About a year ago, I met a woman at a conference who fascinated me. She was in the process of working on her book called Muslim Mythbusting: What One Fourth of the World Really Believes . Her passion for the topic had me wanting to learn more.
My experience with Islam had been limited to a visit to a mosque when I was in seminary in 1998. We had gone on an interfaith pilgrimage and visited various houses of worship. As I knelt on the colorful carpet and listened to the Imam speak, I felt a sense of peace flow through me. This experience flew in the face of the media portrayal of Muslims. Stereotypes still abound that stir fear.
Samarina Makhdoom (a.k.a. Sam Mak) is a dynamic speaker, diversity educator, and engineer who is more than happy to uncover the misinformation and provide answers.
Tell us about your history, please.
My name is Sam Mak. I was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States at the age of five. My parents are both educated and came from great families, so we would have had a great life in Pakistan or wherever we chose to live. My father came to the United States to continue his education and planned to return to Pakistan with his new skills. After getting his master’s degree, he was offered several jobs working as an engineer on Native American reservations. So with one job after another, we decided to stay here in the U.S. I have enjoyed a full life of global travel, hopping across the oceans, and I enjoy my friends and family all over the world.
As I connected with people from different continents, I noticed we have so much in common, yet we tend to focus on our differences. Sometimes how we or our culture are perceived by those from other countries is misrepresented. I want to help everyone around the world to see the love, support, and friendship that I have seen among people of different races and all walks of life.
How did it shape your career choice as an engineer and diversity educator?
I became an electrical engineer because I love mathematics and I love solving problems. After working 14 years for the federal government and corporations, I realized that I wanted to use my problem-solving skills for more than just engineering. I am passionate about sharing diversity and inclusion, and I thrive on having energy from the audience as we all learn and grow together. These conversations and opportunities seemed to come up more and more often after 9/11, and I found it deeply satisfying to build bridges of understanding between my non-Muslim and Muslim neighbors.
What called you to write your book Muslim Mythbusting?
A woman once approached my friend, saying several negative things about Islam and Muslims. In their church, they had heard an entire sermon about how Islam was all about terrorism. My friend called me and asked me many questions about Islam. She said to me, “I knew the woman’s acquaintance was wrong but I didn’t know what to say or where to begin.” I wanted to have a quick and easy book to help people like her. I wish I could give her a book and say here are the responses of what to say when someone is misrepresenting Islam. My goal is to first to value diversity and inclusion and to give them something to say when someone hurts them with wrong perceptions or an inflammatory story from the media. Muslim Mythbusting is that book. In this book, you get to know one Muslim woman (me!) and learn what Muslims do (and don’t) believe.
How does your Islamic faith guide your life?
Islam has been the only guide in my life. At first, I followed the faith because my family followed it and I was mimicking my parents. After Junior High School I realized that I was really loved and supported in this religion, most of all with the conflict going on at that time over the ERA and women’s rights. I realized that Islam is very supportive of women’s rights and finances and giving women choices and opportunities. Oddly enough, attending Catholic schools was one pathway to discovering my own Muslim faith! As I grew into an adult and experienced life’s challenges, I learned that my Muslim faith actually worked and I started applying it more in my life.
Islam’s laws support powerful and successful women. Women who value family and also have a voice. I found that in my faith and the guidance I receive has shaped how I view challenges, how I respond to others, and my aspirations to serve society with my God-given talents.
What has your experience been in terms of women’s rights in your faith tradition?
My mom and my grandmother are both very strong on women’s rights and should have written the chapter on Muslim women! A Muslim woman under Islamic Sharia laws from 600 AD has more rights than currently under U.S. law. Islam is about value and respect, both of which I am shown under the religion as a Muslim woman, a mother, and a wife. I am grateful for the respect and honor that I receive through my family and my faith. As I write in Muslim Mythbusting:
“My maternal grandmother, Sajeela, grew up and got married just as the British were leaving India, and she eventually started a family of her own as Pakistan was being formed. As a Muslim woman, she had the right to choose and approve of her husband, she could decide if she wanted to work or be a mother, and all the money she entered the marriage with was hers. Her husband must provide for her and her children but he had no rights to her wealth. Islamic marriages follow shariah, and in shariah, a woman has full control of her financial assets and wealth. My grandmother knew her rights and she passed on this tradition that she was raised in, to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She lived her life being the example of a strong Muslim woman with both a family and a career. Even after my grandfather’s death thirty years later, she was an independent woman with her own financial investments, a president of a charity, and a traveler of the world. (Muslim Mythbusting, p.64)”
Did you experience anti-Muslim bigotry at any point in your life?
