November 8, 2022
Kashif Shaikh, founder of Pillars Fund, is financing Muslim American stories. He says it’s his love letter to the community.
Kashif Shaikh is the founder of the Pillars Fund, a Chicago-based philanthropic institution financed by Muslims to support Muslim organizations, research and art. Shaikh speaks with Eboo about what inspired this ground-breaking fund, why he supports Muslim artists and what impact Pillars is having on projects in Hollywood, Arkansas, Brooklyn and beyond.
Kashif Shaikh is co-founder and executive director of Pillars Fund, a philanthropic organization that amplifies the leadership, narratives, and talents of American Muslims. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Peabody Awards (East Coast division), Chicago Humanities Festival, Donors of Color Network, and Mortar, and has written for The New York Times, Vice, and NPR, Variety, among other outlets.
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Who’s telling authentic stories about Muslim Americans?
Eboo Patel: This is the Interfaith America podcast, and I’m Eboo Patel.
Patel: Every community needs a risk taker and a leader who is willing to point to the horizon and then bring the community along. Kashif Shaikh is just that person. He is co-founder of the Pillars Fund, one of the most important philanthropic institutions in the American Muslim community, and he currently serves as the president. I was there for several of the early conversations about the need for a new American Muslim foundation that would gather resources from Muslims who had been financially successful and invest those resources in Muslim civic initiatives that were going to build the infrastructure of a big tent American Islam that would serve both the community and the country.
Kashif was just the right person at the right time. I can’t wait to introduce you to Kashif, the Pillars Fund, the vision for an American Islam that welcomes its own internal diversity and contributes to the beauty of American pluralism. You helped to build a philanthropic foundation from scratch and you are not a billionaire. Most billionaires don’t build philanthropic foundations from scratch, by the way, and very, very few people who are not in that category do what you have done.
Kashif Shaikh: I just wanted an institution that saw and celebrated our people. If the only introduction the world had to Muslims was through the Pillars Fund, what would they see? I think they would see a really amazing, incredibly diverse, talented, multi-generational, philanthropic communities around the country. I think to me, in a lot of ways it sounds somewhat cheesy, but Pillars has been this love letter to the communities that we’re serving, because I have been so inspired and motivated and pushed by our people, by Muslims in this country.
Even when I didn’t particularly feel part of those communities or personally, I always held onto that identity. I think what people would really see with the work of Pillars is that, oh my goodness, our work, it’s so expansive. You could come into our network and you could meet a burgeoning filmmaker in Los Angeles trying to get a television show on Hulu. You could meet a mental health practitioner who’s trying to prevent suicide and Muslim communities. You can meet an oral historian who’s building a museum trying to document the history of Muslims in Brooklyn.
There’s so many amazing Muslims in this country and I’m going to share with you an internal motto that we have always lived by that I don’t often share publicly but I think it has really informed our work, is that for the longest time, I think Muslims, no fault of their own, were operating from a “can you let us in” lens. There was often this, “Please, let us in.” I think Pillars, from its very inception, was like, “No, forget about that. Come check us out. We’re throwing a party. There’s amazing people. There’s awesome food. There’s dancing, there’s everything, and if you want to be a part of it, you’re welcome to join.”
It was less about catering to the image that people thought of Muslims and saying, “We’re not trying to–” There’s always this idea of trying to change the perception of who you are. We’re not trying to do that. What we’re trying to do is just live a life as we are and be exactly who we are. We know that through that lens, people are going to come and be like, “Whoa, these guys at Pillars, these Muslims are doing some pretty fun stuff and we want to be a part of it.”
That’s really been the goal of the organization, is to support this next generation of leaders. Who are the interesting people? Who are those Muslims? Where is that next 23, 24-year-old who has this idea that might sound crazy on paper, but we’re like, “You know what? Let’s put some money towards it and see what happens with it”? That’s really how I think about our work.
Patel: I love it and I got to say, if there is another Kashif Shaikh out there, it will tilt the earth on its axis.
Patel: I don’t think the atmosphere can take that much energy. I want to double click on a couple parts of this. One, I just want to emphasize, the work of the Pillars Fund is to find creative, interesting endeavors within the American Muslim community. You are helping to architect a community that is true to its past, that’s writing its future and that’s making a contribution to America. I just think that’s so powerful. I’ve experienced that. You and I have been friends for 12, 15 years, and so I’ve got some intimacy with this.
One of the metaphors that’s emerging in my mind, one of the images is I talk about America as a potluck supper and not as a melting pot and you’re saying, “Hey, listen, Muslims aren’t showing up to your door with our biryani and knocking and saying, ‘Hey, can you please let us in? Would you like to try some of our feast food?'” We’re hosting the potluck. We’re making the biryani. We’re singing the qawwali. We’re saying, “Come to our place and you bring your dish. You are welcome, but we are proud of who we are. We’re proud of what we’re building and we’re moving forward.” I just think that’s so powerful, and you exude that energy and I have seen the reality of it.
