Zainab Chaudary fights bigotry through the power of story

Zainab Chaudary

Zainab Chaudary

For many activists, the fight for change is personal. 

And that deeply felt connection to a sense of what matters drives organizers like Zainab Chaudary.  

I recently had a conversation with her about her work at ReThink Media to shift the narrative of Islamophobia in the US. She talked about what it's like to work on such a personal issue in a time of heightened divisiveness, shared some great insights about how attitudes shift, and where she draws strength to fight back against fear and hate.

Below is an edited transcript of that conversation.

(Full disclosure: I’m on the board at ReThink. Rethink innovates on how nonprofit think tanks, experts, grassroots and advocacy groups collaborate towards a common vision of a better world; and builds the communications capacity of movements for peace, human rights, and democracy.)

RP: How do you feel the Muslim and South Asian community is being affected by the presidential election, and current political climate?

ZC: When I look at the political atmosphere, to me it's not just Trump. Trump is just a figurehead for this underlying sentiment that has existed for some time now.  ...There's been, starting with the Tea Party, a vocalization of this white, nationalist nativist narrative, that existed before Trump came on the scene. And the danger is that it might exist after he's gone. Even if he loses the election, it all comes down to how he loses it, how he shifts things on the national level.

What we're seeing is a steady dehumanization of people from certain parts of the world after 9-11, that allows even very rational folks to create justifications for policies they would otherwise find abhorrent. This idea that if you are from the Middle East or South Asia, or if you are Muslim, even though people know cognitively know that the vast majority of those folks are good people who wouldn't hurt anyone, this idea that it just takes one to potentially create an unsafe environment for my family, or my friends, allows people to say even though I disagree with torture, disagree with surveillance, drone strikes, in this case it might actually be ok, since it'll keep us safe.

And we saw more of this dehumanization and this ideology since Obama became president. ...This rumor that he's a closet Muslim is sort of taking that idea and creating this notion that there is an un-Americanness to him. ...There were still hate crimes, still problematic policies, but there was less of this overt animosity towards the MASA (Muslim and South Asian) community. But since his presidency we've seen more because of this talking point people have been using.

...A lot of people are fixated on defeating Trump, but it's less about that. It's really about creating an environment where he lost because of his bigotry. That's the narrative we want to create. In essence, we're making xenophobia and bigotry a political liability instead of an asset.

There's this Mayor in Irving, TX, who is really riding this wave of being a darling on the right-wing conservative front, because she's speaking out against “those Muslims.” We're seeing people on the state levels denying Mosque permits, permits for temples, cemeteries even. Which boggles my mind. How can you deny people the right to be buried in the way they should be? It really comes down to the fact that they score political points for it, and we need to shift the environment so that they lose because of the ideas they espouse.

RP: So your theory of change is about shifting the narrative. How do you do that?

ZC: There are multiple ways to get to a shared goal. And that shared goal is the greatest common denominator. There are people in my community who want to engage with government and federal officials and law enforcement, and there are those who want to protest policies from the same government and federal agencies. Both are valid, both are smart avenues for change. And I believe there’s room for both as long as the parties involved can come back together and compare notes afterward, with a common goal in mind, of having a multi-pronged impact on a particular issue.

...Because I don't think that just policy work can work by itself, I don't that just protest can work by itself, I don't think that just media work can work by itself. I think it's a combination of all those things that eventually drives change.

RP: I imagine this is emotionally difficult work, for a number of reasons. What’s been the hardest part for you?

ZC: The hardest part for me is that I have a personal stake in every time there is some sort of terrible act committed by someone who shares my faith. And because I'm Muslim.

I don't wear a headscarf, but my mother does. My aunt does. I have family members and friends who wear headscarves.

My mom started wearing the headscarf seven years ago after my younger brother passed away. So it was a personal choice she made. But it's hearing this sort of terrible idea that somehow a woman who wears a headscarf is oppressed, when my mom really isn't. This is a choice that she made. No one pushed it on her.

But it's also worrying that every time there is an Orlando, or a Paris, or Brussels I get so anxious because I see the stories of hate crimes and attacks and stabbings, and people getting pushed off of subway platforms. And people in their cars in the suburbs, if they don't lock their doors, having their car door opened and getting beaten up by someone because of how they look and how angry people are.

When there is an attack, I'm working on that full time. We go into rapid response mode. For me it's fine, b/c it allows me to channel my anger and frustration at these people who are hijacking my religion and claiming things that are actually not part of my religion. Which infuriates me, but at least I get to do something.

