Fridays with an Activist, Ep 1: Faizan Syed, Executive Director CAIR-Missouri

Episode 1 of an interview series with local activists about their work in Missouri.

Tell me about your work and your organization.

CAIR stands for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.  It defends civil rights in Missouri; like the NAACP for Muslims. But you can’t just sue everyone all the time, so you address the culture problem. We have to challenge and change perceptions perpetuated by the media and the Islamophobia industry — lots of educational work, youth empowerment, working with elected officials, building alliances in the community. We engage in community building, hold events, rallies and marches, creates councils, have open houses and host a Capital Day for legislative work in Jefferson City.  

How’d you get started?

I studied physics, astronomy and math at Drake University. Then I got swept up in the politics around the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 with Obama, Clinton and McCain, so I switched my majors to politics and history. Then the Ground Zero controversy made Islam an American issue. With the pastor burning Qurans and the right-wing media always making CAIR the villain, I knew I had to work for them. They needed a director locally, so this was my first job out of college.

Thoughts on the recent election at the federal and state level?

Nationally, we were shocked. The day after I saw six, seven, eight year-old kids scared for their safety. I didn’t even know who was president at age six. We had multiple instances of hate crimes against Muslims in St. Louis. It was a mainstreaming of the alt-right, of Islamophobia.  The election brought these from the fringe to the mainstream of American society.  

In Missouri, (Governor-elect Eric) Greitens made fake ISIS hunting permits, but ISIS isn’t here. So he created an image that matches innocent people living in our community. Local candidates ran on an anti-Syrian refugee platform. It was all lies and public manipulation. Missouri went super far right and we will see legislation proposed to create anti-Sharia laws and internment camps for refugees.  

How do you mobilize people?

There are 115,000 Muslims here, mostly in St. Louis and Kansas City. You mobilize them by community building, getting groups together and assessing strengths. Get people to come to events, then you can have a ground game and start registering people to vote, getting emails and building a movement. The hope is recent political events will double our attendance at Capital Day. We need to build ourselves up first.   

What’s your issue personally?  

I care about mobilizing American Muslims because they historically don’t vote or act. We need to change culture in the American Muslim community. Also, I want to unify the community so an issue in KC creates action in St. Louis and vice versa. We can always do more for each other.

Advice to other activists?

Donald Trump is not our challenge; apathy is the biggest issue. Fifty percent of the people didn’t vote. It’s easier and more productive to mobilize Muslim communities than to spend all day yelling at racists.

Thoughts on the state of progressivism in St. Louis?

I would argue that most Americans are progressive, we just aren’t unified.  Progressive values help the poor in middle Missouri, but those people vote against their interests. The election was a triumph of identity politics.

Progressives need to go to areas that don’t currently support them with an issue-oriented educational campaign. Customizing an economic populist message to fit a rural/Christian audience. People get distracted by issues that don’t affect them, because what’s real is complicated. It’s easier to yell about nonsense.

Book recommendations?

Read philosophy and religious books to get a grounding on your values. I like anything by Noam Chomsky. Read history.  

How do you stay inspired and engaged with the work?

This job is not work to me, I love it. I’ve never worked a day in my life. Every day is different and I see things getting better. In the Quran it says something bad might happen, but it’s actually really good for you. We will get people mobilized because of the bad and scary times.  

If I were in charge in St. Louis, I would…

That’s a good one, I don’t know.  

Feedback Encouraged.