Ali Jafri, a University of Texas law student, says he wants to expand his classmates' view of Muslims and protect America's ideals of justice.
Photo by Deborah Cannon,
Web Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Tuesday, February 13, 2007. It is posted here with the author’s permission.
By Eileen E. Flynn
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Ali Jafri made some changes when he enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law last year. First, he let his beard grow. Then, he helped create a Middle East Law Students Association. In class, he regularly sports T-shirts with Arabic script and a keffiyeh, the checkered scarf often associated with Palestinian militants.
Jafri has ventured far from the Detroit suburbs, a bastion of Islam, and off the well-worn career paths he says many of his Muslims peers tend to pursue, such as engineering and medicine. Jafri’s father is a doctor.
Ali Jafri, praying inside a room at the University of Texas law library, helped create a Middle East Law Students Association. A surge in such groups creates articulate advocates for the Muslim position in a post-Sept. 11 era, a public policy expert says.
As one of only a few Muslims at the law school, he feels a responsibility to make an impression on his classmates, to “get into people’s subconscious that this is a normal guy who likes watching basketball, but he still looks like that.”
“I have an opportunity here even without saying a word to change even one person and how they think about (Muslims),” he said.
Jafri, 23, reflects what some observers believe is a post-Sept. 11, 2001, trend: Muslim college students are eschewing the career paths of their parents in favor of professions such as law, politics, journalism and the arts, which give them a greater role in the public square and in the shaping of popular opinion.
Eager to repair the negative public perception of Muslims, some Muslim leaders are encouraging college students to take courses in the humanities and political science.
Though there’s no way to quantify how many Muslims have changed career plans since the Sept. 11 attacks, community leaders across the country say they’ve seen a rise of Muslim law student and bar associations and journalism organizations, even comedy troupes.
A 2002 study conducted by Cornell University found that Muslims in the United States tended to pursue careers in engineering and medicine. Less than 1 percent of U.S. Muslims were lawyers, journalists or entertainers.
Though Muslims had achieved financial success, “it’s always been professions that don’t have an impact on public opinion formulation,” said Mohamed Elibiary, president of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, a Plano-based nonprofit public policy and education group. “In this post- 9/11 era, what the Muslim community needs more than anything is articulate formulators, advocates for its position.”
Elibiary said he’s witnessed a “seismic change” on that front.
When Farhana Khera was at Cornell Law School in the 1990s, she said, the idea of a Muslim student group was “kind of a joke.” She knew of only one other Muslim in her class.
A few years later, a group of Muslim attorneys created the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, which began a listserv, or electronic discussion list, for networking professionals that drew a couple of dozen members.
Membership steadily grew in the early years, though Khera said the organization did not closely track numbers. A significant increase came after the Sept. 11 attacks, when membership swelled to more than 500.
Khera said Muslim lawyers wanted to take a stand on issues they saw as critical not only to Muslims but to Americans in general.
Khera, who is now executive director of Muslim Advocates, a nonprofit legal aid and public policy group, said that when she was the legal counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, she noticed “a huge void in the legal and political process.” Muslims, she said, weren’t at the table during debates over the USA Patriot Act and racial profiling.
But after Sept. 11, “I think many Muslim Americans realize that the founding values of our country—freedom, justice and equality—these values were now being threatened and that . . . we cannot allow this time of fear to shred America’s promise of freedom and justice.”
Jafri talks a lot about those ideals.
He decided to pursue law school in 2005 when, he says, a man he knew from a Michigan mosque was arrested after making anti-war statements.
“I could see an injustice being done in front of my face,” Jafri said. “I just felt a feeling of helplessness. We’re supposed to be a nation of laws. . . . But people felt their rights were being infringed upon, and there was nothing you could do about it.”
As a public policy and political science major at Michigan State University, he worked last summer at Amnesty International in Washington, where he learned about legal assistance for detainees at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Jafri carries a key chain that his boss, a lawyer, brought back from Guantánamo. He takes it out to remind himself that although he struggles through courses on contract law and civil procedure at UT, eventually, he’ll be able to make a difference.
“It helps put things in perspective,” he said.
Having a law degree as a Muslim is empowering, said Austin lawyer Ian Benouis. He said people have approached him at the mosque to ask about their rights.
“There’s a lot of fear in the Islamic community,” he said.
Azhar Usman picked a different path to try to change public opinion about Muslims.
Usman, 31, who lives near Chicago, closed his law practice several years ago to become a comedian. He tours internationally, performing an act titled “Allah Made Me Funny” and is adding non-Muslim fans to his Muslim base. His standup routine turns Muslim stereotypes on their head.
Usman says that if his immigrant father had failed as a veterinarian in the United States, he would “have been on a boat back to India. If I fail miserably, I go live in my parents’ basement in Skokie, Illinois.”
Entertainment can be as effective as public policy in terms of changing opinions, Usman said. He pointed to a new Canadian TV show, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” as a hopeful sign as U.S. Muslims await their version of “The Cosby Show.”
Even though their numbers are increasing in the law profession, some Muslims still feel isolated.
Taleed El-Sabawi, a first-year student at UT’s law school, said Jafri is the only other Muslim she knows of in her first-year class of 400. It can be a lonely experience, she said. The Muslim law student association, which was active for a few years, no longer exists.
But like Jafri, El-Sabawi keeps her eye on one of the main reasons she pursued law: the ability to give back when she graduates. She hopes to join professional organizations that provide legal aid to Palestinians and other Arabs. She is also considering using her degree to advise Muslims on Islamically sound investments.
“You kind of feel the need to give back,” El-Sabawi said.
Jafri says he relies on his faith to overcome the pressures of law school. When he answers to God, he said, “I’m not going to be asked if I solved the world’s problems. I’m going to be asked if I did my part to make a dent.”
ON THE WEB: To see lawyer-turned-comedian Azhar Usman’s act, go to http://www.azhar.com.