I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, a coastal town on the East Coast of the United States, consistently ranked as one of the world’s best tourist destinations with picturesque beaches and old colonial style homes which give memory to America’s complicated past; a city affectionately called the “holy city” for its diverse religious communities. As a third-generation African American Muslim, I learned this from a young age as I balanced between attending secular public schools and private Islamic education as part of the oldest Islamic school network in the U.S., Clara Mohammed Schools, in which my teachers were a true representation of the diversity of the American experience.
I first learned and memorized the Qur’an as a young child, not from teachers from the rich Islamic centers of learning throughout the Middle East and Africa, but initially through teachers who were indigenous Americans who dedicated their life and time to mastery of the Arabic language and the Qur’an and who were hardworking ordinary Americans who were engineers, taxi drivers, and small business owners to name a few. Though biryani, baklava, and shawarma have a deep resonance within many Arab and Muslim communities throughout the world, it was red rice, vegetarian collard greens, baked fish, bean soup, and bean pie that were part of my early upbringing. Being a descendant of enslaved Africans, I was fully immersed in the rich cultural and linguistic tradition of the sea islands of South Carolina and Georgia known as Gullah/Geechee. My experience was authentically Southern and American.
As a college student, I decided early on that studying abroad, first in France and then throughout West Africa in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia where I studied Islamic and West African history, gave me the foundational start for my interest in geo-political global matters. In combination with various intensive immersions throughout the Islamic world in the Arabic language, including in Egypt and Morocco, I developed a passion to further my career in foreign policy and national security issues at-large.
It was during this study abroad experience that I began to understand the nuances of local populations and how communities are confronted and challenged by criminal and transnational networks. As a young student, I saw the effects of stringent conservatism permeating communities, whether they be Christian or Muslim, and how their adherents struggled to abide by and implement these values on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, I’ve also seen the first-hand effects of the 10-year civil war in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia as I arrived in Sierra Leone in the direct aftermath of this brutal war that left men, women, and children victims of brutal devastation.
My professional career working in the national security and intelligence apparatus lasted for 12 years. During this time, I worked for the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and at the National Counterterrorism Center. During this tenure, I travelled throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe providing expertise on violent extremism. For the vast majority of my career, I worked on some of the most sensitive issues related to counterterrorism, both domestically and overseas, analyzing and deciphering messages and providing high level, concise strategic assessments on counterterrorism issues and ways to combat extremist rhetoric.
During this time, I worked side by side with a diverse crowd: white, black, Asian, Muslim, non-Muslim, atheist, Jewish, liberal, democrat, and conservative types to name a few. While on the surface, it might seem that we were all different, upon peeling back that first layer of assumed identity, we were, and are, all the same. Our mantra at the time was that we were driven by our mission. As the world continued to evolve, and as the various potential threats evolved too, my career in the counterterrorism space gave me a deep understanding of how to analyze problems and provide accurate information with nuance and a holistic context.
As a historian by academic training, it was my expertise that was called upon when preparing senior U.S Government officials on how to engage appropriately with cultural and diverse communities. And when there was a call for more public outreach engagement, it was my personal upbringing and experience that allowed me to make sure law enforcement, intelligence, and government colleagues alike were being sensitive and aware of the multiplicity of views and perspectives within the communities we were seeking to protect.
All these examples in my upbringing and professional career gave me the passion and motivation to join Quilliam. As an American Muslim, my perspective in government allowed me to understand the bureaucratic limitations of government when it came to preventing extremism. As an academic, soon to be publishing a doctoral dissertation on the issue of how communities can remain resilient against extremism, I too see how a deeper and contextual understanding of past and future theories on these topics is increasingly vital as well. My decision to join Quilliam was based on seeking to holistically address what is perhaps the most pertinent issue of our time. The notion of working towards practical solutions to this hazard, beyond religious persuasions or ideological perspectives, was at the core of why I jumped at the opportunity to be part of an organization that sought to be part of that change in this field.
As we embark on the journey of establishing Quilliam in North America, we have an opportunity to serve as coalition builders and work with various segments of society within our pluralistic communities. I see this as an opportunity to use the power of dialogue, reason, respect, and tolerance to engage in a fruitful debate to challenge the extremist narrative and find tangible ways in which we can eradicate violent extremism and find practical solutions to strengthen and empower individuals and communities against this threat.