But I worry about her. I worry about my dad. He has a health food store, and he's public facing. Often they get people who come in and make comments that are pretty terrible. Not a lot, but enough that it is upsetting. I tell her to lock her door when she goes out. I tell her to watch her surroundings when she's at the grocery store.

And this is a town I grew up in. I lived my entire life in this town. And for me, some of the ugliness is so not indicative of what life was like here when I grew up. There are some Trump supporters in my town, I wonder what they think when they see her.

We've had a few run-ins where I was coming back with her in a car. I was driving, and we were coming back from someone's house. And there are some rural roads near farmland and stuff, and we had someone who was following us, who was flashing their lights at us, and it was frightening. It was scary. If she had been by herself, I don't know how she would have handled it.

I have younger cousins who don't wear the headscarf. They're just brown skinned, and they've had people make comments about them being terrorists, and it's upsetting. So that's the hardest part for me, that I worry about my family. The same way that people worry about their families when there's an ISIS attack. They're worried that anything could happen, anyone could be hurt.

And I think somehow this idea that we're not allowed to grieve. That we have to constantly be on the defensive. Obviously when lives are lost, the Muslim community hurts just as badly. It is just as awful on a human level. But instead of being allowed time to grieve properly, and mourn for those people, and be involved in vigils, we're kind of shunned and told that we're not allowed to. That we have to condemn, that we have to be defensive about our religion, and come out w/ the same condemnations over and over again. Sometimes it feels like spinning our wheels on that stuff.

For me and for the work that we do, the hardest part is just the personal impact that these things have on my family, on a community of young Muslims who are growing up and are super confused about what their religion is saying, because it's presented a certain way. While also facing bullying, for following this religion. So they get the brunt of it, right? They're young, they're still trying to figure out their level of religiosity, trying to figure out religion, and their constantly told by the media that their religion says this or their religions says that. And it's awful. They're also under extra scrutiny. They're often the targets of CVE (Countering Violent Extremism) programs of community policing where it's youth radicalization that everyone's worried about. CVE is the program that the Obama administration is pushing as a means to curb radicalization amongst youth.  And though it's not explicit it's often amongst Muslim youth.  

So they've got pilots in Boston and Minneapolis and L.A. where they basically provide grants and funding to mental health organizations, school systems, guidance counselors, to monitor for signs of youth radicalization.

Which is the most bizarre thing because of the checklist of what constitutes radicalization and what doesn't. It’s everything: they grew a beard, to they shaved a beard to they changed friends groups, to they pray regularly, or they don't pray as regularly. How do you quantify what causes someone to become radicalized? And how do you separate that out from normal teenage behavior?  So these kids are finding themselves under scrutiny where they can't speak out.  They can't be politically active or engaged or activists even because they're under suspicion of being radicalized.  

So it's really for them that I feel the most. I have a younger brother and younger cousins and they have to grapple with this. And it is incredibly difficult for someone that age to have to grapple with such big questions.  

RP: What gives you strength?  

ZC: My family. So even though they are my cause for concern when I talk to them about it, I vent to them, they are the ones who sort of keep me grounded and remind me why I'm doing the work. They say, "Whatever you're doing, keep an eye on what your goals are. You're doing it for your community. That you're doing it for the people who come after you.”

I mentioned I lost a brother, a younger brother seven years ago and he would've been twenty-one or two now. He has a twin brother, my other younger brother who I refer to. But I do it for him too. Because when you lose someone, you want the work that you're doing and things that you're doing to have an impact on the world around you to make the world around you a better place.

Because you realize what little time you're given, and you want to live in a world that's better somehow and I think that that's worth fighting for and I think that's often what gives me strength too. Just that reminder. Like I’m going to keep doing this because I want to make this world better because -- in memory of this person that I lost.

RP: How do you reach out to people who don't agree with you, especially on a topic like this, where it's very personal.

ZC: I used to work for a member of Congress and we used to do coffees with various communities just to have him talk to them about what issues are important to them. And we would prep him with the Sikh community's concerns about being allowed to wear turbans and serve in the military. Or Muslims and foreign policy. Or the Chinese community and foreign policy stuff related to China. And inevitably every time we met with those groups, those talking points were maybe five minutes of the conversation, and the next hour of conversation is focused on education, opportunities for their children, the economy. Across the board, those were the concerns that all these groups shared. and I think that that shared human experience is something we forget.  

I also think personal narrative has huge impacts for people who maybe don't see the human experience that someone is having, and they only see them as the labels that they attribute to them. Like “woman,” “black,” “Muslim,” “Latino.” And telling people what we go through is far more effective than anything else.  

RP: Do you have an example of that kind of personal narrative at work?

