Qasim Rashid: 'Drown your ignorance, slay your privilege'


Qasim Rashid speaks at the 2016 Courage Awards.

Editor's note: Author, attorney and scholar Qasim Rashid spoke at Crosscut's recent Courage Awards. We have posted the full video of his talk below, along with this lightly edited transcript of his speech.

You know people often ask me if I get nervous speaking before a large crowd. I tell them no, as long as they don’t figure out I’m a lawyer, I’m generally OK. I went to law school several years after 9/11. I guess part of me thought that it wasn’t hard enough being a Muslim in America, I wanted to add more fuel to the fire.

But you know there are some advantages of being a Muslim attorney. Whenever I’m wrongfully detained I know exactly where my lawyer is. And then, I can use my free phone call to call someone who can actually help me get out of this situation.

I joke about this but there’s some truth in every joke.

I start my lectures with this really important concept of choice — something that each of us have. You have a choice in how you dress, in who you associate with, where you spend your money, who you vote for in an election. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking the choice to be here today, for supporting Crosscut, for supporting these amazing Courage Award winners, because you really are making that difference that the world needs right now.

And when it comes to choice, some people have more choice than others. And this is where this concept of “privilege” comes from.  Unfortunately, some people put up a wall when they hear this word “privilege.” I’ve had people say to me, “Hey, hey, hold on a second, I’m not racist.” And that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. Walls are never a good thing, whether it's in your head when you hear the word “privilege,” or whether it’s on a border with Mexico, they don’t really solve anything at all.

I’m going to tell you two stories today. One has been written, and we’ve seen the result of it, and one, we have the choice in how we want to conclude it.

The first story is about Prophet Muhammad, and the land that he came to, of Arabia, that was a hot bed of misogyny, of ongoing war, anti-Semitism, racism, slavery — where the wealthy class ruled in a brutal manner without any regard for anyone but themselves. History records that within one generation he transformed this nation of warring tribes into a unified country dedicated to the principle of universal freedom of conscience.

Now, time doesn’t permit me to go through his life story, but one incident really captures the kind of work that he chose to put forth. After 20 years of brutal persecution, which saw him and his companions flee Mecca, in which his own children were killed, his own wife died due to complications from starvation due to a boycott, he returned to Mecca and retook the city in a bloodless siege. And the question was asked, what would be done to those had persecuted Prophet Muhammad and his family and the early Muslims for their crime of worshipping one god? Upon this, Prophet Muhammad handed a flag to a man named Bilal. Bilal was a former slave who was nearly tortured to death. He was an African slave. Prophet Muhammad then purchased his freedom and set him free and made him a general in his army. And he said, whoever stands under the flag of Bilal with the understanding that all of humanity is equal, and universal freedom of conscience must remain free, anybody who stands underneath that flag will be given amnesty.

You see, in this proven model, racial, religious and gender-equity principles were set forth not just by words but by actions. And in this world, Prophet Muhammad was able to take former slaves and turn them into mighty generals, he was able to take women who had suffered abuse and turn them into the most leading scholars of the world. He took people who were extremists and turned them into the most noble saints. He wrote this narrative and he inspired people to rise up to the challenge before them. And history records the centuries afterward: The golden age of Islam is called the golden age because there were unprecedented advances in the theory of evolution, in astronomy, in physics, in mathematics. I joke with high school kids that you can thank Muslims for giving you algebra homework, because this is where it began.

And so, here’s the second story where we have the choice on how we want to conclude our chapters in life. You may have noticed that we live in a world right now that, unfortunately, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism have seemingly grown year over year. You may have noticed a political campaign being run right now on these principles. I went to law school bright-eyed with this dream that I’m going to change the world. I saw the rising antagonism against Muslims, against women, against people of color, against minorities, against immigrants, and I thought, I want to do my part to make a difference. And so the time came for me to get my first offer as a lawyer.

I was super excited. I had interned with this firm. Every review was fantastic. I sat across the table from the senior partner, waiting for the written offer. I had gotten the verbal offer, and I had turned down other jobs, because this firm was ready to give me a written offer. It was the perfect job.

And the partner sat down and said, “Look, you’ve been great for us. You’ve worked hard, people love you. But, in this climate, it’s gonna be really difficult to explain to our clients why there’s such an outspoken Pakistani Muslim on our staff.” He followed in up in true lawyer form, “If you ever say this in public, I’m gonna deny it.”

I was heartbroken. Never having to worry about your faith because it’s the majority faith? That’s privilege. Never having to worry about the color of your skin because it’s the majority color? That’s privilege.