Shaikh: Thank you. Pillars essentially operates two main programs, our catalyzed fund, which is really the program that supports the civic institutions, in which we have– and you can learn about all this work in pillarsfund.org, but that’s our bread and butter of our work. We have three main areas that we support in that fund, which is reimagining public safety, civic engagement, and mental health and trauma. Those are the three areas that we’re really focused.
Then we have the Pillars Artist Fellowship, which is specifically meant to support Muslim artists through this incredible opportunity that we’ve been partnering with the actor Riz Ahmed on, which finds burgeoning directors and writers and storytellers. Those are our two main areas, but the idea is really the same, is to find exciting, interesting, fun Muslims doing really cool work and be able to support them financially.
Patel: Let’s talk about you for just a second here. You are many things. You are not an imam. You are not a scholar of Islam. You are not the most ritualistic Muslim in the world, and nor am I. Yet here we are doing things deeply connected to our faith. You left a comfortable job at the McCormick Foundation to try to make this happen. Tell me, what is it about how you understand your faith and identity, recognizing again, you’re not an imam, you’re not a scholar, you’re not the most ritualistic Muslim, and yet you feel a connection such that you took a significant risk and did a ton of work to help to launch the first participatory Muslim philanthropic foundation in the country. Give us a sense of your own Muslim identity in a relationship to the tradition of Islam.
Shaikh: I think that to me, I grew up Muslim, my parents were Pakistani immigrants, the Islam that I saw growing up was actually quite beautiful, because my mother, who has since passed, was very ritualistic. The way that she understood her faith was through prayer, was through the Quran, was through writing checks to the less fortunate. She had a very literal interpretation of how to be a Muslim. My dad had a less literal interpretation. To him, he had a really intense belief in God. The man is 73-years-old. He has five stents in his heart.
He has lived a life and still, I’ve never heard him complain about anything in his life. The biggest lesson he really taught us was just humility and being grateful. The easiest way to get my dad angry is to complain about something, because he will be the first one to tell you that we are so fortunate that we have had so much privilege in our life. To me, I got to experience in Islam that was really both ritualistic in some ways, but also very almost abstract in a lot of ways, my dad’s love of music, my dad’s love of art.
All of these things were informed as I was growing up trying to figure out where do I fall on the spectrum? Who am I? I think that we’re probably going to talk a little bit about the ways that 9/11 had a huge impact, but that had a really big impact on me because I was 18 when it happened, so it forced me to confront this question of who am I and what is my identity? I think that, to me, being a Muslim was something that I was really proud of. I didn’t quite know what that meant and really tried to figure out.
I think Pillars, in a really divine way, has led me to the community and helped me to understand who I am. I was always searching. I was always searching for my people. I was always searching for my identity. I think that there was always this draw about Islam because it was such a huge part of my childhood and who we were. The Muslims that I knew and the Muslims that I started to get to know were really interesting and exciting and doing really cool things and I just wanted to be a part of that club, frankly.
Pillars, I think most people that know me are pretty surprised to know that this is the work that I do, but at the same time, if you really know me, you know that this identity and this faith has meant a lot to me. Without being a scholar, without being an imam, because I am not those things, I am not super learned in this faith, but I know what it means to me. I know what it feels. I know why it’s important to me. Pillars has really strengthened that and given me that community and given me the humility to also say that I’m not perfect, I’m making mistakes every single day, but I really am proud to be a Muslim. I’m really proud of the people that I’m in community with.
Patel: One of the things about the post-9/11 era, in which I came of age in many ways also, I think I was 25, 26, it creates a new space in both the American Muslim community and in America in general, which is I call it a civic Muslim identity. Before, it was very hard to be a Muslim outside of the mosque. You didn’t hear Muslims, you certainly didn’t see us on TV, minus the kind of Muhammad Ali biopic. Those are super important, but you certainly didn’t see us on television, you didn’t hear us on the radio, et cetera, et cetera.
If you were a Muslim, it was because you were deeply ritualistic and it only existed within certain narrow spheres of American life. Big for Muslims, small in the pond of America, but because of the trauma of 9/11, the multiple traumas, a space emerges where people who express their Muslim identity through civic institutions and actions, Rami Nashashibi, Zeenat Rahman, Farhan Latif, Maggie Siddiqi, it’s a long list.
