Education

What a New Generation of Muslim American Leaders Wants You to Know About Who They Really Are

It's time to get beyond the stereotypes.

Photo Credit: Zurijeta via Shutterstock.com

When an acquaintance recently quipped that Salmon Hossein had adopted the “Taliban look” because of his newly acquired beard, it was something of an aha moment for the Bay Area native.

“It was a person I knew and respected, someone familiar with the intricacies of the Middle East, and even they were saying that,” recalls the University of California, Los Angeles alumnus.

Hossein, 26, is currently pursuing a dual Master’s degree in law and public administration at UC Berkeley and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He says part of what drives him is the desire to counter some of the prevailing notions of Muslims in America.

It’s part of the reason he first grew his beard.

“I was told [by a friend] that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in corporate America with a beard,” he says. “I took it as a personal challenge to grow the beard to disprove my friend and dispel stereotypes.”

Those stereotypes have helped drive ongoing Islamaphobia in the country. A recent study of Bay Area Muslims found that 60 percent had experienced prejudice because of their religion.

Muslim community members and organizations have also been the target of government surveillance and political campaigns aimed at conflating Islam with terrorism. A recent online campaign called for a boycott of the annual White House iftar dinner, when the president meets with Muslim leaders to mark the end of Ramadan.

In a commentary for Al Jazeera, Associate Professor Sahar Aziz of Texas A&M University slams the “usual suspects” invited to the White House for “failing to take a more assertive and defiant approach to defending Muslim communities.”

The controversy over the meal, she adds, reflects a “broader need for more effective and creative forms of advocacy, community mobilizing, and representative leadership” from a new and gender-diverse generation of Muslim Americans now coming of age.

It’s the kind of message that resonates with young Muslims like Hossein, who describes public policy as a “passion.” Like others of his generation, growing up in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 prompted a very personal reckoning between his faith and his role in society.

“I was in middle school when 9/11 happened,” he says. “I became the de facto representative of the Muslim, the Afghan.”

But Hossein remains cautiously optimistic about changing American attitudes. He says he’s seen in recent years an increase in understanding about Islam, and with it a growing tolerance. He also knows that more needs to be done to dispel some of the lingering “mistruths” surrounding his community.

“I see so many people talking about Islam, but there are so few Muslims at the table,” he says. “There are so few people who have a background or expertise in that area of the world, who live, breathe and speak it … who are able to contribute their voice to make a difference.”

Hossein credits Islam with inspiring him to work for change. Citing a quote from the Prophet Mohammed that urges believers to make change first with their hand, then their tongue and, failing these, then within their own heart, he says lessons like these “pushed me towards a very social justice bent.”

He also credits UCLA with showing him “what I could do with my faith.”

The child of Afghan refugees, Hossein grew up in the Bay Area. His parents were determined to send him to college. But after graduating valedictorian from high school and applying to universities, rejection letters began coming in.

UCLA was the first to open its doors. “It was the first university to take a chance on me, to see something in me and to believe in me,” he says. “I almost begrudgingly went there, but it turned out to be one of the greatest blessings in my life.”

Resolved to “make good” on the school’s faith in him, Hossein became active in student government and in local campus organizations. With a double major in political science and international development studies, he volunteered his time teaching in local public schools and working with community service organizations.

During the holy month of Ramadan, a time of daylong fasts and communal evening meals, Hossein admits it was the “free food” on offer at the local Muslim Student Association (MSA) that first drew him in to connect with fellow Muslims.

“I didn’t want to break my fast alone,” he explains. “I used to break fast with my family. The MSA filled the hole left by being away from them.”

Bonding with others in the group, Hossein discovered a community of “like-minded fellow Muslims who want to make a difference in the world,” individuals drawn together by a shared faith and also by some of the “negative experiences” encountered because of that faith.

Today he divides his time between Boston and Berkeley, a hectic shuttling back and forth across the country that leaves little time for socializing. “I feel almost like a nomad,” he jokes. “My best friends have become Craig from Craigslist and BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit].”

In the last year of his Master’s program, Hossein says he plans to sit for the bar exam before embarking on the “bar trip,” that period when aspiring lawyers hit the road as they wait for the test results. He’d like to go to Europe, where he has never been. 

As for the broader Muslim community, he sees among his peers a growing awareness of “their powers of activism, diplomacy and outreach … they realize they can make a difference.”

And he plans to keep the beard.