I do not always look like a Muslim on the outside. I’m often mistaken for being of Latin or Hispanic origin. At times, individuals have come to me and made derogatory statements about Islam and Muslims without realizing that they are speaking to a Muslim. These mean words helped me learn the need for real conversations with real Muslims and just how much fear has been instilled in members of western cultures. It is time to pull back the curtain and allow non-Muslims to see what Islam and Muslims are about. When we shed light on a subject, our fear diminishes.
Currently, Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the US and around the world. Some people are afraid of that success and choose to attack the faith. In Islam, knowledge, and diplomacy are the preferred solutions to conflicts, so my goal is to provide knowledge to anyone who is ready to receive that knowledge. As I went around the world learning from different people, I saw that we were all essentially the same on the inside. Our values are what unite us and we need to have open discussions on how we value education, charity, and making an impact on our lives.
How have you guided your children in navigating the Islamaphobia that plagues the U.S.?
Everyone has some type of discrimination in their lives. For my kids, I have taught them self-confidence. The inner confidence helped them chose great friends. I feel that we can get through tough times when we have the support of good friends. My other goal was to educate my kids on their faith. I wanted them to have answers when they are asked questions. I see the extent of Islamaphobia as an opportunity to have conversations and grow from sharing ideas. I write about this in my book:
“Life has come full circle from me trying to learn how to be an immigrant in the U.S. to now teaching my American-born kids how to be Muslim Americans in post-9/11 America. When I came to the U.S. in 1971, the individuals I interacted with had not heard about Islam or the Quran. I went from a life where an Afghan is a crocheted blanket to my community knowing the names of cities in the country of Afghanistan. Now, my kids live in a world where the terms Islam, Muslim, and Quran have a negative connotation.
I wanted to give them the basics of the faith but also empower them to choose the path of Islam on their own. I had seen too many kids with strict parents that enforced a rigid moral code…..I wanted Islam to be an internal choice for my kids. I had to hold myself to a higher standard. I had to be a good example.” (Muslim Mythbusting, p. 229)
Any thoughts on bringing us all together at an expanded table?
I think we need to have several expanded tables. I like the idea of sharing our authenticity with each other so we can see how many similarities we have. Somehow we have been taught to avoid difficult conversations; however, these difficult conversations are the most rewarding. One thing that attracts me to America is the diversity among the people that make up our culture. I have been invited to Quinceneras, Bar Mitzvahs, Diwali festivals, and Christmas parties. We would all benefit from getting together at an expanded table, especially if we are celebrating each other –and sharing amazing food!
What keeps you from being discouraged at the current state of the world?
I am optimistic about the world at this moment. I feel that we are moving toward a pivotal turning point that is allowing so many people to wake up and look for solutions. For the first time ever, we are shining a light on issues that were not talked about and social challenges that were previously brushed under the table.
Just in this last election, the U.S. had so many minorities and women come into public office. When I was growing up here, those types of “names” would not have stood a chance at winning. But these unique individuals did win and are making changes.
I also feel that food is a way to unify people. From the Muslim viewpoint, having food like kababs, pita bread, hummus, and curry are allowing people to explore our cultures without leaving town. Once someone accepts the food of a country, it becomes easier to learn about the country, and then find common ground for mutual friendships and growth.
Looking back, Italians were discriminated against when they immigrated to the US. I remember in grade school hearing the other kids use derogatory terms for individuals of Italian origin. But these immigrants shared a bit of Italy with us in their cuisine. We also learned more about the culture through Italian artists. Now pizza is as American as apple pie. Using art and food are great vehicles for experiencing different cultures.
Anything else you would like to include?
We have given away our power by saying the government or schools need to do something to fix our problems. The problem is compounded by blaming media for their misperceptions of minorities and women. The truth is that we have the power to solve these issues, and as individuals, it is time for us to exercise our power.
Money talks. We need to vote in elections when they come around, but every day we need to vote with our dollars. I cannot say I am tired of violence in society and then go pay $14 to watch a movie full of violence. As long as someone is making a profit from a violent movie, we will have more violent movies. This type of media spreads ideas of how humanity is so aggressive and brutal.
So let’s acknowledge that each of us does make a difference and look at ourselves personally. What type of media are we consuming? What products do we purchase? Most companies that make these products have political views and manipulate certain markets. Every financial transaction is a political statement. I am willing to pay more to have an ethically produced item. Let’s focus on what we each can do to make the world more sharing and support oriented. And let’s support the businesses that share our values. We need to make being socially conscience a profitable business.
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Photo courtesy of the author.