There’s various levels of ritual observance, there’s people who are very observant, like Rami, and there’s people who are less observant, but a principle mode of expression is civic action and civic institution building. We should say that’s not new in America, or for Muslims. African-American Muslims have been doing it for generations, but it was new for immigrant Muslims and I would certainly have a more tenuous relationship with the tradition of Islam had that space not emerged, because it is a principal way that I express my identity, and I think that that’s the case for you.
Shaikh: Yes. I’m really glad that you brought up Black Muslims because I think that you’re 100% right in that, for those that aren’t aware, one third of Muslims in America are Black. Really, when you look at the spread and what American Muslim identity looks like, it’s really largely through Black communities. I think immigrant communities have been building on top of this incredible infrastructure and when you look at the civil rights movement and you look at– for myself personally, there was two moments for me that shaped who I am.
The first was the activism around 9/11, and the second is reading the autobiography of Malcolm X, which most people will tell you had a profound impact on them, for so many different reasons, and I was 18 when I read Malcolm X’s autobiography. You’re absolutely right, I think that what it forced us to do, it almost forced us to resolve some of our both external and internal issues in public. Our community is not immune from things like domestic abuse and suicide and all these things, and at the same time, we’re also being targeted for being terrorists and this and that.
I think that for us, that was such a strange time, that post-9/11 world, because you’re really trying to work your shit out in public. You’re really trying to figure out who you are personally, but you’re also trying to build institutions that can speak to and react to some of the real trauma that was happening. Yes, I think that it’s really incredible to reflect back now 20 years later as to how many activists and how many leaders came out of that moment and how different of a place we are as a result because of it.
Patel: Let me ask this, could Pillars have been built in the year 2000, a year before 9/11?
Shaikh: I don’t think so, because I think that when you look at the work that was happening, particularly, whether it be 2000 or 2002, because obviously 9/11 had this massive impact, I think we were always almost in this defensive, because what happened was that Muslims, of who we were was being defined for us, whether it was through television, whether it was through conversations every day, we never really had the luxury or the space, or the resources, frankly, to be able to have institutions that, like I said earlier, had like the dance party that people could come and check out.
They were fighting the fight and trying to undo these really harmful narratives. It’s not to say that we aren’t. I also think that one key thing of why Pillars exist today and why I think it’s been successful, is that you have another generation as well. I think of my generation, as sad as it makes me, I’ve started to realize there is a generation that’s younger than me and they’re smarter than me.
Patel: Probably two generations other than you.
Shaikh: Two generations, exactly. I think one of the biggest shifts that I’ve seen is that I have found that newer generations, for better or worse, and I will get into this, they’re a bit more audacious, they’re a bit more bold, and I think that for us, I think that while we dreamed, while we thought that we could make a lot of change, I think young people today, they come out the womb like, “We’re not going to take this,” and that comes with good and bad. I think for us, I think that we were bridge builders and I think that’s really good, but I think at some points, we were a bit too nice, if I’m being really honest.
I think that we didn’t always have the boldness to be able to do the things that I think are needed to build institutions and to not be worried about what other people think. I don’t think Pillars would’ve been able to exist the same way in 2000 that it does in 2022. We also now have a new generation of people who are not afraid to go into the arts. We have more role models. I talk about Riz, Riz is my age, exactly. I grew up watching him on film. I didn’t have someone when I was 15 on film that I could admire. I make this joke, the first brown person I ever saw on screen was the guitarist for Sum 41 and my mind was blown. I saw this guy and I was like, “He’s a brown dude playing guitar. I play guitar. Maybe I could be a rock star.” I think that’s a huge difference.
Patel: I’m going to ask you to be specific about three things, all of which you’ve already touched on, but let’s just drill down one click deeper on each of these. One is, you talked about seeing what other minority communities had built in terms of their own philanthropic and communal infrastructure. This is the Interfaith America podcast and a huge part of what I focus on is how we learn from each other across identity communities, how Jews learn from Catholics, how Catholics learn from Methodists, et cetera, et cetera. Is there something you saw within another minority religious community where you were like, “We got to do that in the American Muslim community”?
Shaikh: Yes. Oh my goodness. The Jewish community has inspired me to no end. I think how thoughtful, how network their philanthropic institutions are, has been something that is so admirable and so inspiring. I have two stories about that, that I think really hammer home how important they were. My co-founder, who you know, Shakeeb Alam, who we started Pillars together-
Patel: Great guy. Yes.
Shaikh: Great guy. I have this email and one day I’ve been meaning to print it out and frame it, it was right before Pillars was about to launch. This was about 2010, 2011. He sends us, a few of us that had started, there was about five of us, and he sent this email and I’m going to sort of mess up which institution it was, but he was in Boston at the time, and he said, “Hey, I just came back from a dinner for–” and, excuse me, I can’t remember what the Jewish organization was, but it was a Jewish philanthropy and they had just celebrated giving away like $50 million to– et cetera, what it was, and I still have this email where he said “How inspiring is this one day, inshallah, Pillars is going to be able to host our own event where we can talk about and support our communities. This is the model that we really want to try to replicate.”
