before I was elected was, “Cambridge, the greatest city in the world.” It is not. There are lists of the greatest cities in the world, and we are not on those lists. I believe Cambridge could be among the greatest, given the resources, diversity, opportunities, and potential we have. But we would have to be doing a great deal more outreach to those who are marginalized. And, once we have done proactive outreach and truly become invitational, then we would have to engage in training and strategy. We would have to be much more critical of where we are now in order to understand fully where we want to be and how we will get there. All of these things are absent to the degree required. For example, mentorship has virtually disappeared from the American economic and academic ecosystems.

These are not survivable hallmarks of failure. These are critical hallmarks of failure that indicate a system is collapsing fully. Not to be too bleak for you! When we ask whether we are complicit or resistant, I would ask first about the hallmarks: Would people say they are doing enough, as individuals? I would say that most people would say no, they themselves are not doing enough. Would people say their community or peers are doing enough? No, of course not; if people are at a place where they would say they are not doing enough themselves, they would definitely say their peers aren’t doing enough. Do we fund—that is, perpetuate—social inequity via our purchases in the marketplace and our taxes and other expenditures? I think most of us would say, yes, we do perpetuate the problem rather than solving it. And, finally, are we offsetting and mitigating the problem religiously through consistent practices that are substantive? I suspect most people would say of themselves: no, we have not even begun to offset the way that we perpetuate inequity—gender, racial, class, and otherwise—in our society.

To that end, I want to talk about the work we have to do internally in the American Muslim community. Recently, I went to a mosque (I won’t say where it was), and the women were praying in the basement and the men were praying on the first floor. There was an overflow room for men in the basement, in front of the women, which was demarcated by police tape. I thought, “Whooaaa this is the wrong thing! This is not happening!”

This is not because 90 percent of Muslims espouse discriminatory values—the contrary is true. This type of outrage is possible because of some strange absence of leadership development and the sharing of power in the community, and perhaps because of a “generational” type of leadership, where positions of influence are held for too long by too few. This is not optimal for where we are now in history. It may be an echoing of what we’re seeing in the community at large, where millennials and other young people are giving up on existing institutions and throwing in the towel on participating, because barriers to entry are too high. This should be a familiar story for Americans on the left and on the right, since women, black American Muslims, and other marginalized groups in all contexts in America are treated in ways that are discriminatory and minimize opportunity.

The point is that we have a need in most American Muslim communities for a great deal of internal critique. We need to elevate leaders of all sects and scholarly schools of thought, of all genders and all races. Critique is indeed very difficult in all first-generation communities, not just Muslim ones. But in our community, we have a division between the gatekeepers and the activists of tomorrow. The latter have more or less given up on preexisting institutions, despite the fact that these institutions may very well be our only foundation for the next stage of redress of socioeconomic and other types of inequity at play in society.

I implore everyone: if you are establishing a daily practice, some of it ought to be dedicated to the slow and consistent prodding and reform of our existing institutions. These problems are not as insurmountable as we might think. My personal experience is that, by developing action plans and strategizing and committing to reforming these institutions, not only will we see the fruits we believe we are owed as constituents, but we will also find that these institutions are happy for the change (once they realize that our energy is not always subversive or threatening).

However, I do want to say that the bigotry we face—as we do all these things by, for, and with American Muslims—is like an activism tax. In the context of doing this good work and setting a high standard for ourselves, we find ourselves coming to terms with the importance of continuing this work. But it is very difficult to reach full velocity when there are people working not to make our organizations better through critique, but to destroy our credibility through slander, libel, and character assassination. This, I’ve found, is universal across American Muslim leadership—literally every single American Muslim leader gets targeted in the press, on social media, and on television with coordinated hate speech campaigns, aimed at scuttling their professional or academic work, Google search results for their names, or slowing down their political momentum.1 This state of affairs is deleterious to the project of reaching new standards for social justice, social equity, and gender and racial equity.

Most journalists don’t understand the systemic nature and scope of anti-Islam racism, and the types of Islamophobia that are directed at specific leaders from the Muslim community. This racism would not exist to this extent if it were not so politically fruitful and fiscally viable for hate speech–oriented individuals and organizations. A large set of leaders that come up through the ranks, and certainly the most promising young reformers, are subjected to this hate speech, seemingly indiscriminately. For that reason, when we tell stories about Jetpac2 or talk about American Muslim political leadership, we tend to brush off this issue and say it’s much larger than we realized. It is fairly deep, and it can be quite consequential to a political leader. At the same time, if you have community roots and are establishing the connections and cooperation that are needed to take on the larger project of addressing inequity, then this fabric of networks provides a strong fallback position when you’re being attacked.

