Khaula Hadeed can tell you that being the executive director of the Alabama chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Alabama’s only Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, has never been a simple job. With the current political climate, however, her job has become even more challenging. But she persists. Khaula and her organization continue to promote justice by fighting to uphold the constitution and protect civil liberties. And they continue to promote understanding by encouraging dialogue, building coalitions and challenging negative stereotypes about Muslims through increasing Muslim participation in political and civic life. Meet today’s FACE of Birmingham, Khaula Hadeed.
You were granted citizenship last year. What was that process like and what kept you motivated as you went through it?
Becoming an American citizen is a long, grueling process. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently. I became a citizen after fifteen years and my husband, who’s been living and working in the U.S. for longer, is still waiting to hear from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services about his application. I don’t know at what point we came to a realization that this is our home now. My biggest motivation was my daughter, who is turning two and is American. Also, I guess in two more years from now I will have lived more than half of my own life in the United States. I live, love and work here; this is my life!
How has the current political climate affected your job as executive director of CAIR Alabama?
Well, it has definitely increased our workload. We’re working around the clock due to the impact that the rise in Islamophobia has had on the Muslim community. We have seen a huge increase in anti-Muslim and Islamophobic hate incidents. According to one FBI report, there was a 67% increase in anti-Muslim attacks in 2015. Many advocacy groups, including CAIR, that monitor and report such incidents claim that the number for 2016 is much higher. It is only the beginning of 2017, and we’ve already responded to a larger number of complaints than this time last year. The political climate has created unrest and anxiety in the community.
Currently, we are dealing with the aftermath of the Muslim ban. Birmingham and Huntsville Muslim communities have been targets of threats in the last couple of weeks. The presidential election cycle was demonstrative of what to expect, but it has been especially hard to convince people that the new administration is not anti-Muslim or anti-Islam or that it is not a proponent of Islamophobic policies.
However, it has also created a unique opportunity for different communities to come together. We have seen a remarkable outpouring of love and support for the Muslim community. We’ve also experienced different faith groups and communities commit to standing next to each other in solidarity. That is the America we all know, aspire to work for and regard as our greatest accomplishment.
I understand that your mother and mother-in-law have had trouble coming to visit your family here in the United States. Tell us more about this and any other ways you’ve felt, directly or indirectly, affected by the current climate.
My mother-in-law’s visitor visa was rejected this past November in Bahrain even though she’s traveled here multiple times over the years. This time around she was coming to see her one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter for the first time. She’s been here multiple times in the last 17 years. This was the only time she was mistreated and her visa application rejected. It was only after numerous calls and letters to the embassy, and to the U.S. ambassador in Bahrain, that she was granted a visa.
My entire family is in Pakistan. They visit and most of the time the difficult part has been the sad treatment they receive at Customs and Border Control. They are accomplished, decent and dignified people who’ve spent their lives being upright, bringing up children to treat others with respect. Yet here they are visiting their children in America, and they are made to feel like criminals. Lately, it has become harder and harder to convince my parents to visit, because of the stress and anxiety of the treatment they receive at the hands of our border agents. It breaks my heart. I want them to visit to see their granddaughter; I want them to not hear of all the hate incidents against Muslims or to worry about me or my family. I want them to know I am perfectly fine. The snide, Islamophobic, under-the-breath comments are fine — others have it much worse. I should know — I see it every day.
You have described yourself as a “reluctant activist.” Why is that?
Simply stated, because of my privilege. I have too much to be grateful for. I have been and continue to be too comfortable in my life of access. When a Muslim woman repeatedly gets turned down for jobs because she’s Muslim, I am not that woman; or a father who constantly gets visits from the FBI to the extent that his children start to wonder if their father has done something wrong, I am not that father; or a son who gets a harsh sentence a few times over for good measure because he happens to be black and Muslim; I am not that son.
I believe in the good will of the government. I believe that the U.S. government is generally responsive to needs of the people, and somewhere in there I am a beneficiary of that system. I have been afforded opportunities that many have not. So I guess, what I am saying is that injustice and the indignation is just unbearable. I don’t want to be doing what I do, but I must.
What are some of your favorite places and favorite things to do in Birmingham?
I love driving around Birmingham and discovering new back roads that I never knew existed. I switch off the GPS sometimes, when I know I have time. I do the best thinking on the road.
Do you have any personality quirks or is there something about you that others might find surprising?
I never — literally never — get rid of books, including text books. I am a hoarder. I have text books from every single semester of every class I ever took. I have no idea why I am keeping them, but in my strangeness, I have said ‘no’ to selling them or giving them away, and I lug them around box to box, shelf to shelf.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
It is my family that somehow keeps giving me the same advice a million different ways from across the oceans: just be yourself. One never knows really that the hardest part of living is being yourself; trying to be the better version of yourself every day. I am a Muslim woman in America; I am an immigrant Muslim woman in America today. I can’t be anyone else.
Aside from family, friends, and faith, what are three things you can’t live without?
InStyle magazine, good food and watching classics on TCM.
Thank you, Khaula! To learn more about Khaula’s work with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, visit cairalabama.org.