Patel: This is interfaith America. It’s so inspiring.
Patel: You’re a Muslim at a dinner of a Jewish philanthropy inspired by what that philanthropy is doing and saying, “We can do our own Muslim version of this,” that’s interfaith America.
Shaikh: That absolutely is. I still remember that email and I still have it and it still sends chills down my spine when I think about that was the motivation. Then the second story is– Pillars, you should think of it in two phases. The first was we did it for about five or six years as a volunteer-based fund while I was working at McCormick, and then we were transitioning it to become a full-time institution. In order to do that, we needed to attract some seed investment to be able to get this thing off the ground. I remember we went to a funder in 2015, 2016, it was [co-founder] and I, we had our little suits on, and you know me, it takes a lot for me to wear a suit, so back in the day–
Patel: A lot.
Shaikh: –I actually was wearing a suit and was in these meetings and a gentleman, he was Jewish, and he said, “You know what’s so inspiring about this meeting is that I imagine my grandfather 70 years ago was doing what you two are doing right now to build the Jewish institutions.” It was such a cool moment because he talked about how inspired he was by that. Then it wasn’t just Jewish communities, like the Sikh community, I think they built the Sikh Coalition around 9/11 as well, and it’s a community that I admire and love and have so much respect for. It wasn’t just the Jewish community, but there was a lot of communities that really inspired us but I think a lot about those Jewish institutions in which we really modeled ourselves after.
Patel: Faith is a bridge of cooperation, and it’s a mutual enrichment for all of us and those are powerful illustrations of that. Two more concrete questions. You and I talk a lot about institution building. You’ve talked about that. The Pillars Fund is heavily involved in building civic institutions. Tell me, in 30 years, if the Pillars Fund is successful in nurturing a set of civic leaders and strengthening a set of civic institutions within the American Muslim community, what does the civic infrastructure of American Islam look like?
Shaikh: I think that if we do our job right, and I think we’re starting to slowly see some of these gains, is that the idea that someone is Muslim or the idea that a Muslim person is doing Y won’t be novel anymore. You’re seeing a little bit on the micro level where– from Ohio, and a lot of my friends whose teachers, they’re Muslim, and they won’t even think twice about it. To me, I think that needs to expand to so many things.
Patel: As opposed to when we grew up where it was like, our dad yelled, “Beta, Hakeem Olajuwon is on the TV.”
Shaikh: Oh my goodness, I think any one of our generation– I love Hakeem Olajuwon, I feel so bad for him because the hopes and dreams of all Muslim youth was on that guy. Everyone remembers the Sports Illustrated, or I think it was the Sports Illustrated for Kids where he talked about fasting while he was in the playoffs. Yes, totally, it was so novel. To his credit, he was a once in a generational talent and I think that we’re so proud to have someone like Hakeem to look up to. I think that in 30 years from now, the goal is to have 50 Hakeems, and not just in sports, but in television, in civic life, in schools, in whatever it might be, so that it’s not so novel.
I think, to me, that’s what’s really exciting about where we’re headed, is that now we– I get really frustrated by the whole first Muslim to do this, or the first Muslim that– I know it’s like a talking point that a lot of people use, and I think it’s wonderful, but I actually think that it’s going to be really exciting to me when we’re not like, “Oh my God, he’s the first Muslim who’s nominated for an Oscar.” We’re just going to have a Muslim who’s nominated for an Oscar and you’re going to be like, “Yes, that makes sense.” If we do our job well, I joke that our goal is to inundate the marketplace with Muslims, that’s really to use capitalistic terms.
Patel: Muslims are everywhere. They’re winning Nobel Prizes and literature and science. They’re writing television, they’re playing sports, they’re teaching high school, they’re coaching baseball. It’s a civic infrastructure. It’s Medina. The Prophet Muhammad made the peace and blessings of God be upon him, moves to Yathrib and the city changes its name to Medina, he builds civic institutions, he built to market.
Patel: He built a community center, that’s a masjid, he built the constitution, you’re building through both inspiration and financial resources, the civic institutions of a community that then enriches the rest of the nation. It’s not separate.
Patel: It’s not separate.
