By Matt Oâ€™Brien
Playwright, lawyer and humorist Wajahat Ali is known to fellow Fremont residents as a man of many projects. As we meet for an interview downtown, a passer-by interrupts to ask Ali, in Urdu, â€œWhat are you working on now?â€ One answer is scripting an HBO pilot, with novelist Dave Eggers, about a Muslim cop in San Francisco. Ali, 30, has made a career of writing about ordinary Muslim Americans with humor and candor. Another project marks Aliâ€™s first big dive into political advocacy, with a report (due out this week) he has co-authored with researchers at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. Ali says it exposes how a small network of anti-Muslim activists transformed a fringe movement into a mainstream cause.
Q So your report hasnâ€™t even come out yet, but the anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller has already called you a â€œstealth jihadist.â€ Are you offended?
A Not at all. Pam Geller attacked me because I pretty much exposed her and her agenda on a radio station in New York, because she and her allies were mentioned more than 200 times in (Norwegian mass shooter) Anders Breivikâ€™s 1,500-page manifesto. … He was ideologically inspired by people like her and her allies.
Q What made you get into this political project?
A My whole life Iâ€™ve been the unintentional token spokesman for all things Muslim and Pakistani. It was not by choice. I call myself the accidental activist. When I was a young kid I was, like, the only open practicing Muslim, and I knew a lot about my Pakistani roots. So inevitably I gave dozens of impromptu lectures about all things Muslim and Pakistani. And (for) a lot of my friends in the Bay Area, I was their only Muslim or Pakistani friend. So they were like, Hey, Waj, whatâ€™s up with Pakistan? … The Center for Progress thought, why not go to a non-D.C. guy and think outside the box. I realized, as a student of American history, the current boogeyman is American Muslims.
And I wanted to help turn the tide toward civil discourse, in which we wouldnâ€™t divide Americans based on ethnicity and religion.
Q What do you think of the depiction of Muslim Americans on TV?
A Itâ€™s usually framed through the lens of national security, terrorism, violence and fundamentalism. A recent report says Americans have a negative image of Muslims (for) two reasons: ignorance, in the sense that a lot of Americans say they donâ€™t know a Muslim; … and they say the media frames their perceptions of Muslims. … The hope is to move beyond that frame, to show the nuances. We need authentic Muslim American storytellers telling authentic Muslim American narratives.
Q On a blog post you mentioned the Ramadan State of Mind. Whatâ€™s that?
A On the blog I try to remove what I call the â€œascetic monk lensâ€ from which both Muslim Americans and average Americans view Ramadan — Muslims being this spiritual, superhero monk type who have this insane biological system that allows them to fast without water and drink.
Weâ€™re like Ivan Drago from â€œRocky IV,â€ right? Itâ€™s very inhuman almost, the presentation of Ramadan and Muslims fasting. … I just try to talk like a normal person, to expose my whiny-ness, the fact that sometimes it sucks being Muslim. Sometimes Iâ€™m spiritually elevated, sometimes spiritually defeated. Sometimes I just want to eat food.
Q Youâ€™ve talked about how kids who grew up in the shadow of 9/11 are helping to push a new narrative. What is that narrative?
A The narrative is: â€œI am both Muslim and American; one cannot coexist without the other. My values from both identities complement one another and intersect. I am living proof that there is no conflict between the West and Islam. Proof that there needs not be an Armageddon or a clash of cultural values.â€ Just go talk to these people. They fast during Ramadan and listen to Jay-Zâ€™s latest album. They eat their momâ€™s dal but then they also eat pho. Their best friend is African-American or Vietnamese-American, and theyâ€™ll invite them over for Eid. Thatâ€™s as American as apple pie, or maybe as American as falafel and hummus.