Wajahat Ali is a journalist, writer, lawyer, award-winning playwright, TV host, and frequent CNN commentator. He also currently serves as Creative Director of Affinis Labs, where he works to create social entrepreneurship initiatives that have a positive impact for marginalized communities, and to empower communities to come up with innovative solutions to tackle world problems. You can read some of Wajahat’ s work *here* and *here*. You can also see him at his best as a CNN commentator – here. We had the privilege of snagging an interview with Wajahat for our awesome readers. Enjoy!
MM: I read a piece by Stephen Cobbe (a university student from Stanford), who interviewed you in 2013, called “The Story (You Never Knew) of Wajahat Ali.” In that interview, you say success, as defined by the Pakistani-American community, was becoming a doctor, engineer, or businessman — three venerated careers that you called “the holy trinity.” You were quoted saying, “The trinity has no space for artistic inclinations.” Since your path hasn’t followed this “holy trinity,” how did you handle that with your family? Were they supportive?
Wajahat: Many immigrant communities suffer from the same problem, not just the Pakistani-American community. Since 9-11, the “trinity” has opened up to include corporate lawyers and other lawyers who make a lot of money. It was interesting for me because I noticed that immigrants had limited choices and limited opportunities. Those were the safest choices for their families. Many wanted to be other things, but didn’t have an option. They implemented that on us because they wanted their kids to be safe and secure. They weren’t coming from an irrational place, but more from survival. It helped us achieve the American dream, but it also came at a cost. The cost is that it has a very limited, strict, and narrow-minded definition of success and happiness. If you fall out of this, then you’ll be seen as a failure. It adds a burden on so many people to conform. I realized I didn’t want to conform. I was left-handed, overweight, had stains on my shirt, and always an odd ball. My parents realized that I was odd and different. They understood that I would be miserable and they would be the architects of my misery. They had faith in my potential and I have to give them credit for being unorthodox. They realized I was better suited to do some work in the field of storytelling. They told me to compliment that with a skill that you can do to help build out your writing career. They asked me to get a law job while I did my writing. I was very lucky that I had strange Desi parents that gave me freedom. A lot of my peers have not had the same opportunity. Unfortunately, for most people when chasing the American dream, the “white picket fence” dream, they only feel validated when mainstream white people have validated them. It can be a long and lonely uphill journey. I knew my community would never approve, but I was never bitter. I rejected the checklist of success that was laid before me. Now, I have people come up to me that say maybe my kid can do what you do too. All these people come up to me and often do dua for me. It was a really interesting plot switch.
…We get asked why does Islam hate the West and in the other part of the world I get asked why America hates Islam.
You are often brought onto networks such as CNN and are asked to cover a wide range of topics such as Islamophobia, the Muslim Ban, amongst other things. How do you navigate being brought on as an expert/commentator while avoiding tokenism? Do you think it’s important for Muslim Americans to be on mainstream media and a part of these conversations?
That’s a very good question. It is frustrating, dealing with tokenism and being slaughtered into nice, shiny, easily digestible boxes for mainstream media and studios. It has its strengths, but it limits your potential. Your only talent is that you can provide one specific narrative for one specific ethnic group. You get introduced as a Muslim writer, but others don’t (i.e. The Jewish writer, The Catholic Writer.) I’m not embarrassed, but these communities are in the news and in the middle of the crises we’re facing like immigration, resistance to Trump’s agenda and etc. In America, we get asked why does Islam hate the West and in the other part of the world I get asked why America hates Islam. It’s a balancing act. How do you navigate sharing your story for global audiences, being the protagonist, gaining autonomy, but at the same time, not being pigeon holed as being the Muslim guy? I feel if you excel at what you do, you will rise to the top and be known as an individual who is qualified and deserves respect.
It goes back to what I call the Three Act Play: in Act One, you emerge and are recognized but you’re mocked and ridiculed based on the extreme version of your identity (i.e. the angry black man, the perverted gay man, the radical Islamists). In Act Two, you get the name but you’re never the hero; you become Bruce the whacky gay neighbor, you become the whacky Pakistani cab driver. In Act Three, you become the writer who happens to be Muslim. It’s not just one person, it’s a multicultural revolution.
First, we have to audit ourselves, we have not invested and nurtured our storytelling talent. Gate keepers for most of these areas are overwhelmingly white people and it’s a very white room. They’re not trying to be racists, it’s just tribalism. Power is blind to its privilege. Stereotypical narratives affect domestic and foreign policy. You have to work with the gatekeepers. It’s all connected.
When you appear on mainstream networks like CNN you must deal with a lot of Internet trolls and backlash. How do you handle that? Is it ever discouraging?
I’m used to it. You need to have tough skin. You need to go in with your eyes wide open. Anytime you go up as a person of color, the gremlins will come attack the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. The best way to do that is get down and dirty and get some scabs. You need to bleed a little. That’s just the game. It’s better than being a spectator. I’m always aware that I’m going to get haters especially when I succeed. I pray before I speak. I try to be the best person I can be.