I speak from personal experience: A local hate group has been attacking several of the Muslim community’s leaders. Each year, they focus on one leader, putting together a documentary, an article, a guilt-by-association campaign, or a lecture about why this one Muslim person should be derided in our otherwise tolerant communities. When I was that targeted leader, it became clear to me that tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars were behind the advertising of the hit-piece on me, to ensure that everyone in my professional circle would see this smear campaign. Certainly, the organization funding this work was better funded in terms of marketing than all of our local mosques combined. Literally everyone in Cambridge who I met over the course of two months had seen it. Think about that. I see several dozens of people per day, so in a couple of months this adds up to thousands of people.

An attack like this can seem insurmountable, but the community came to my aid. Just as I was beginning to think about what I was going to do to respond, I found others had already spoken up publicly. Many in the community, though total strangers to me, came before the Cambridge City Council and made public comments. They said they thought something was fishy, given the quality of the article about me, and they began to check on the claims. Lo and behold, many stood up and said: “I’m here to say that this is merely a smear campaign.”

While I cannot say that everyone will be lucky enough to survive attacks like this unscathed, I think the strongest thing we can do is to address this issue head-on and to make sure our connections are very strong. It is out of doubt, not maliciousness, that these things take flight in otherwise tolerant communities. If we can inoculate ourselves against doubt and anti-Islam racism—and this is easier to do than persuading someone post facto—then I think we can stave off what has been, to date, one of the strongest destabilizing factors within the American Muslim community. Certainly, being attacked is one of the major reasons American Muslims are incredibly underrepresented in elected office.

What should be encouraging is that it is a fairly straightforward process to inoculate our networks, and it accords with our other obligations to resist. Jetpac was established to train Muslims, minorities, and allies to become authentic community organizers. As it turns out, this type of organizer becomes the best sort of elected official. If you actually have a connection to your community, it is easier to walk into positions of public service, like school committees that sometimes just need a handful of votes, or city councils where vote totals in the low thousands are required to be elected. One should not run for office or govern a community in a district only on charisma and marketing; one should do so based on a specific commitment to voter accountability. Rather than just pointing to a problem and publicizing it, a local representative should actually be working to solve it, and demonstrating the ways it could be solved through collective action.

Some final questions are: Is it possible to win for justice? Are we going to win? I would say most people think it is possible to win for justice. We certainly have the resources and the know-how. But, are we going to win? I think most people would agree with me that things are pretty bleak right now. Even if we score political victories, we have seen opportunities like this before, and we have been underwhelmed by our capacity—legislative, community, or otherwise—to surmount these problems.

This may sound dark, but it should be inspiring. If we believe we have the resources and we are willing to admit that we are not doing enough, then shouldn’t we put down what we’re doing and throw a bunch of energy against the wall? Shouldn’t we who are academics, scholars, and professionals say that we can admit that we are complicit, but that we wish to be resisting more actively?

As someone who snuck into a position on the Cambridge City Council the first time I ran, I would say that it is incumbent upon those of us who are in leadership (whether in politics, academia, or nonprofit organizations) to talk about opportunity, and to be a voice within our organizations, and to do actual proactive outreach to marginalized communities. If we want to counter the ubiquitous misperceptions of Muslims in the popular consciousness, it is incumbent upon each of us to practice narrative storytelling and to take back the narrative—now that we are informed about the scale of the smear effort going on against American Muslim leaders nationwide.

I’ve had great luck on conservative radio, and great experiences going out into communities previously less hospitable to American Muslims. We have fielded many questions about American Muslims in politics, and people are shocked to find that they’re more angry with me because I’m a progressive Democrat than because I’m a Muslim! I think that’s great! I would love someone to challenge me on the merits of a $15 minimum wage. But, when people realize that everything that has been propagated about Muslims is largely about their side’s grab for political power, when they realize they’re already upset with their side for not telling the truth, and when they realize that I’m upset with my side (not the American Muslim side but the Democratic party side) for not always telling the truth, there is a rich opportunity for self-improvement, collaboration, conversation, and mutual understanding.

It’s really a matter of four million American Muslim citizens, and the small number of leaders within our ranks, trying to address an audience of some 300 million or more. The path is steep. It’s a matter of time, of strong allies and strong partnerships—but if history is any indicator, I think it’s a battle that we will win. The current situation and the depth of this type of racism and targeting cannot withstand the truth.

Watch Nadeem Mazen’s presentation:

Listen to the full panel:

This is an edited version of Mazen’s presentation in the panel “Resistance and Complicity to Empire through Political Movements,” during the “Beyond Bans, Beyond Walls: Women, Gender, and Islam Symposium” held at Harvard Divinity School on April 7, 2017.


  1. This includes thousands of top leaders just in the last few years. If you reach a certain level of leadership as an American Muslim, you get targeted.
  2. Jetpac stands for Justice, Education, and Technology Political Advocacy Center. See jet-pac.com.

Nadeem Mazen is an educator, entrepreneur, and community organizer. He is a Cambridge city councillor and founding president of Jetpac, a nonprofit that empowers minority communities through civic education programs. Mazen is currently traveling around the U.S. to train underrepresented minorities who are considering a run for elected office and is considering a run for higher office himself in 2018. He can be reached on Twitter via @nadeemtron.

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