Patel: Let’s talk about a second big piece of what of what the Pillars Fund does, which is around media representation. When Shehnaz and I are watching “Ramy”, or when we’ve gotten “Ms. Marvel” on, I’ll call the boys out, I’d be like, “Kashif had something to do with that.” Your name is loaded about our house pretty frequently. You have really led the foundation in this direction to say we need Muslim storytellers and you have been unbelievably courageous and reaching out to Hasan Minhaj, Riz Ahmed, this whole set of people to say, “Will you help run a narrative strategy for the Pillars Fund, and let’s have a range of Muslim stories on television.” Tell us about one or two things you’re especially proud of in that role?
Shaikh: Oh, my goodness. Thank you for that. To be clear, were very fortunate to be able to promote and support our friends doing this, but those shows are the brainchild of those people and they’re brilliant and smart and amazing and I would never want to take any credit away from them. Before I delve into that, I think it’s important to know why I felt really inspired to do this work. I was a kid, my sister and I joke, we’re two years apart, my parents were immigrants, they were working all the time, they weren’t home, so television really raised us. I learned about what prom was through “Full House”. I didn’t know what prom was.
I learned about all these things about American life through television. I’m a TV junkie. My sister and I, we’ll sit, and then when we’re together, we’ll just watch old television shows that we grew up on and it’s something that gives us a lot of comfort and a lot of joy. For me, I really had to think about the work that Pillars was trying to do. I’ve always said that no one wakes up hating Muslims. It’s not something that you just wake up one day and you hate them. These are intentionally derived strategies to make people pigeonhole who Muslims are, and that’s largely perpetuated through popular culture, through television.
I don’t think it was long ago where all the representation that we saw on television was Muslims being terrorists, Muslims being the ones that are creating a lot of harm. I think for us, one of the really amazing things that I’ve seen over the last five to 10 years is more and more Muslims in the mainstream. We’ve seen more Muslims break through and be really not shy about their identity and who they are. In a show like “Ramy”, for example, really not shy about grappling with what it means to be Muslim.
I think it was really important for Pillars to be a part of this cultural moment and help move it along. One of my favorite stories is, when the show was about to premiere, he’d sent me the pilot, I’d seen it and I loved it, and I was like, “Oh, man, people are going to have some thoughts on this.” He asked me, he said, “I really want to do some type of a Muslim premiere.” He said, “The network is going to do the whole premiere, et cetera, but I want imams and Muslims in the room. I want to engage with my people with this show.” He’s like, “Can you help us do that?” We facilitated this conversation, it was in New York, where he spoke, and it was sold out, I think we had about 100 people there, of all stripes.
You had imams, you had community leaders, et cetera, and then you had a Q&A and a conversation with him afterwards. I’ll tell you why that was so important to me was because one of the things that’s been really exciting about Ramy’s ascent into fame and the show doing so well is that Ramy is a part of our community. He cares what Muslims think. This is a show that is meant to actually talk about how beautiful the faith is and he is meant to talk about– his character is about– What I love about that show is that his character is he’s like, “I’m doing all the wrong things. It’s not the faith that’s problematic, it’s me that’s problematic.”
Patel: I love that about the show, still very human and relatable and it’s not like a guilt trip.
Shaikh: Yes. I think he’s done such a great job of saying that– and he was purposefully pushing back against this narrative, because I think the pendulum swung the other way towards the last five years, when Muslims weren’t the terrorists on screen, the other thing, they were the cool Muslim was they didn’t pray, they weren’t religious, or they were an atheist, which again, that’s totally cool. There’s Muslims that are like that, and that’s totally great and fine, but he wanted to show what a devout Muslim looked like. He wanted to put a devout Muslim who believes in God on screen.
Anyways, I think that was one really cool and exciting thing that we got to do and I watched him engage, I watched a show with a pretty graphic sex scene in it and I watched an imam watching it. At the same time, I watched the care through which he navigated the conversation and why he made the choices that he made. That was really cool. Then I think the second thing I would be remiss if I didn’t mention is our relationship with the actor Riz Ahmed, which launched the Pillars Artist Fellowship, which was an idea that we had been floating around for the last couple of years, but what would it look like if we supported Muslim artists directly?
Thanks to my incredible team, Arij Mikati, who I always have to call out, and my colleague Kalia Abiade, both of whom Pillars doesn’t exist today without them, really helped devise the strategy and build a program, and we just launched it earlier this year where we have been working with 10 just amazing, amazing, amazing Muslim artists who are on the brink. I promise you and about five years from now, some of those are going to be at the Oscars. Some of them are going to be at the Golden Globes. Some of them are going to have shows and television and movies that we’re going to be talking about in the mainstream. That I think has been really exciting.
Patel: I remember seeing Ramy, R-A-M-Y, Ramy, the TV show guy, at the Tony’s, or not the Tony’s, but whatever TV awards special.
Shaikh: He was at the Golden Globes.
Patel: I think it was the Golden Globes, and he won and he gets up there and he’s like, “I know, you think I’m the sound guy, but really, I act in my own one-man show.” It was great.
