Wajahat Ali is a journalist and blogger who helped launch Al Jazeera America, as well as an award-winning playwright who wrote the play “The Domestic Crusaders” immediately after 9/11. He spoke at the Global Engagement Fair at the University of Wisconsin-Madison the week after Donald Trump won the presidential election. I interviewed him afterward about his youth, how he became a writer, and the election.
Q: Tell me about your background.
Wajahat Ali: I grew up in California, the son of Pakistani immigrants. My father came here after the 1965 loosening of the visa restrictions. I was born in 1980, the only child, which is very rare in South Asian families. Preschool is the first time most people of color realize that they are the outsider or the other. For me, it was “How come no one else is brown, how come no one else is eating with their hands, and how come no one else has lentil stains on their shirt?”
You could make a decision at that point. Many people try to assimilate; they give up the idiosyncratic multi-
hyphenated part of their identity. Other people wear many different hats: I’ll be Pakistani for my Pakistani audience, Muslim in the mosque, and as American as possible for my American friends, just to fit in.
But I think I just give off this vibe, no matter how hard I try—I couldn’t give up my Muslim-ness and my Pakistani-ness and my American-ness, for lack of a better explanation. So the decision I made, unconsciously, which has actually propelled my career, was not trying to be something I’m not. Often times, I was the only brown kid in school, and often times people’s only Muslim reference, for years. I was forced to engage those folks who had never seen a person like me or encountered my type of American.
I remember in sixth grade when we were learning world history. I was so excited because for the first time I saw that thick textbook, I saw Islamic history, and I went, “This is amazing! We’re actually in the books! We’re protagonists in the story!” And then my teacher told me, “Yeah, we skip over all of that. We just focus on Roman mythology, Greek history, the enlightenment, Europe and North America.”
I was excised from the story.
Q: Your writing was stepping outside the tradition for you. It wasn’t what a Pakistani immigrant family’s son would normally go into.
Ali: I always joke that there’s a hierarchy, a trinity of occupations, for many immigrant kids. The highest station belongs to doctor. If you’re a doctor, you’re like the crème de la crème. If you can’t be a doctor, then you become an engineer. If you can’t be an engineer, then you become a businessman. Artist or writer is somewhere in between radio host and the guy who picks up dead animals off the street. And the guy who picks up dead animals off the street has more utility because someone needs to pick the dead animals off the street.
I rode my pen all around the world. Really. I’ve been very lucky. Two dozen countries in the last couple years, everywhere around the United States of America, it’s because of my pen.
After 9/11, what we saw was an explosion of creative talent, and that should not surprise anyone. I was part of the 9/11 generation, I was twenty years old at UC-Berkeley, a senior, when the two towers fell. A lot of my generation, instead of going into medicine and engineering, we switched over into law. Other people became stand-up comedians, other people became graphic novelists, and other people became writers and journalists. And I think after the Trump election, you’re going to see another one: I call it a mini-renaissance or disruption.
So many of these kids, brown kids, ethnic kids, multiracial kids, Muslim kids, you’re going to see them bust out and throw down. Because I think that pain and that need to be seen as a protagonist of the narrative is so strong, and if you’re not writing your own story, your story’s always being written for you.
Q: In Berkeley, you became an activist following 9/11.
Ali: An accidental activist.
Q: What was the atmosphere and the mood there on campus in 2001?
Ali: I was a twenty-year-old senior at UC-Berkeley, when the two towers fell. I was sitting in my apartment in my pajamas with my roommate, and immediately, once they started putting on the ticker, you know, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, I closed my eyes and I saw the next ten years. They just flashed before my eyes. And I’m like we’re effed, I remember I said that. And the second thing I said was, we’re going to have to do a lot of work.
I was a board member of the Muslim Student Association, a student leader. The next thing you know, your community looks to you, the local community looks to you. All of a sudden, talk radio is coming to you. There are protests. If you remember, anti-war protests happening first and foremost in Berkeley. And next thing you know, twenty-year-old Wajahat Ali is being thrust into the spotlight, to be not only a representative of UC-Berkeley and UC-Berkeley Muslims, but the ambassador of 1.6 billion people and 1,400 years of civilization.
