In an effort to highlight inspirational American Muslims, WhyIslam spoke with Rowaida Abdelaziz, a reporter at HuffPost based in New York City. You may have seen her numerous articles discussing social justice issues and combatting Islamophobia online. Abdelaziz makes some much needed noise in the newsroom to ensure Muslims are portrayed with nuance and complexity in the media. She is a first generation Arab Muslim American, born to two Egyptian parents from New Jersey. See what she has to say below.
Is being an Arab American a big part of your identity?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: Growing up, my parents raised my three siblings and I to be proud of our Muslim and Arab identities. In effort to do so, our family took us to Egypt every other summer—one summer to spend with friends and family in the U.S. and one summer to spend with friends and family in Egypt. We did this for many years until 2002 when my family decided to move to Egypt. We packed up our belongings and sold everything else we owned all to start a new life. I was only 10-years-old at that time, a tender age when I was still starting to figure out who I was. I was essentially having an identity crisis. (I argue that I still have an identity crisis sometimes!)
But looking back, I realized living in Egypt during those crucial years forever influenced me. I learned so much about my culture and faith. I grew immensely as a person, and instilled values and morals that were embedded in Islamic and Arab tradition that shaped my outlook in life—but from an American woman’s perspective. I was a sponge and soaked everything up. I fell in love with the humility and kindness of the Egyptian people everywhere I went. I also began to wear the hijab, and perfected my Arabic during that time. It was truly one of the happiest times of my life. I would do it all over again if I could.
What is something a person who doesn’t share your background be surprised to find out about Arab Americans?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: Arab Americans are extremely diverse! For example, there is an assumption that all Arabs are Muslims, which is factually inaccurate. In fact, fewer than twenty percent of Muslims are Arabs. The Arab region hosts a multitude of religions and faiths across the spectrum. There is also this idea that the Arab world is a bloody and oppressive region, which is also simply not true. The Arab world has a rich history that continues to strive today. Yes, some places are plagued by wars, and unfortunately, decades of colonialism and imperialism shook the region and set it up for current day political turbulence. But that is not the entire Arab world despite it being painted as so in literature, movies, and mainstream media. We need to look at the Arab world beyond politics and appreciate the beauty and contributions these countries have given us throughout society.
What is your go-to method to combat stereotypes and Islamophobia?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: As a Muslim reporter covering Islamophobia, I combat stereotypes through my work. Working on this beat for a long time has made one thing abundantly clear: there is a severe lack of nuance in the way the media depicts Muslims. The coverage is simplistic and does not reflect the richness of the most diverse religious group in the world. These generalizations are putting Muslims in danger on a regular basis, producing a climate where too many people feel emboldened to attack their neighbors.
Muslims are doctors, lawyers, teachers, and parents. When Trump contemplates the idea of a Muslim registry or Clinton uses the community as a pawn for policies, it reinforces a false narrative that Muslims are not part of American society, and contributes to a notion that we are and will always be outsiders. Then, it becomes all too easy for other Americans to justify hate crimes and bigotry. And that is what I witness time and time again.
It is then my job to provide nuanced and complex coverage for a nuanced and complex community. This means stepping aside and giving the mic to Muslims in medicine, television, media, and other fields beyond the political realm. It also means providing room for nuance in the way we cover the Muslim community. The most obvious way to fix this problem is to hire more Muslims in the newsroom.
Why did you get involved in journalism? What goals do you seek to accomplish?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: I got involved in journalism because I was tired, and I was angry. For far too long, all I remember seeing on TV screens were images of the Twin Towers coming down, then bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Words like jihad and radical were associated with photos of people who looked like me and my family. I was so young, but I knew something was missing. And actually a lot was missing in that coverage. And it wasn’t just Muslims, it was anyone who looked even a bit different or foreign. I knew then if I wasn’t going to tell the stories of my community, someone else was going to do it for them.
Do you think it is important for more Arab Americans to get involved in media? Why?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: It’s extraordinarily important for Arab Americans and people of color to get involved in media. The numbers speak for themselves. Thirty-seven percent—more than a third—of the U.S. identifies as nonwhite, and yet, our mainstream media continues to be homogenous in its coverage. Minorities make up only about twenty-two percent in TV, thirteen percent working for radio, and another only thirteen percent in newspapers. In order to begin to tackle an industry that has portrayed Arabs as vicious and barbaric people, we need to get involved ourselves.
What advice do you have for people who want to learn more about others?
Rowaida Abdelaziz: It’s time for people do a lot more listening. Go in with an open mind and be ready to have uncomfortable conversations. It is then they’ll be able to see through the misconceptions and grow as a person. That’s where the true learning starts.