Aneelah Afzali, executive director of American Muslim Empowerment Network, was the featured speaker at 21 Progress’s Rise #7 event. Photo by Melissa Hellmann

Aneelah Afzali, executive director of American Muslim Empowerment Network, was the featured speaker at 21 Progress’s Rise #7 event. Photo by Melissa Hellmann

How a Local Muslim Activist Is Bridging the Faith Divide to Foster Hope

As part of 21 Progress’ Rise series, Aneelah Afzali drew parallels between anti-Muslim rhetoric and immigration xenophobia.

As she took the podium at 21 Progress’s office, community activist Aneelah Afzali implored the seated audience to think about the greatest risk that they’ve taken in their lives. For some it may be skydiving, she surmised, and for others—including her parents from Afghanistan—it was escaping conflict in their home country in search of a better life. But for her, all of the extreme sports that she’s undertaken “pale in comparison to what I consider the biggest risk I’ve taken—and that was to leave my legal career, my very comfortable salary, and go pursue something different,” Afzali said at a Wednesday morning event, her pink pants matching the hijab wrapped around her head. As a lawyer turned community activist, one of Afzali’s many social outreach efforts is the Faith Over Fear: Standing With Our Muslim Neighbors Roadshow, where she and Lutheran pastor Rev. Terry Kyllo speak at churches across Washington to address islamophobia head-on.

As an American Muslim who came to the U.S. with her family as a refugee, Afzali sees parallels between xenophobic anti-Muslim rhetoric and recent federal policies. For instance, the executive order signed on Wednesday tweaks the practice of separating thousands of children from their parents at the border by indefinitely detaining the families together, but it doesn’t end the “zero tolerance” immigration policy of criminally prosecuting adults caught illegally crossing the border in search of asylum. The fate of thousands of children remains uncertain, as a New York Times report cited that a federal judge could refuse to authorize the government to keep families detained at length. The report also stated that the executive order does not detail plans for the over 2,000 children already in custody to be reunited with their parents. However, Brian Marriott, the senior director of communications for the Administration for Children and Families told the New York Times on Wednesday evening that “reunification is always the goal…”

In light of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy, along with other anti-immigration and Islamophobic sentiment at the national level, Afzali believes that people of differing faiths and sectors should come together in pursuit of justice now more than ever before.

Afzali’s speech on Wednesday morning marked the seventh installment of RISE, a storytelling series started last fall by leadership nonprofit 21 Progress. Instead of waking up to bad news first thing in the morning, attendees pile into an office before work at 8 a.m. to hear about the social action of people in different sectors. The series is designed to highlight the significance of community building and rising above challenges. “There was work being done … but often in isolation, and not really working together or even coming into the same room,” Stephenie Lock, 21 Progress’s development and communications manager, told Seattle Weekly after the event. Speakers at previous talks included Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal—a past board member at 21 Progress—and City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. Attendees included people in the tech industry and nonprofit staffers.

During her speech and a Q&A, Afzali discussed her own career trajectory, and what inspires her to push for change. Three years ago, the Harvard Law School graduate pivoted her focus from law to community activism, and now serves as the executive director of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound’s project, American Muslim Empowerment Network. In 2017, Seattle Magazine also named her one of the most influential Seattleites of the year. In Afzali’s eyes, the risk of uncertainty in changing careers was worth it. Her religious faith, and the adversity that she’s faced as an American Muslim refugee and immigrant has driven her to push for social change and spreading knowledge. In the face of unprecedented levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric, she believes it was the “ordained time” for her to start her work.

“Never in my lifetime, have I felt that I have as much power as I do today … to really make a difference in the future direction and soul, even, of our country,” she said. “We are writing history with our words and actions, or inactions.”

Afzali referenced her Faith Over Fear roadshow as an example of how people from different walks of life working in solidarity can dispel misconceptions. When she started visiting churches throughout the state, she soon became connected to people who previously held Anti-muslim beliefs, but realized that they were misinformed after hearing her speak.

Afzali has now shifted her focus to the “zero tolerance” immigration policy, and said that there are links between injustices seen in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments. “The way that we stand against all of that is … that we speak out, and we make it very clear that we will not stand for that kind of oppression and injustice, or even the dehumanizing and demonizing rhetoric that is happening right now, where communities are presented as a threat rather than being community members,” Afzali told Seattle Weekly after the event.

Her outrage is joined by local politicians, who called on the Trump administration to end the “zero tolerance” policy this week. Mayor Jenny Durkan traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas on Wednesday to join the Los Angeles and El Paso, Texas mayors in visiting a federal shelter for migrant children separated from their families. “As a mother, it is unconscionable that our country is allowing children to be literally torn out of the

arms of their mothers,” Durkan said in a statement. “There is no way to justify the policies and actions of this administration—they continue to misrepresent the law, leaving families devastated and children traumatized. The world is watching, bearing witness to this inhumane and un-American policy. We cannot stand by without taking action.”

Wednesday’s RISE speech ended with Afzali sharing an anecdote about adversity from an unknown author. In the story, a young woman complained to her mother about life’s hardships and her eagerness to give up. So the woman’s mother boiled carrots, eggs, and coffee beans in three pots of water. Each of the items reacted differently to facing the adversity of being seeped in hot water; the previously hard carrots had grown soft, the fragile eggs had become hard inside, and— unique to the others—the ground coffee beans had changed the water. “Are you the carrot that seems strong, but loses strength in adversity? Are you the egg that starts soft and fragile or weak, potentially, or are you the coffee bean and transform the very circumstances that bring it pain, or bring you pain and adversity?” Afzali asked. “And the people who change the world, they will use the challenging times that we are in today to transform themselves and others. They will turn their anger and frustration into something positive and creative.”

The next Faith Over Fear event will be held at Seattle’s Magnolia Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 24 at 1 p.m.

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