ZC: In our message testing, we found that across the board, whether folks are in our base group or persuadables group, they all share a concern that Muslim women are disenfranchised because of their religion.

So when this Ghazala Khan fiasco happened, which was around the comment that Donald Trump made that she probably didn't speak because, you know, maybe her faith didn't allow her to, we did the #canyouhearusnow hashtag campaign. We had a bunch of women who pushed back and said, "This is me, this is what I do, I am an attorney, I work with presidents....” Amazing women from around the world.

We got such a great response from all these women who talked about the work that they do. To talk about the impact that they have, to talk about why they wear the headscarf. We've run a bunch of Twitter campaigns and social media campaigns.  But this was the first one where when I looked through tweets, I saw people saying, “Man I had no idea that they was such diversity amongst Muslim woman. I had no idea that Muslim women were doing such amazing things.”

On Twitter, you expect the trolls to come out of the woodwork and you expect a lot of negativity, but it was mostly positive. We saw a lot of people on Twitter who were saying, “I never knew this about this group of people and now I see them with different eyes, and now I am going to go and find out more.”  

I think Humans of New York is incredibly powerful and effective. When he went abroad to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and talk to people about their day to day lives, he really brought home the human level of their concerns for their family, their safety. What they're running away from, what they're hoping to run to. You know, all those things we share about creating better opportunities for our children, and for finding a place to be safe and secure. Finding a place to be able to practice our religion in the way it's meant to be practiced.

Right? That's something that people forget. Refugees are running away from people who are trying to impose an ideology on them that they don't believe in. And they want to be able to practice their religion freely and they can do that here. It's not that the West is saving them from Islam. It's that they're coming hear to be able to practice it in the way it should be practiced. It's freedom of religion at the very core of it. It's those examples of narratives that really shift people’s opinions and allow them to connect with people on a human level.

Whereas otherwise I see them as abstract. You know, as terrorists, as this group of people that cause trouble around the world.  

RP: A lot of people enter into advocacy work with a dream of making a difference, then burn out w/in 2 years. How do you take care of yourself emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually, so you can stay involved for the long haul?

ZC: It sounds terrible but we run on crisis adrenaline sometimes. So when there are these crises, we go into turbo mode and we are motivated to do stuff. And for at least the week when that story is big, we are just running on pure energy.

I remember the first crisis I worked on, which was literally two weeks after I started working for ReThink, was Chapel Hill. The shooting of three college kids. And it was nonstop for a week and a half.

And I remember at the end of the week on Friday, They do those Story Corp stories on N.P.R. And they found a Story Corps story that one of the victims had done a couple of years ago. And I had just been working and working and pushing emotions to the back of my mind. And I was pulling up news clips for the day when I heard that story and I just started bawling. Because I had not allowed myself to think about this until that point. But I would so much rather be doing something, than sitting around and reading the news and not being able to do anything.  

So to me what keeps me going is knowing that I could be sitting at home and reading the news and consuming the media in the same way, but be endlessly frustrated by it. So that's what keeps me going. Knowing that the work I'm doing is helping my community. Having that personal stake in it.  Knowing that I'm doing it for the benefit of others. It's fulfilling even when we feel like we're losing. I think just knowing that we're trying our best and I'm helping my community in which ever way I can is incredibly satisfying.  

And my colleagues help a ton. They are wonderful people. You have to have a certain dark humor to be able to get through something like this. And even in those first two weeks when we worked on Chapel Hill, I realized that Ashley [Zainab’s managing director] and I have that same sense of humor that we can be frenzied and working on this stuff and this terrible terrible thing but also have a sense of humor that allows us to keep our heads above water. And I have that across the board with all my colleagues at Rethink. They're just a wonderful group of people who support each other, who make each other laugh, who listen to each other when they need to.

So what is the one thing you would like people to know about what it means to you be doing this work today?

Sometimes we get this criticism of, "you're being naive. You can’t actually change stuff, the system is broken."  I hate that, because I have worked in politics for five years, and I have dealt with a broken Congress. I have worked for a member of Congress who had integrity. So I will continue believing in public servants who actually believe that they are working for the public.

I talk to journalists, right? And we have this idea of the media being this thing that's always portraying us in a negative light. But journalists are trying, really trying to understand, really trying to get at alternative nuggets of the story. They also hate writing about the hijab over and over again, or about terror attacks over and over again, or about hate crimes over and over again. They're also looking for different angles and a fresh perspective. And they just need people who can guide them and help them with that. And I think that people miss out on that.

I was really struck by how Zainab’s commitment to her community grounds her at every turn. It’s her source of strength, her sense of purpose and her emotional center.

What do you think? What resonated with you? I’d love to hear in the comments.