In the presidential debates there’s been this discussion of “implicit bias.” And there’s been a denial by half the population that there’s no such thing. Everyone has implicit bias to some degree — me, you, media, law enforcement.

Implicit bias isn’t what makes you a bad person; it doesn’t make you a racist or a supremacist. It’s a natural phenomenon because we all have different experiences, we all come from different backgrounds. That diversity shouldn’t be ignored; it should be celebrated, it should be embraced. But implicit bias becomes dangerous when we pretend it doesn’t exist, when we ignore our privilege, and we think that we are somehow above the ability to be subjective.

Racism and supremacy come into play when we ignore the privilege that helped us get the power in the first, that helped us get that job in the first place.

And what we’re experiencing in the presidential race is exactly that. You have a man who calls Mexicans as rapists, who calls immigrants as criminals, who claims Muslims are responsible for the violence against us, who has broken all realms of decency in the treatment of women, yet he has a significant number of loyal followers who are ready to accept anything he says as fact.

You see, to understand where people of color are coming from in this country you have to understand history from the point of view of people of color. And this is a painful journey, and this is where many people put up a wall because they believe it somehow doesn’t affect them. But in reality, this is the manifestation of implicit bias where it can become dangerous. When we look at this journey, we can start around the year 1500, when European colonialists first arrived in “the new world.” Never mind the fact that people had been living here for 30,000 years before.

And that’s when the genocide of Native Americans began. By some estimates there were 30 million Native Americans living in North America at that time.

Over the next 275 years, you saw ongoing genocide and you saw the rise of the transatlantic slave trade where 20 million Africans were kidnapped, stolen, raped, pillaged and enslaved.

America was founded in 1776 and allegedly all men are created equal, but it took yet another 100 years after that for slavery to officially be abolished. And then you had the Jim Crow era where, while slavery was abolished on paper, you had institutionalized, openly accepted racism and violence against people of color. And then it took another hundred years, until we got to 1965, where the Civil Rights Act was finally signed.

Forty percent of America’s population, nearly 132 million people, are older than the Civil Rights Act. There are people in this room older than the Civil Rights Act. This means there are people in this room who remember a time where there were colored drinking fountain and white drinking fountains, colored swimming pools and white swimming pools, colored schools and white schools.

And of them, 100 million are white and represent the wealthiest block in America.

So, now for the scary part. That was the uncomfortable part, now for the scary part.

The generation before this 132 million people that was born in the 1910s and 1920s, this was a time where the KKK was so powerful that 1 in every 11 white Americans was a card-carrying member of the KKK, and they marched on Capitol Hill. This would mean, applied today, about 30 to 35 people in this room, applied today, would be part of a terrorist organization. Frightening to think about.

Only 85 years ago, only 85 years ago, the KKK was 4 million strong in America.

If you’re white and born before 1965, there’s a 10 percent chance your parents were in the KKK. Nearly 70 percent of college students in the 1930s and '40s rejected Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler. And too few spoke up to prevent Japanese concentration camps that are another dark stain in our nation.

Remember, we have a choice in how we conclude our story. Every generation, every person, has the opportunity to show courage in the face of injustice. As we go through this painful journey, we have to remember this daunting challenge we face before us.

How do you undo 400 years of systemic oppression and terrorism? That’s a question for all of us. That’s a question that each of us have ownership over the solution.

Reflect on this and you’ll begin to understand the crucial role media plays in this conversation, the crucial role law enforcement plays in this conversation, the crucial role our judicial system plays in this conversation. But moving beyond anecdotes and going to the hard data, when we look at the trends we see how systemic this problem has become.

When we talk about police brutality and the fact that black youth are shot at a rate of 21 times more than white youth, we know that there's some implicit bias being manifested here. When we look at the rates of drug and alcohol abuse among black youth, and see that it's lower than the abuse of white youth, yet black youth are charged and arrested at a rate of six to nine times higher, we know that it’s implicit bias being manifested. When the FBI acknowledges that the gravest threat to America, is not radical Islamic terrorism, but in fact white supremacist terrorism, and yet it hasn’t once been brought up in any of the presidential debates, we know there's implicit bias at work.

When domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women in America, yet a major party nominates a man that has a history of violence against women, we have a serious problem on our hands. When 97 percent of rapists never see a day in jail, we have an epidemic on our hands.

Traditional media portrayals don’t help.

