MuslimGirl: You mentioned briefly in your address as the new executive director on how you joined NCPCF. What motivated you to join?
Maha Hilal: I have been working in the field of human rights for over 10 years now. However, my initial efforts were directed toward humanitarian relief, and I used to think I didn’t want to get involved in politics!
This changed when I started my master’s degree in counseling as I became increasingly aware of the context in which the stories I heard had emerged out of. In other words, mental health conditions, as I began to understand, did not emerge in a vacuum; and thus necessitated a response that focused less on pathologizing the person and more on the ways in which the state and society contribute to not only the existence of these conditions, but also the resilience of the individual.
Because of my increasing interest in human rights, I pursued an internship with Amnesty International (now called the Security with Human Rights campaign) between the first and second year of my master’s program.
My internship was in what was then called the Denounce Torture Initiative, and the focus of this campaign was on Guantanamo Bay.
As a Muslim, my first and almost immediate realization was that Guantanamo Bay housed an exclusively Muslim population. This recognition was very painful to me and perhaps served as a catalyst for my academic and professional work focusing on the targeting of Muslims.
After finishing my Master’s degree, I began a doctoral program at American University in Justice, Law and Society. In conjunction with my Ph.D., I also pursued various professional positions, internships and activist endeavors that addressed various facets of the War on Terror, such as torture and indefinite detention. My academic studies coupled with my other experiences led me to produce a dissertation on the Muslim American response to the War on Terror.
Shortly after graduating with my Ph.D. in May of 2014, I looked into the work of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms as an organization that I had previously heard of — and decided that I wanted to become more involved in it as one of the only organizations that focuses directly on detrimental policies such as preemptive prosecutions, thought crimes and material support for terrorism that have disproportionately impacted Muslims.
Moreover, the NCPCF was the only organization that was providing active support for impacted families, which I found to be extremely important given the stigma, isolation and marginalization that many in the Muslim community have experienced under the guise of “terrorism.” I began volunteering toward the end of last year and became more invested in the organization, subsequently assuming the role of Deputy Executive Director — and in October of this year, Executive Director!