An Interview with Zahra Abbas, with Emily Galpern, Senior Editor of CAIR Stories

Zahra Abbas is a 20-year-old UC Davis student pursuing a degree in Political Science and Film. She is also the founder of Ahlul-Bayt Collective, an online platform focused on creativity and education of Shi’a Muslims. Currently, Zahra works for CAIR National as their Civil Rights Legal Intern. 

Emily Galpern (EG): Hi Zahra, I’m so glad to be with you today and I’m excited to do this interview with you. Thanks for being here with “CAIR Stories,” the new CAIR blog. 

Zahra Abbas (ZA): Thank you for having me! 

EG:  How did you find your start as an activist? 

ZA: When I was younger, I genuinely thought that activism was speaking up for those who do not have a voice. After a lot of years of learning and unlearning, I realized that’s not necessarily the case. It’s more about making space for people to have the opportunity to speak up, and not speaking over or for them. It took a while for me to fully understand the concept of activism and advocacy and how I represent myself in that sphere. 

What really started it for me is that, as a Shi’a Muslim woman, I have a unique perspective on words like injustice and oppression. Specifically, something that Shi’a Muslims and many others commemorate is the month of Muharram. It’s basically a two month-long commemoration of the grandson of the Prophet, Imam Hussein (peace be upon him) who risked everything to fight the oppression and injustice that was happening during this heightened political time. This is a story I’ve learned since I was young, and it translates into the passion I have for activism today.

For example, I’ve done a lot of advocacy with California [ballot] propositions, and I’ve noticed that I need to fully understand the depth of each proposition and how it’s directly affecting people. So instead of reading about it on Ballotpedia [online website] and trying to consume all that information, I realized that just going out to the communities and talking to them, understanding what they’re going through and how this will directly affect them, is the most important thing to me. So whether it was rent control, or about cash bail, I wanted to talk to these communities and say, “Let’s have a conversation about it, break it down and see what we can do together.” I think that’s a really important part of activism, because even if you’re trying to do something, whether you’re affecting one person or 100 people, it’s still helping people in the end, and you’re spreading the message of kindness and fighting against oppressive systems.

EG: I love what ties both of those things together. It seems like in terms of what you realized about being an activist, and also around the election, both were about supporting people to find their own voices. You wanted to hear directly from people, how they’re impacted or what they think. In what places have YOU not been heard? 

ZA: Because of the perspective I have as not only a Muslim woman, but as someone who is trying to pursue politics and studying it, I’m often seen as the underdog or someone whose opinion is not necessarily important and can be shared later. I used to show a lot of self-doubt that had been instilled in me from the people around me and the environment I was surrounded with. I realized the only person that’s going to stand up for me and help me bring out my voice is myself. Through that process, I was like, “I’m going to make my space and I will demand it because no one’s going to give it to me.” Those who are privileged enough to assist you in making that space for yourself are important to the process of inclusivity. This especially goes for both Muslim and non-Muslim men who have that power to make space for us. 

EG: You’re taking a very powerful stance and being creative and courageous. Earlier you said you created the Ahlul-Bayt Collective.What inspired you to start it, what are the goals of the Collective, and what does it actually look like? 

ZA: Yes! So the Collective is basically an online platform for Shi’a Muslims and allies to submit their work and have it published on the website. One factor that inspired me was that there was no mainstream platform for Shi’a Muslims by Shi’a Muslims. As a minority sect within Islam, it’s definitely hard to find representation. I took a trip to Boston in February, and I went to this gorgeous museum with Islamic art. I noticed that a lot of prominent Shi’a history and names were blacked out, as if there were stories that weren’t meant to be seen. 

Islamic art is so revolutionary because of its powerful portrayal of our history. That inevitably made me start thinking about all of this and how I need to make a space for people to share their art, and dissuade the narrative against Muslims in general and Shi’a Muslims in particular. So, my goal is to keep building this safe space. Especially for minorities like myself, it is very difficult to express ourselves and our struggles. What I hope to see is at least one person who is taking something away from it, whether you are Muslim or not; you see a piece of artwork that’s really captivating to you, and if there’s something that touches you and makes you want to learn more, educate yourself or ask more questions, then I feel like I’ve done my job. And we’ve done that, which is so incredible. I hear stories from Pakistan to France about Muslims and what they’re facing and the international community in which we’re in. I hope inshaAllah more will come and happen with more attraction to the website and the projects we work on. 

EG: I can’t wait to see the website! I know that you were involved with youth programming with CAIR-SFBA. Was there any part of that that inspired what you’re doing now?