Shaikh: It was such a great line where he was like, he was quiet for a minute he said, “I know most of you don’t know who I am or haven’t seen the show.” Yes, he’s great, and it’s really nice. Hasan Minhaj is in that category as well, and part of what we want to do is, I don’t want to go on a soapbox about this, but one of the challenges has been it’s been largely South Asian men.
Patel: There’s also “Ms. Marvel”. There’s a whole world of “Ms. Marvel”.
Shaikh: Not to go on too much of a tangent, but that has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. I’ve known Sana for a very long time and she’s another one who really cared. She called me and she wanted– This was her show to celebrate our communities and she was really nervous and she just wanted to make sure that our communities felt that and loved it. I would tell her when I would see some early screeners, I was like, “People are going to love this.”
I can tell you the reaction to “Ms. Marvel” has been so fun and beautiful from kids, like I have a seven-year-old niece who runs around the house pretending to be Ms. Marvel, to your imagination runs wild. I think that show, more than any other show that I’ve seen, really demonstrates the power of imagination and why representation is so important, because you’re going to have a whole generation of kids emulating this.
Patel: It is the brown girls from Jersey who save the world, right?
Shaikh: Yes. [chuckles]
Patel: It is. I love how realistic the friend scenes are, and the high school, and the family scenes. It’s a beautiful show.
Shaikh: I’ll say one last thing, we talked about representation, why representation is important is because those are not contrived scenes, those are from her childhood. That’s what happens when you have people from our communities talking about our communities. The representation is authentic, and that’s what people resonate to.
Patel: Yes. It’s a story that people– I mean, I didn’t grow up in that household, but I knew people who did. It’s a beautiful thing to know that there’s a hundred different Muslim-American experiences, and so many of them are recognizable. They’re recognizable, and they’re relatable, which is why it’s not a show on some Muslim TV channel, it’s a show with wide distribution.
Shaikh: On Disney, it’s the biggest platform in the world.
Patel: Yes. That lots of people are relating to. There’s some Jewish kid, or some Sikh kid, or some Jain kid who’s like, “That’s my life.”
Shaikh: Yes. Totally.
Patel: All right, sensitive question.
Shaikh: Yes, let’s do it.
Patel: We live in this very particular cultural moment. Every moment is particular, but I think we live on an edge these days that is different than say 2010, 2011. In certain circles of America, religious and racial minorities are encouraged to speak about our identities in the narrative structure of persecution. I see this with my kids, Khalil and Zayd, who you know, 12 and 15, there are people who are much more likely to ask them about how they’ve been victims of Islamophobia than how they’ve been inspired by Islam. This is not the intent, but actually, the impact is very clear.
There’s people who think Islamophobia is more important than Islam, and that, in fact, if Islamophobia didn’t exist, they wouldn’t care about Islam at all. I am concerned about this. I’m concerned about this because Islam matters whether or not there’s Islamophobia. Muslims matter whether we are persecuted or not. Our story should be told, not just through the lens of how we are victims.
I’m curious how you think this might be affecting American Muslim identity, particularly for people whose identities are in development, like my kids, that they’re constantly asked to narrate their identity as one of a victim and not as one that inspires them to do what Islam ought to inspire you to do, which is to be more generous, to be a bridge builder, to be a mercy, et cetera, et cetera. I’m curious how you see this.
Shaikh: There’s a lot to unpack here. I think it’s really important to, one, first contextualize the moment. The reason I think that’s important is because– and I know you can relate to this because you grew up in that activist world and all of your work, the foundation of it was being an activist and trying to make change in the world. I think we’re living in really interesting times, where when you and I were young, it was very much the culture in the machine, our voices were not even a blip on it, and so we had to fight incredibly hard to be seen and get our issues raised.
We’re living in an interesting cultural moment, where our voices are now louder than they’ve ever been, and they’re almost the status quo in a lot of ways, because what we’re experiencing right now is a culture in which talking about systemic racism, talking about the economic system in which we live in are just more accepted and they’re more mainstream. What’s happening is that you’re now having a lot of those folks who were used to being on the fringes and fighting, it’s like they were screaming in a megaphone and the megaphone was off and they were yelling as loud as they can, and now the megaphone is on and they’re screaming still and it’s really loud.
Patel: It’s a great image. That’s a great image. Yes.
Shaikh: That’s how I think of it. I think it’s important to talk about the harm that Islamophobia has caused. I think that’s very important because there are some communities that have suffered for a really long time. I also think it’s very, very important to celebrate what the faith means to us. The message I would tell to your kids is exactly that, is that I think it’s our job to flip that narrative.