Native Americans are portrayed as a people buried in the past or as destitute alcoholics and gamblers. African Americans are viewed as savages and animals and “thugs.” Jews are viewed as money hungry, the Anti-Defamation League estimates that 45 million Americans hold severely anti-Semitic views, today in 2016. Women [are portrayed] as inferior and less valuable, and the pay gap, which has perpetuated generation after generation, demonstrates that.

Do these narratives ring true about the Native Americans you know? Do they ring true about the Muslims you know? Do they ring true for the African Americans you know? And if you find yourself saying, “Gee, I don’t actually know any Muslims, or I don’t really know any Native Americans,” then that might be part of the problem. And if you don’t know any women look to the left and right of you and say hello, because that might be a much bigger problem looking ahead.

These are uncomfortable conversations we need to have. But these Courage Awards aren’t just to identify problems and have uncomfortable conversations, they’re to identify the courageous solutions to solve these problems.

So let’s shift to solutions. When I asked myself this question, it made me ask another. What did Prophet Muhammad actually do 1400 years ago in the society that mimics our society in many ways. How did he resolve these issues of racial inequality, misogony? I’ve synthesized it to an acronym I call RISE — Re-educate, Identify, Serve and Elevate. It is time for America to RISE above the injustices we see, and build an infrastructure based off of justice based off of compassion, and you have the choice to have the courage to do so.

First, Re-educate yourself. I say “re” educate because we’ve all received an education; it has gotten us to where we are today. We need to re-educate ourselves about people from different faiths, from different cultures, by learning from them. This doesn’t mean you go on Google and say, “teach me about Islam”; it means you reach out to a Muslim and say “teach me about Islam.” Prophet Muhammad did this by transforming society from an oral society to a written society. He made education incumbent upon every male and every female. He made critical thinking an obligatory part of faith. No more blind beliefs. And he established a concept that God and science cannot conflict, forcing people to think critically about what they believe and why they believe it.

Second, Identify. Probably the hardest part, because this is the part where you have to identify your implicit bias, you have to identify your comfort zone. The word "jihad" has been bastardized to mean something evil when in actuality it means a struggle against evil. This is where you wage your jihad and identify where is my comfort zone, and then you step out of that comfort zone.

And to show you how dangerous it is to stay in your comfort zone, in May 2016 when Seattle’s city council voted on gender lines against a sports stadium, they received ongoing harassment, and even threats of violence. We must do better. We must expect better of ourselves. Violence against women is the leading cause of injury to women and yet here in May 2016 a significant number of people in this city sent threats of violence to our public servants [who] didn’t want a sports stadium. Media and police must recognize this dangerous status quo, in which too much of society remains.

The moment you realize this eternal truth life is more dangerous in your comfort zone than outside of it — that is when progress can begin.

But let me be very clear, when you step out of that comfort zone a couple of things will happen. People will laugh at you, they will ridicule you, and in some cases they will threaten you. But that is when you know youre making progress.

Prophet Muhammad did this by establishing universal freedom of conscience for all people – regardless of faith. He made it incumbent on Muslims to fight on behalf of Jews and Christians who were being attacked for their faith. Apathy was no longer an option. He led by example and he condemned infanticide, he condemned violence against women, and he condemned racial superiority of any race. And in doing so, he led by example, and recognized people for their diversity, and spoke to the third element of RISE – Service.

We, you, together, we must serve and support the vulnerable, both with our words and with our actions. Prophet Muhammad did this by establishing a government based on justice. On secular governence. And this is the True Islam model he taught 1400 years ago, where black and white are equal. Men and woman were equal. Rich and poor were equal.

Applied today, the police and media have great power, and great ability to harm, or to serve and support those in need of protection from our systemic racism we see today.

You start simple. You apply the platinum rule, "‘treat people how they want to be treated." Imam Ali once famously said, “The rights that you have over others, forget them. The rights that others have over you, honor them.” You do that by going to community events. Going to where the people are, meet them where they are. Meet with their leadership. Spend time at their schools. Take the lead and go to their synagogues, their mosques and their churches. Honor their rights regardless of how you are treated, how you’re received; earn that respect.

Right now, regardless of who wins this election, there will be a new precedent set on the acceptability of intolerance. It will not go away simply because there's a different name under the presidency. How do you re-educate society and what role does media play in that? A March 28, 1933 Seattle Times editorial concluded, and I quote, “There is no organized mistreatment of Jews in Germany.” Meanwhile, the Jews were on the verge of mass genocide. Today in 2016 we have an entire political party, half of the nation, who insist that there is no mistreatment of Muslims, no mistreatment people of color, no mistreatment of women who are suffering violence against them on account of their gender. And a massive machinery of media exists to support this mythology, this dangerous mythology.

