We were pleased to welcome Nihad Awad, Executive Director and National Founder of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) as he delivered this year’s Dr. Robert Coles “Call of Service” Lecture and Award. Please see the transcript below.
Assalamualaikum…peace be with you.
I want to thank PBHA for your generosity and I am deeply humbled to be included among the people you have honored with the Robert Coles “Call of Service”. I want to thank and recognize Dr. Robert Coles for his tremendous dedication vision and service to our country. It is a great honor to be with you, sir, here tonight. I also want to acknowledge as well as the associations dedicated members and their service to the community w/its 1500 undergraduate students participating in over 75 student led programs. You benefit and touch the lives of over 10000 Boston resident every year. That is a true answer to any call of service. I was moved to learn that one of the association’s newest programs includes the Harvard Rindge Muslim Youth Program, a mentoring program for Muslim high school students in partnering with the Harvard Islamic Society. I would also like to thank Maria, Jalem, your team and to Anwar, special thanks. I would also like to thank Gene (Corbin), John (Robbins), Yusufi and all of you for sharing your precious evening with me.
Ladies and gentleman I am deeply honored to be here with you this evening to receive this prestigious award that is being bestowed by your organization in recognition of the work I have been doing throughout my adult life. I would not have been here this evening to be recognized if it was not for my parents who raised me and taught me to be a man of principle caring about others. Living beyond the boundaries of the refugee camp in Anman, Jordan in which they settled after being driven out their home in Palestine, by force, in 1948 and where I was born and raised among tens of thousands of refugee families with no electricity, no running water, no sewage, no paved roads, no infrastructure. I don’t know if you can imagine how life was there. I lived there for 18 years in the primitive conditions – in a cement block toilet room. Did you hear me saying bedroom? Actually I meant to say 2 rooms without beds, just handmade mattresses with a small kitchen. We were 12 people, 10 children and our 2 parents. Our schools were canvas tents each tent accommodated with 50 students with no heat in the winter just our oversize hand me down clothes that we took from our older brothers. No air conditioning in the summer heat. To be honest with you I was not a big fan of going to school.
My wife, who is American and with me here tonight could never understa(oo)d why I could never go camping with her. I spent enough time in tents. I did my share of time. In fact I have tent PTSD. I am not joking. When I see tents I feel anxious. I would like to dedicate this prestigious award, first of all, to my parents and to the refugees and to my wife. Without her love and support I could not be here tonight. To my children who as a father I look up to them a father looks up to his children because they impressed me with their maturity and service to others. To my colleagues at work in CAIR I could not find a better team than them. To all these people to the refugee children, young men and women in my refugee camp to inspire them and to give them hope I dedicate this award and I promise them to be their ambassador and to be their voice here and elsewhere. I dedicate this award to my detractors. They keep reminding me to take the moral high road and not to sink to their level. I could not have done it without you. You keep reminding me of who I am.
Ladies and gentleman it is not easy to lose your home, your land, to be dispossessed of your property, to be expelled from your house and start from zero and to had insult to injury to be blamed for it. It is not easy to grow, to grow up in no man’s land surrounded by despair with no jobs no opportunities and no future. Despite all of that I decided to use my personal experience with injustice and become an advocate for justice not only for myself but for my people but for all people including the people who wronged me and wronged my people because I discovered that when I forgive and I really mean it, when I forgive and serve others, I free myself. I define myself. It is truly liberating. I don’t let my circumstances determine my values but this has been a long process a long journey so what led me to be here today
I was minding my own business hoping to be an engineer. When I came to the US many years ago and I arrived at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis I discovered a small diverse community of immigrants from smattering countries in America. That was my 1st encounter with African Americans in that small community and I also met Native Americans who were Muslim who embraced the religion that I followed, Islam. The reason I am mentioning these people these friends of mine from long ago, is because meeting them made me realize that these ethnic groups Native Americans an African Americans have been brutally stereotyped.
Let me explain.
In the last few years before I left the refugee camp, we got electricity in the camp for the first time. 40 years before I left the refugee camp my family got a TV set so you can imagine we started to watch American TV shows Hollywood films of course with subtitles in Arabic depicting the Native Americans and African Americans shows like Gunsmoke, Hawaii 5-0, Kojak for other generation. African Americans and Native Americans were depicted as violent and savage in numerous movies. It made a big impression on me. The contradiction between what we were taught by Hollywood versus what I discovered what I discovered what I met face to face with these people made me think about stereotyping for the first time in my life. That shock was amplified when I started to watch in America Hollywood movies and the news depicting Arabs and my people, Palestinians. I was shocked by portrayals of us and my people being projected on the screen as evil as dangerous as violent and uncivilized, bloodthirsty and almost like sub-humans. I thought to myself if I had, had I not been a Palestinian myself, I would have hated Palestinians. Confronting these images was a driving force for me. I was overwhelmed, the cultural and political shock that I underwent from the very first weeks I spent in America forced me to take action. I started to feel that there was another call to service stronger than my desire to become an engineer.
Obviously my family did not like that.
From interacting with my American friends, the environment on campus and the atrocities I realized that my faith Islam, that is so important to me; it inspires me to be a decent, clean, honest and productive man; was not known. M y religious faith was misunderstood, not that it was underrepresented. It was not represented period. And the problem was that no one was doing anything about it. I felt there was a call for someone to step up and do something. I looked around and no one was doing anything, except complaining about it. Motivated because of the openness I observed in the people around me and how quickly we can make friends here. Also that American people are open minded. They are friendly. I saw so much diversity in America but I realized I was not qualified. I was not qualified to do this. English is my second language. I have an accent and I have limitations. How can I affect the public perception about Islam? But I had a strong desire to change the status quo so I decided that even if I was not qualified I would learn how to speak, how to organize and how to make a difference.