I’m an insignificant ant, so no one cares, you’re just very tunnel vision to your importance in the world. No one cares about you, you need to remember that. You should have the last laugh. Most people get upset by every response, but ignoring IS a response. It just means you’re ignoring them and not weak. I choose to be Bugs Bunny and not Daffy Duck — Daffy always gets the anvil dropped on his head because he loses his temper. Bunny is always eating his carrot and letting Yosemite Sam get worked up and fall down.
Let’s talk about your play the “Domestic Crusaders.” The play focuses on a day in the life of a modern Muslim Pakistani-American family set post 9-11 and sort of that relationship between those individuals. How did you arrive at this story? What made you want to pursue writing this play?
I arrived at this story because of one of my professors from UC Berkeley during my final year of college. I got into a short story writing class, and my professor, Ishmael Reed, told me that I should write a play. He told me that was the story that needed to be told, especially during that time. The first thing I thought about was the characters. I grew up with a three generation family, so I had experience. The story was not based on real life, but a composite of experiences. Six different personalities that are authentic and are a mosaic of opinions which captured personal and societal challenges they faced.
What do you think it means to be Muslim in America today?
I think it means that you are the most popular person in America. It’s the fat kid that eats paste who finally gets invited to the prom. It’s all this lavish attention. The spotlight’s on us and it’s a crisis that presents an opportunity. What do you do when the rest of the world looks at you as a threat? The burden and the hope is on the backs of those that are marginalized. You have to be welcoming, even if you are unwelcoming. It’s a tremendous threat to our community and a tremendous challenge. Will we respond to the challenge in the middle of the ring with humble swagger with the best of our Islamic and Western values or become terrified spectators? The latter is appealing because it’s survival. It’s time for us to be ambitious. There’s an opportunity to be the pragmatists of our communities and the American narrative. Other people who wouldn’t give us lift (a South Asian term we use to describe attention) is now giving us “lift.” This is the test for us. People have gone through worse and we’re privileged communities in America and it’s up to us to rise.
You can emerge as an American hero that just happens to be Muslim.
In the article you wrote for the New York Times, “My Resistance Movement,” you said that “hate and paranoia create imaginary enemies.” What do you think Muslim-Americans can do right now to overcome that and be a part of the resistance?
It means people getting off their butts and running for office, working on campaigns, using their money wisely. Investing in politicians or away from those that are against their agenda. Get your kids involved. You excel and be the best person you can be. How do you live your Islamic and your American values? Don’t be the token Muslims, but don’t be the avatar of our Armageddon. Air your dirty laundry and clean your dirty laundry. Be morally consistent. Walk on the moral high ground when it comes to race equality. Help each other succeed and plant a seed for all communities. Investing in things such as criminal justice reform and immigration, Black Lives Matter. Remember that the Japanese-American citizens were the first to come to our defense in 2001. People forget that. We also need more storytellers that need to get out there and talk to people. Learn about each other. Be the best version of yourself or even better. It’s easy to be cynical or hostile. Having hope requires investment and exposing yourself to pain and vulnerability. It requires more patience. It requires you to hold your tongue. You can emerge as an American hero that just happens to be Muslim.
I think many people who identify with you, especially millennials, do so because you’re relatable. I know this because often while I read your articles, listen to your interviews, or just follow you on Twitter, I find myself nodding enthusiastically and subsequently take your guidance into consideration as I navigate with my own struggle of trying to be a voice for Muslim Americans. Do you consider yourself a role model? If so, how do you navigate that pressure?
I do not think of it that way or I would have heart palpitations. I’m not a brand name, I’m just a person. I’m not on sale at Nordstrom. My parents use something called chappal (a pair of sandals made out of leather) diplomacy, which has humbled me. I’m aware that words matter and that people actually read my articles and Facebook posts. With small power comes perhaps not so great responsibility. It’s your choice if you want to acknowledge it. I try to wield it responsibly. It would be too much of a burden if I thought about it all the time. I try to be the best version of myself. I’m trying to be the guy that my kids would be proud of. I want them to be able to look back and say my dad was a pretty good guy.
When you’re not wearing your advocate-hat, what do you do to unwind, aside from being a super Warrior’s fan? How do you balance family time with the work that you do?
I don’t consider myself an advocate or activist. I feel like that’s a full-time job. I am a rather lazy and easily distracted person who likes to play video games, I sometimes pretend to work out, and generally try to be as immature as possible. Two babies and a superhuman wife keep me busy. With all that I find at my age, you don’t get free time anymore. Today, I played hooky and saw Guardians of the Galaxy and the entire time, I felt guilty, but it was fun. I enjoy the very late night quiet times where I can read and think. I would love to play video games more but don’t have time. I watch the Warriors and my wife lets me, which I’m thankful for. I love my comic books. I ooze pure childlike joy when I get my monthly batch of comic books. My kids are increasingly becoming fun as they grow. I just like to walk and exercise and zone in and think and plug away. Travelling is something I would love to do. I was lucky growing up to do it and now I want to with my kids.