On campus, after 9/11, much like now, there was fear. Because word spread about harassment and bullying and the targets of harassment are always women. Women of color who wear the hijab. Just like now and just like then. And Muslim women who wear the hijab, born and raised in America, were scared to come to campus. So we arranged this list of like ten, fifteen guys, who used to walk women from campus to apartments. It was scheduled from lunch until night. Car pooling. We reached out to the administration that reached out to us. Closed door meetings, like what should we do? And a crisis and a tragedy, in a moment of pain, became a moment of opportunity, where we made alliances with the administration.
They gave us resources. We reached out to other groups and we created solidarity. Some of the people who really stepped up were Japanese Americans. They went through this in the Bay Area during World War II. They said we’ve been through this, we’ve got your back.
People forget, those eight years, people were deported. We’re talking about malicious prosecutions, and about self-censorship. We’re talking about Clear Channel that banned John Lennon’s “Imagine”—people forget that. So there was a chilling effect, and people were afraid, really afraid. A trust deficit that developed between law enforcement and Muslim American communities still lingers. And that’s something we see also with African American and Latino communities, which many white people don’t understand. It’s not that there’s an innate resentment against law enforcement. The power differential between law enforcement and our communities has resulted oftentimes in our oppression and marginalization.
For Muslims and Middle Easterners and South Asians, they felt it specifically after 9/11. For many of them, who achieved the American dream, who lived in the suburbs, they woke up and realized, “Oh, we’re not white.” Those wounds are still raw and still bleeding. And I think they got ripped open again after the election of Trump in such a dark, nasty way. Some of us were lulled into a sense of complacency that this same country that lost its mind and reelected George W. Bush in 2004, turned and elected a man named Barack Hussein Obama.
I was not surprised [by Trump’s victory] because I travel and I talked to Trump supporters, and I knew there was this hidden sentiment. In light of Brexit and what’s probably going to happen in France, we’re dealing with these death rattles of white supremacy. That’s coming together as a tribe against the establishment, against political correctness, against immigrants. But I have faith that there’s enough people of good will who have learned the lessons of the last sixteen years and realize that this panicked, reactionary vote will not help them, especially in the Rust Belt.
In addition to minorities, the people I feel really bad for are the Wisconsin voters and Michigan voters, and Minnesota voters, the factory workers. Because out of desperation, Trump appealed to their base natures, and these people’s lives will not be better after four years.
Q: You had a piece in The New York Times right after the election called, “Muslim in Trump’s America,” where you address this issue of the death rattle of America’s white supremacy. It’s also, in some ways, kind of a hopeful piece.
Ali: Yeah, I wrote that at 4 a.m., literally the morning after the election. I think if you become despondent, and if you become hopeless and cynical, it’s lazy and easy. And if anything right now, we don’t need that. We need to throw down hard. People of good conscience want to make this country truly great based on its values. I mean, we have to work twice as hard now. I agree that not all Trump voters are inherently racist, malicious. I do think there’s that despondency that carried some of them.
But at the same time, there is a type of tribalism. This coded language. Make America Great Again means Make America White Again. “Things are changing too fast. Too many Muslims, too many gays. You guys mock us and ridicule us, there’s no space for white, straight Christians.”
I think you can win over a chunk in the middle, I really do. That being said, there is that chunk—KKK, white nationalists, extremists, nativists, rightwing anti-government radicals, the alt-right—that is emerging. This is a toxic poison. And these are the people we have to really challenge, and fight against.
For all those people who thought racism was dead, and bigotry was dead, especially those who are well intentioned and white allies, it’s out in the open now. You can taste it. It will force people to bust out of their isolated cocoon. I see an opportunity for a multicultural coalition of the willing that includes a populist agenda, which reclaims populism. Meaning higher wages. Help workers. Better access to education. Fight climate change. Maybe, knock on wood, and this might be way too optimistic, in 2020 if Democrats get their act together, I think they can shift it. w
Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.