Irvine Activist Launches Moderate Muslim Effort
By Martin Wisckol
Anila Ali’s life is threaded with efforts to bring together the cultures of her Islamic, Pakistani birthplace and her adopted homeland of the US, where she’s lived for nearly 20 years.
The Irvine resident’s latest endeavor is a simple Facebook page with a big goal: bring together a million American Muslims to champion the moderate, non-violent mainstream of Islam and counter extremists who taint the religion.
“A lot of my friends who are pastors and rabbis say, ‘We don’t hear from the moderate Muslims,’” said Ali, a 48-year-old middle school English teacher. “There’s a vacuum of good Muslim voices.”
She launched her Million American Muslims March Against Violent Extremism page (#ReclaimIslam) on Facebook in the wake of the Dec. 16 shooting by Taliban gunmen at a Pakistani school that left 145 dead and the Jan. 7 killing spree at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris.
Her target is twofold: non-Muslims’ impression of her religion and extremists gaining influence in the world of Islam.
“My biggest fear is that the US Muslim community will become like the UK Muslim community, where clerics preach hate and are calling for Sharia law,” said Ali, who spent eight years in the United Kingdom while her father was a diplomat at the Pakistani Embassy there.
“The Muslim leadership in this country is not taking action,” she said. “They should be standing outside mosques saying, ‘We condemn the violence against Jews. We condemn the violence against Charlie Hebdo.’ ”
A different view
Folks at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country’s most prominent group advocating for Muslims’ civil rights, don’t see the void described by Ali.
“I don’t know if she’s really paying attention,” said Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communication director. “Nearly every Muslim organization in the United States has spoken out against the Charlie Hebdo shootings, against the Pakistan shootings, against ISIS.”
Not that the group is thrilled about the magazine’s caricatures. Islam discourages depictions of religious leaders because it can lead to idolatry.
“The norm in Muslim society is that there should be no depictions of religious figures, and when it’s negative, we’re particularly concerned,” Hooper said.
But free speech prevails over all else, he said. That means the right to draw caricatures and the right to criticize them.
Like Ali, Hooper says violence is not an acceptable response.
“Our position is that Mohammed himself did not react violently to attacks and neither should we,” he said.
A review of newspaper coverage in the wake of the Pakistan and Paris shootings shows that CAIR and other Muslim groups did indeed speak out against the acts. But most stories featured those comments toward the end, if at all.
“It’s not heard enough,” Ali said. “It’s not reaching mainstream America. Most Muslims want a good life, a good job, a good family. They don’t want to get involved with this. But we need to speak out.”
Ali’s activism reaches back to her teen years in England when she was a youth leader for the All Pakistan Women’s Association, a cultural exchange group. Following 9-11, she worked with the Council of Pakistan American Affairs. And she’s founded the American Muslim Women’s Empowerment Council, which will hold its third conference in April in Buena Park, and the Irvine Pakistani Parents Association.
She also was a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention and ran unsuccessfully for Assembly last year. Her abortion-rights and pro-gay marriage stances have alienated some Muslims, but she marches on.
“The terrorists want to own the narrative of Islam,” she said. “They want Muslims to oppress women and discriminate against all people who don't follow their perverted dogma. ... It's an ideological war (within Islam) and it must be fought with words and action.” - Orange County Register