When someone is trying to talk about all the things that Islamophobia has taken away from us, you can both acknowledge that and recognize that, but what you can also say is that despite that, we are a community that has so much to offer. We’re a community that has so much joy, and this faith has really, really inspired us. I think that we have this opportunity for Muslims in America to be able to draw from our faith tradition.
I think we have this opportunity, and that’s what Pillars is essentially trying to do, is, yes, we are funding the CUNY CLEARs of the world who are fighting for the rights for people who have had them taken away, but this Artist Fellowship is also meant to be a celebration of the fact that arts and culture are a massive part of our faith. There’s this statistic that comes to mind that has really shaken me. We did this project a couple of years ago, or about two years ago, with this reputable agency, where we were collecting scripts by Muslim creators.
They could write about anything they wanted, we were going to select 10 of them and we were going to help them get them made. This was open to all Muslims. You could write about anything you want. I think it was 80% or more of them were about national security and about terrorism, et cetera. I think it’s partly because that’s what they think they need to do to be seen, to get these scripts made.
I think that that’s the trauma that I’m talking about, is that even Muslims internally have this trauma that we have to undo, but I do think that there’s opportunities now for us, for our communities to lean into the joy and the tradition. I love our faith because it is a fun faith. It is one that celebrates arts and culture. Look at the architecture of the world. Look at these mosques. I think that’s the opportunity that we have and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Patel: To emphasize Islamophobia, not Islam is to distort the religion and to distort our identities. My concern is not how Muslims think about our own identities, my concern is about how the invitation is made. Ten or 12 years ago, it was the Muslim villain. It concerns me now, is it all about the Muslim victim? This is not the work that Pillars does, but does Pillars have to talk about its work this way to certain audiences in order to get a certain form of attention? Again, it’s the way the script is set up and the character that you are invited to play.
Look, you are 39, you are a major civic leader, you’re not falling into this. Pillars is not falling into this. I’m concerned about 15-year-old Muslims, 23-year-old Muslims, and how the invitation is. Tell me about how terribly you are treated on account of your religion, instead of tell me about how beautiful Islamic civilization is and how you are an exponent of that?
Shaikh: I hear that. I think for a long time, no one even wanted to pay attention to the fact that the actions of the– like how using the small example of the terrorist representation was actually harmful. I think that’s important to recognize.
Patel: I get that. Look, I remember I’m on CNN once and I’m talking about the basic tenants of Islam, and behind me, I see this when I get home and I play the tape, there are images of terrorist training camps. Some lazy producer pulled the B-roll on Islam and it was terrorist training camps.
Shaikh: To your point around victimhood, it’s interesting, I think it’s a really tough balance, because it’s like how do you acknowledge harm but also acknowledge the fact that you will not be defined by that harm? Are we balancing it at the right level? I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it, but at the same time, I think it’s important to center what the faith means to you and why it inspires you. To be clear, I think that’s incredibly important and I think that we have to push that forward. To your question of as to whether or not we have had to play the victim, or whatever it might be, to fit into those narratives, we haven’t. Are we seeing a world in which people are having to do that? It’s a really tricky question.
Patel: Oh, let me be clear about something. I’m not saying we Muslims are putting ourselves forward this way, I’m saying this is how the script is currently set. This is how the diversity script is set, and actually, the way you opened, characterizing us as a marginalized community, and then in the middle, you talk about your dad, the only time he’d ever get mad is if people are not grateful, I’m not sure your dad would ascent to us being a marginalized community. He might not like that characterization. I don’t like that characterization. I call us a minority community, but I think to myself when people are talking about Christian privilege, I want to raise my hand and be like, “Can I talk about Muslim privilege?” We have the last prophet, the final revelation, all of this great architecture, a billion and a half people around the world, et cetera, et cetera.
Shaikh: Okay. We can get into this. I love this conversation. I don’t think that it’s actually a controversial statement to say that communities of color are marginalized in this country, and that includes many Muslims. I don’t think that that’s controversial.
Patel: It’s not uncomplicated. Kashif, five of the top 10 highest earning income groups in America are people of color, so it’s not uncomplicated. The highest earning income group is my people, Indian Americans, and the top 10 are your people, Pakistani Americans. Not uncomplicated.
Shaikh: Yes, but we also have to remember, we’re talking about Muslims. We’re not talking about Pakistanis, we’re not talking about Indians. We’re talking about Muslims in this country are comprised of– it’s an incredibly diverse faith community. That is, I think that you and I are talking about the bubble from being in South Asian communities. Listen, I grew up in those South Asian communities, the majority of my friends’ parents are doctors and engineers and have a lot of wealth and now are having vacation homes. I get that and I’m not disagreeing with that, but to put that over Muslims in America, I think that is where it becomes very far more nuanced, because I don’t think that Muslims in America are defined by one Arab, South Asian, Black, whatever it might be.
