There are two voices heard when it comes to American Muslims today: critics and defenders. Critics hope to paint all Muslims as having a damaging, erratic culture. Defenders attempt to explain that the vast majority of Muslims are moderate. Confused by the two contrasting perspectives, many non-Muslims often wonder, "Where are the moderate voices?" The truth is, the moderates are doing exactly what most Americans in this country are doing: focusing on making a living, trying to succeed, and changing opinions one interaction at a time.
Growing up in the U.S., kids are taught that professional success can change the way people look at you. That basic mantra that "I'm better than this" helped us deal with bullies on the playground, and cope with the critical glare of the teachers we could never seem to please. Today, some of the youngest Muslim Americans are those taunted kids on the playground today. Their voices are perceived as too small to be taken seriously; their clout is limited. But they know one thing: They are American, which means that they can change the opinion of the world by attaining professional success. And that is exactly what is being done through progressive networking organizations that have flourished nationwide.
Entering the professional world as a Muslim, I never faced questions about my religion. I was Muslim, I focused some academic research on Islamic law and I was a feminist. I did not wear a hijab nor did I discuss my "Muslimness" until it came up by chance. And those who knew I was Muslim treated it just the same as they would knowing that I was Christian. It was a non-issue.
Things changed when I moved to New York. After a few not-so-pleasant experiences in the professional world where my "Muslimness" was considered a negative, I began wondering whether I should continue to openly identify as a Muslim. I struggled with such questions for more than a year after leaving the company that had forced those thoughts into my head. I found myself searching for examples of Muslim women that had made it in the professional world, outside the social justice arena.
I wanted to network through faith, not based on faith. It was a small distinction, but one that I was desperate to find. In my search I found numerous organizations committed to bringing together Muslim professionals and change the way they were perceived. Groups of motivated Muslim Americans were working together to develop a positive image of Islam and Muslim Americans through professional networking.
A few weeks after we started our own firm in New York City, one of the first Muslim Americans my husband and I met in New York City responded to my husband's email about doing a seminar for an organization called the Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals (CAMP).
What followed was the distinction that I had demarcated in my head. A room full of highly accomplished Muslim Americans focused on career growth and eager to network with other Muslim professionals. My husband excitedly talked about how refreshing it was to find such an environment. A few months later, he joined the board of CAMP's N.Y. chapter and a few years later he became the president, helping to actively cultivate the community of Muslim American professionals.
I stayed on the outskirts, attending and networking at each events sponsored by CAMP and other Muslim American professional groups. I met the president of Happy Baby at Annual CAMP Summit in 2011, and one of the co-founders of Women 2.0 at a CAMP event in Chicago -- all well-established, powerful Muslim Americans. For them, their Muslim American identity was not a hindrance, but simply a part of who they were.
These networks of professionals are the moderate voices that everyone seems to be looking for, but they aren't defending or criticizing. They are simply doing what other Americans do everyday: leading by example and raising the bar. They continue to push people to change their perceptions about Muslim Americans.
Some time later, my networking among Muslim American professionals led me to be a panelist on Islamic law and ethics at a large law firm in the city. As I sat in front of esteemed judges and veteran practitioners who were nodding at my statements, I knew that my networking as a Muslim American professional had led me here -- and that the bullies were finally thinking, "She really was better than we thought." I knew that networking through faith was the reason my voice was being heard, and that the only way to truly change the image of Muslim Americans is to do what we were taught as kids: succeed.
CAMP is holding its 5th Annual Leadership Summit on April 21, 2012 in New Jersey. Please visit the website for more information.
Benish Shah, Esq. is a Partner at Sardar Law Firm, the CEO of Vicaire NY and currently the Marketing Coordinator for the 5th Annual CAMP Leadership Summit: Emerging and Evolving as a Leader