So we find ourselves here today.
What I think when these realizations came to me I know now that three things can be said and that translates my experience.
Be a voice to the voiceless. Step outside your comfort zone. Educate with empathy.
These are the ideas that animated my walk for the past three decades
Eventually with a couple of friends we decided to start in Washington DC an org that would deal with destructive stereotypes not by pointing fingers but by explaining who we are. We established the organization with a mission and vision to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims and build coalition that promote justice and mutual understanding. This org that I helped found Council on American Islamic Relations, CAIR, became a leading voice for American Muslims.
In the 23 years that CAIR has been in existence we have worked on so many social issues notably employment discrimination, harassment and hate crimes, religious accommodation issues among many other important issues. But of this historical moment, ladies and gentleman, a cluster of major issues for our Muslim religious minority have profound ramification(s) for America as a whole.
This is a dangerous time.
For a decade now, American Muslims have felt increasingly targeted and isolated in their own country because of ever louder and more frequent rhetorical attacks on them in the public sphere. Because of the increasing sense of urgency among Muslims targeted by this Islamophobic discourse we and other institutions began to commission research in how this inflammatory discourse was being fueled. What we uncovered, without any exaggeration, a well-funded, a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Muslims, believers and institutions channeled through a handful of foundations and funders. Our research demonstrates that the fear inducing propaganda is not random or an organic product of people in American society. It is a political campaign deciding to do all it can to silence American Muslims, to disempower and isolate them, to deprive them of their place in American society.
This year, in 2017, we at CAIR have been at the forefront of challenging legally, in federal court, and otherwise what is known as the watch list. Muslims know that list. Why we are fighting the watch list —- because it is a de facto Muslim registry. It has been used to target Muslims throughout the country. CAIR has launched a series of back to back lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the watch list. The goal of these lawsuits is a complete overhaul. As a de facto Muslim registry, the watch list has been used to cause immigration delays, separating families indefinitely. It has been used to close thousands of bank accounts of Muslim businesses, individuals, families, Islamic centers for no good reason. (It has been used) to block people from making wire transfers at Western Union. (It has been used) to block people from certain employment, to revoke their hazmat or aviation licenses, to prevent people from test driving and purchasing vehicles among other things. To stand up to the powerful — I know it is courageous but it is risky, but we at CAIR needed to do that.
The good news is that just recently and for the first time a federal judge has allowed the broadest constitutional challenge to the watch list brought by our attorneys to move forward. Which means CAIR attorneys now have subpoena power to gain access to government documents and dispositions of government officials responsible for making and implementing the watch list. Now we can see how the policy is made, on what basis and put forth a legal challenge.
Finally, the Muslim ban. We have seen in the past two years, Trump whipping up public opinion against immigrants of all minorities. Donald Trump has emboldened extremists and White House supremacists, Nazi organizations, extremists throughout his campaign and into his administration. The Muslim ban, the logical extension of Trump’s political program attempts to completely ban immigration by members of one religious group, hence threatening the very foundation of American society and governance. Ladies and gentleman, the usage of religion, to divide people in America is completely unacceptable. It is very important to separate the use of religion from state especially at this time.
What Muslim Americans are going through might be new to some Muslims but it is not new to America. This liberalist community is not the first community to suffer stigmatization, marginalization, discrimination and underrepresentation. Every other minority has gone through this and worse and continues to go through it and if we do not connect empathize and sympathize with each other and understand each other’s struggles not only will we be unable to help ourselves, we will be unable to help future generations of Americans. We are right now re visiting the darkest chapters of American history. The issues confronted today are racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, seeing minorities, immigrants and refugees as a threat. Trying to push back the clock on LGBTQI rights. America is at a turning point. Its highest ideas are being tested. Its system of governance is being tested and we cannot be indifferent to other peoples’ struggle. We must not let the Muslim community fight its fight alone. We must not let African Americans fight the fight alone. WE must not let anyone else fight the fight alone. Things do not change by themselves. We need an agent of change. I some time ago decided to be an agent of change. I am making this call of service to all of you. We need all of you to be on the front line. Historically, minorities that suffered and continue to suffer today have fought their battles largely by themselves. That is wrong. The good news is today we are witnessing a new dynamic in society that Americans are pulling together. Americans of diverse background, convictions and faith traditions are coming together. Standing with each other. Supporting one another against injustices in a way that is historic.
Let me remind you of some examples in just the recent months.
All bikers surrounding a mosque in Arizona. They were outnumbered by their neighbors who came to oppose their message of hate. Muslims helping to rebuild defaced and desecrated Jewish cemeteries. Jewish Americans launching network against Islamophobia and racism, Jewish Voice for Peace. Americans of all backgrounds rushing to airports when the Muslim ban was announced including millions who usually charge $600 an hour and many other examples.
What these Americans who stood up for each other are saying is when we witness an injustice it is a call to action for all of us. It doesn’t matter where we came from. It matters where we are going and what path we are following to our destination.
Ladies and gentleman, 30 years ago, when I came to America I never thought I would become an advocate for social justice. I came here to further my education, to become an engineer and probably to go home and to help my family in their business. Little did I know that I would take up the duty to advocate for civil rights, disappoint my family who were looking forward to my return, to help them in their economic struggles.
Let me close by urging you to be a voice for the voiceless. Step outside your comfort zone. Educate with empathy. Thank you for listening. Thank you for being here tonight. I am so honored. God bless you.