How will you respond? After the election how will you respond? Who will you give a platform to? And this brings us to the final element of RISE – Elevate.

Once you have engaged in re-education, and identified your implicit bias, and served and supported those in need, who will you elevate.

We must elevate people of color, we must elevate minorities, we must elevate women. Elevate them with your platform, elevate them with your privilege. Prophet Muhammad did this by obliging the head of state must take mutual consultation not just from the majority but from all people. He did this when he re-took Mecca, and gave the flag of amnesty to Bilal, a man who was formerly tortured, and now his torturers had to come to him, and ask for amnesty, which he readily granted. He did this by standing at the funeral of a Jewish person even to the objections of others who said, “but this is a Jew.” And Muhammad responded angrily, “Was he not a human being, did he not have a soul?”

Use your privilege, your power and your prestige to elevate those who’ve been oppressed, persecuted and prosecuted.

Now this is a very delicate thing, because some people think that elevating others means speaking for them. This is called cultural appropriation. Do not speak for others. Give your platform to let others speak for themselves. And it manifests in many ways many offensive ways. As Halloween comes up, you’re going to see blackface; don’t do blackface. You’re going to see people dress up as Native Americans as a costume. Native Americans are not your costume; they deserve the respect that any human being deserves.

So what does elevating look like? What Crosscut has done here today by asking an immigrant, Muslim, who adheres to a peaceful worldwide Caliphate that you’ve probably never heard of because media only wants to report on the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. By giving me a platform, Crosscut has allowed me to re-educate on what Islam means, it’s allowed me to help you focus on your implicit bias and step out of your comfort zone. It’s allowed me to help you serve and support those voices that are ignored. Today’s Courage Award winners include a Native American leader, an Ethnic leader, and an immigrant leader. Incidentally, six of the seven Americans who won a Nobel prize this year are immigrants. My 7-year-old found this out and he was sure that I’d win the one for literature. And I had to disappoint him when I told him that they gave it to some guy named Bob.

See, as a Muslim, I don’t want you learning Islam from Google. I don’t want you learning Islam from some hateful politician. I want to come to your home so we can break bread together. Earlier, it was mentioned that I helped launch a campaign called the True Islam campaign. This is a revolutionary campaign where Muslims and  non-Muslims are working together they’re signing their names to this positions for these 11 principles of pluralism, progress, of the equality of men and women, of secular governance, of universal freedom of conscience. A condemnation of anything that violates human rights. I expect each of you to go to and sign your name to this petition, and include your circle of friends and let them know that this campaign exists, to combat the extremism and hatred and the misrepresentation we see.

Each of us have to make a choice. How do we want to finish this story? We get to choose. Do you have the courage to recognize your privilege, and step out of your comfort zone? And we all have privilege. I work in an environment where I’m the only guy in my office, and I suddenly recognize all the more what male priveilege is, because in so many board rooms, there’s often only one woman, and suddenly she has to represent all women who have ever existed. Many of you are civic, cultural and community leaders. Each of you have the option of how you want to proceed going forward.

I will never forget that feeling of hurt and pain when I was told I wasn’t good enough because of my faith or the color of my skin. But what I’m trying to tell you today is that I am not the anomaly. This is something that people of color, minorities experience on a daily basis in America.

We decide how our story ends.

You as media, leaders, as the wonderful people who have been given the burden and the gift of privilege – you have that choice before you.

Ask yourself. Do I have the courage to be compassionate?

Do I have the courage to stand on the right side of history with justice? Not just with my words, but with my actions? As admonished by the true Khalifa of Islam and the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, “The root cause of all of these issues is a lack of justice in the world.” We choose whether we want to reinvigorate that justice.

If you want to create that revolution then kill your apathy, drown your ignorance, and slay your privilege. Go out and RISE above it. Re-Educate. Identify your privilege. Serve. And Elevate.

Rise above intolerance and let your voice be heard. Rise above ignorance and write your narrative. Rise above the hatred and use your privilege for good. Rise above fear and emerge from your comfort zone. Rise above callousness and have the courage to be compassionate. Seattle, make that choice and let the world see your example. Let the history books look back at Seattle and marvel at this revolution, at this true struggle that you’ve embraced, at this true Jihad that you’ve for love and for peace. God bless you! Thank you! I’ll see you at the top!


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