ZA: Yes. I did the youth program with CAIR in my senior year of high school. Normally that’s the time where your family and friends are like, “Oh, so you have the rest of your life figured out, you want to go to college, you know what you want to pursue…” And for me specifically–and maybe a lot of people can resonate with this–I did not know what I wanted to do. I was like, “Yes, I want to pursue politics, but in what capacity? How would I do that? Am I even smart enough to analyze these things?” It was a lot of confusion and self-doubt. And so when I applied to the youth program for CAIR, I thought, “I don’t think I’m gonna get in.”

But I got accepted, and I had the opportunity to “run for” [state Senate] president and got to debate on topics and see some vital politics. I figured out that making policy is not as easy as I assumed, there’s a lot of steps that go into it, but it’s so beneficial for people in communities around you.

EG: Wow, that’s great to hear about how that went for you. So you said that was when you were a senior in high school. Where are you in your life now, and what are involved with at the moment?

ZA: I am in my junior year, going to UC Davis, studying Political Science and minoring in Film. I’ve been researching grassroots organizations and what they do and how they directly help the communities. I’ve found myself wanting to volunteer more frequently, and do things like hot meal runs. My friend Shania and I are actually attempting to set up a community fridge somewhere in a low-income area. I know it’s quite difficult, but hopefully we will figure it out. At this time, especially being home quite often, I’ve done a lot of reading and a lot of research on advocacy. 

EG: As a Muslim woman, what have been your struggles to be taken seriously?

ZA: I had quite a lot of challenges with the Collective when it came to working with the people that I wanted to connect with and build it. Many people who are running similar organizations in the Shi’a Muslim sphere are men. A lot of these men, when I spoke to them, they were quite unsure if I would be successful. The doubt came as no surprise, I’m kind of used to that. It definitely took a lot of courage to get out of my comfort zone. I genuinely think the biggest piece of advice is having a strong support system and surrounding yourself with people who are very supportive and kind. 

EG: I just keep thinking throughout the interview that you have a lot of courage and have stood on your confidence and having community. It’s so great that you have built that for yourself. In what ways do you hope to see the Muslim community or conditions for Muslims in America move forward in 2021? 

ZA: It’s unfortunate that I see the Muslim community now as very divided. I’ve reflected a lot and realized that if there is Islamaphobic rhetoric or Shi’aphobic rhetoric, it genuinely does not matter if you’re Sunni or Shi’a. Because they [non-Muslims] look at you as an enemy, they look at you as a threat. 

And the sectarian issues that I see so often with Shi’aphobia and all things related, it genuinely needs to stop. Everyone really needs to educate themselves on harm reduction and all the targeting. Even starting the Collective, I was called some pretty nasty names by many Muslims. Imagine, me demanding a safe space for Shi’a Muslims is causing so many issues. Like wow, it’s the bare minimum and I’m being scrutinized for it. Although, I remind myself that the conditions in the US are not as bad as the conditions abroad. I know that I struggle with my identity in the face of scrutiny by other sects, but I understand that instead of complaining about the representation that I don’t have, I need to start representing myself and making that space for myself and the people around me. No one’s going to do it for me. One thing that I hope that everyone takes away from the Collective and in general is that we should treat each other with the same kindness and respect that Islam shows us. No matter who you are, what background you come from, you are always welcome in these spaces and you’re safe and loved.

EG: I love that. I think that’s the second time you mentioned kindness. 

ZA:  I just think it’s such a simple thing that everyone has, and you don’t know anyone’s story really. So you might as well treat them with the kindness you can. 

EG: Is there anything else you want to say or share that we haven’t talked about?

ZA: Although there are so many influences within my family and friend groups, I wanted to say that my biggest influence as of right now is a community! For me, that’s the Black community. I think it’s really cool and amazing what we have seen this year and continuously in terms of  revolutionary rhetoric. Just by educating myself and learning and unlearning a lot of different things, I understand that they deserve so much more credit than what is given. I’ve read a lot of books by Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and learned more about abolition; it all came from Black Muslims and feminists and all these incredible people. I look at that and I thank them for everything they’ve done. They’ve really paved the way and given me the motivation to step out of my comfort zone and be outspoken. And thank you for interviewing me. I really appreciate it!

Check out the website at ahlulbaytcollective.org to see some great work by Shi’a Muslims, and if you’d like to get in contact with Zahra feel free to message her on instagram @zahra.abbassss or contact her via email at zaabbas@ucdavis.edu

Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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(11/25/2020)