In the spirit of our first-ever Muslim Women’s Day, I had the opportunity to have a conversation about Islamophobia and media misrepresentation with music mogul, entrepreneur, author, activist, and philanthropist Russell Simmons.
Uncle Rush is the chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a partner on our #MuslimWomensDay campaign and the organization behind Muslims Are Speaking Out. Much like #MuslimWomensDay, MASO is an online campaign that Russell launched in response to the negative portrayal of Muslims in the media. It aims to combat propaganda with the real and authentic voices of Muslims. To this end, the FFEU organized the “I Am a Muslim, Too” rally in Time Square last month, where I had the honor of sharing a stage with the legend, and also where I saw the most people come out in support of Muslims that I ever had in my entire life.
Russell and I caught up with each other about today’s anti-Muslim bigotry, our role as citizens and active agents of change in this country, and the importance of campaigns to promote awareness and understanding, like MASO and our very own #MuslimWomensDay.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The current climate of Islamophobia has not only impacted the Muslim community, but many minority communities. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you think the hate rhetoric has impacted the way we’ve been treating each other, as well as the hate we’ve seen escalate over the past few months.
Russell Simmons: The hate has escalated over the years, and I think it’s all this dialogue about hate that has made us all kind of band together. The Muslim community is now put in a group of people at risk: Every woman, every African American, every Latino, every marginalized group are at risk. So now, we start to turn to each other for support – for protection. We are looking out for each other.
It’s interesting because in the past, where people may have been insensitive, or even incapable of joining the fight against this kind of discrimination and hate – they are starting to feel the responsibility of their inactions.
The way I see it, Islamophobia is the number one phobia out there today.
We’re also seeing these groups coming together that may have not done so in the past, working to fight against Islamophobia – groups that may have personal political or religious differences – but they understand the importance of working together against, and really finding it necessary to fight against Islamophobia. People are realizing that fighting for the “other” is a core component on fighting for yourself.
People who are fortunate to have this kind of freedom, independence, and opportunity are starting to realize that that fighting for others enhances their lives as well. It’s ongoing – the work, that is. But it’s amazing to see how people are together in this fight.
The way I see it, Islamophobia is the number one phobia out there today. It’s the most accepted. People outside of the Muslim community need to speak out against it. That’s just my viewpoint, but I stand by it. I believe there’s an opportunity now to speak up. And I see it spreading. When we did the “I Am Muslim, Too” rally in New York in February, I could feel the connection from people who were not Muslim but felt a need to be there to support Muslims. That may have not been the case six months prior.
Absolutely. I was 9 years-old when 9/11 happened, so, this climate of Islamophobia is literally all I’ve known – I grew up under it. I was fortunate enough to be one of the speakers at the “I Am Muslim, Too” rally, and I remember standing up at the podium looking into the crowd, a sea of people, all in support of the Muslim community. There were Christians, Jews, Muslims, people of all different backgrounds and all different beliefs.
Yes! The important thing is that when you see the others… it rings louder. We see people having to defend themselves. They shouldn’t have to . If we want freedom, if we want a good quality of life for ourselves, we have to make it our mantra to give to others.
Why do you think people now are starting to wake up? What is it that has opened the eyes of others who once turned away and now are standing in solidarity with Muslims and other marginalized groups?
I would say to you that the climate, the choices that were made in this current election cycle – it spoke to people about justice. There is a sense of responsibility for many who are not part of the marginalized groups. They may feel some sort of responsibility to where we are now, and they are starting to feel that our society and our American ideals are at risk.
You know, there are lots of communities who stayed quiet for a long time – but staying quiet doesn’t help in collaborating. There are those that say, “I mind my own business,” but now they are seeing that minding their own business isn’t good for them in the future because now they are coming for the Muslims – tomorrow it may be their group. If you stand by and watch this stuff happen, watch injustice happen, then you and your community and your people are at risk, too.
To me, that’s the take away from all this. That’s the special thing that came out of this; that we now realize that we are all tied to each other and we can’t escape each other’s fate.
Absolutely, beautiful! With all the dialogues taking place right now, why do you believe it’s important for us to center and to hear Muslim women’s voices?
We should all be taking it upon ourselves to help in some way. We should be able to help facilitate that freedom and equality we all want. If you want that for yourself, you should give to others. It’s our gift. There is no other way around it. That is your job, and I view it as my job.
So, women are born into an unequal society. If they die today they will have died without achieving full equality. I feel it’s important to facilitate this empowerment for women. They should have the same in equality as men. To listen to women, their voices, to let them know they are heard – that fulfills me as a person. If I am able to provide these opportunities for women to have a platform… it helps me be happy – knowing that I can provide opportunities for them.
What do you hope people will take away from the Muslim Women’s Day campaign, as well as the Muslims Are Speaking Out campaign that the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) is spearheading?
I hope that people will see it and the message will touch them – that it will move them to live a more compassionate and understanding life. People don’t realize how unconscious they are in how they live. They allow the press to form their thoughts without even knowing that’s what’s happening. The more these campaigns are happening, like Muslim Women’s Day and Muslims Are Speaking Out happen, the more the unconscious mind of people are being tested. You’re ringing their bells without them knowing it. The more they are exposed to these messages, campaigns, the more their thought process changes. Their subconscious mind starts shifting the way they think.
Do you think the media, especially through digital arts and creative fields such as that, will be our salvation? Do you think that will be the solution inevitably?
No. You know it’s an ongoing process with the media. I haven’t always been pushing for it. With it, their is always an agenda and always an advantage to suppress others. There is a conscious effort on the media’s part on what is disseminated.
We need to recognize not only the suffering and oppression of women, but we have to see what we can do as human beings to become more human ourselves.
Our salvation will come from our conscious and our unconscious minds. Once we realize our connection to each other, we will find that salvation. When we want for others what we want for ourselves…
What we have is a spiritual journey. We need to recognize not only the suffering and oppression of women, but we have to see what we can do as human beings to become more human ourselves.
In the meantime, we need to keep pushing the agenda forward, which is freedom and equality for all people. Muslim women, Muslims, need it now more than ever because they are the ones (in my opinion) that are facing oppression the hardest without others thinking it’s wrong. Like I said, Islamophobia is the greatest phobia we have. We need to fight to change people’s mind about the Muslim community, and in that way, and another step which is part of it, change their own mind about themselves.