Patel: Muslims in America are amongst the highest educated groups in the country. Immigrant Muslims, if you just extract immigrant Muslims, it is in the top five. The point that I’m making is not that there aren’t difficulties. It’s this, is it a part of our religion to emphasize the worst parts of our experience, or is it a part of our religion to emphasize the parts of our experience for which we ought to be grateful and that gratitude inspires a forward advancement?
Shaikh: The only point that I’m trying to make is that I just think that you have to hold both. That’s the only point that I’m trying to make. I think that you have to emphasize the things that inspire us and the things that– like to the Islam versus Islamophobia. I think you absolutely have to center the beauty and what inspires us, but I do think, I would argue for a large amount of Muslims, particularly in that post-9/11 world, who were, whether they were held at Guantanamo, whether they were charged, have been held in prisons without any crimes, I think there’s a large group of people who suffered–
Shaikh: –and I think that you have to be able to both say that this happened, there is trauma, and we have to undo this trauma and we have to recognize that there is trauma, that being said, we also have to do, exactly is what you’re talking about, which is talk about the resilience. Talk about the fact that part of the reason why we’re able to overcome trauma is because our faith tradition is what keeps us motivated and what keeps us inspired and what’s keeps us excited.
I’m in agreement with you that I think that we need to emphasize and support and really center that work that comes from a place of positivity and not necessarily trying to paint us as victims, but at the same time, I have been doing this work for a really long time and when I talked to a Muslim who was, whether they were unjustly detained or was food insecure or homeless or whatever it might be, I think they’re going to have a different answer to this question and I want to acknowledge.
Patel: Or my kids, upper middle-class kids, and you know a lot of these, who grow up never knowing when somebody’s going to say terrorist in the playground, like you kick the kickball and you never know when that’s going to come out of somebody’s– look, that’s not trauma as in being illegally detained, but it sucks, and I am not denying.
Shaikh: That’s all–
Patel: I’m only saying this, that Islamophobia does not make Islam. Islam is prior to Islamophobia. Islam is what forms our identities and what we principally bring into the world and we face the barriers and the demons of Islamophobia, but hopefully we don’t absorb them such that they become our identity, my concern is that there’s ample invitation out there to do so. Not generated by Muslims, generated by a diversity narrative that seeks stories of Islamophobia more than stories of Islam.
Shaikh: To be clear, that infrastructure you’re talking about that I have seen play out in my field of philanthropy, I don’t disagree with that. I think part of what we have to do though, is part of that is reclaiming our own stories and reclaiming and being able to talk about it’s our job as Muslims to be able to go out there and talk about what inspires us and what parts of this faith really make us resilient and who we are today and not fall into that framework, because that framework exists. It’s not to deny that that framework exists. I also don’t want to deny the experiences of–
Patel: For sure.
Shaikh: –those Muslims who have– I have lived a precious life. I make no secret about that. I’ve not been financially insecure, so I cannot speak to those experiences. Plenty of Muslims have and have been exacerbated through issues of immigration, through documentation, through post-9/11 and I want to make sure that we’re honoring what those Muslims have experienced because it is real deep trauma. That being said, I agree with the framework that you’re referencing.
Patel: Listen, I think that you have provided a case study in how to do this and how to talk about the assets, the cathedrals, the grand mosques that we bring, we’re inviting you to our potluck, bring your contribution, but we’re throwing a party and we’re proud of our culture and our faith and our civilization. I hope that the way we have spoken about our tradition and its invitation and it’s ihsan, it’s excellence, is a model for others, not just Muslims to be proud of and speak of their identity but people love all faith and philosophies. Kashif, my friend, it’s always awesome.
Shaikh: I love our conversations, Eboo. I’ve said this to you, and I’ll say this to you publicly, you have been one of my earliest supporters and a brother to me and someone who I admire and look up to. I’m so grateful that we got to have this conversation and that you thought of me to be on this podcast.
Patel: Thank you, mashallah, for you, for the work of the Pillars Fund, and for the opportunity to build Interfaith America, the institution and the nation with you. Thank you.
Shaikh: Thank you.
Patel: Virtually every community at some point is faced by this daunting question, “Are you going to be defined by the prejudice and bigotry visited upon you, or are you going to be defined by your original identity and the manner in which that identity gives you strength to respond to that prejudice and bigotry?” As you can see from this conversation with Kashif, we American Muslims are looking forward and we’re welcoming everybody in. To read more about this conversation and to find resources and stories about bridge building in our religiously diverse nation, visit our website, interfaithamerica.org. I’m Eboo Patel.
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