On the record: Asra Nomani

May 3, 2007

Asra Nomani came from India to the United States when she was four years old, settling with her family here. She has spent her career as a journalist with the Wall Street Journal and as an author, writing books on Islam and the East, including one, “Standing Alone at Mecca,” that focuses on her pilgrimage to Mecca as a single mother. Nomani was a close friend of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, and will be co-teaching a Georgetown seminar investigating his death next fall.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has confessed to the murder of Daniel Pearl. What else is there to find out?

The question is still who killed Danny, and why did they kill him. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed confessed to killing him, and Omar Shaykh was convicted of kidnapping and murder of Danny. But nobody from the investigators or the family has gotten evidence that Khalid Shakyh was one of the killers. In old school journalism, you need to have the facts. We don’t have the facts of who murdered Danny, or why they murdered him. Having seen Danny that day, that afternoon, before he went to that interview, before he was kidnapped, I know that he didn’t have a smoking gun. He was just a really great reporter chasing a lead he had that day—it wasn’t where Osama Bin Laden was located or something dramatic like that. A lot of speculation has been put out that Omar Shakyh has been tied to the [Pakistani] intelligence services. But nothing has been reported out, everybody is just connecting the dots in their mind about what might have happened.

Five years later we’re chasing the story. What I’ve basically been doing is laying out our source list, of players on the case at that time, in government, on the American side and on the Pakistani side. People have changed jobs, shifted allegiances, and I really believe that as times pass we can actually find out more about what happened to Danny.

How did the project come to Georgetown?

It’s serendipity. Since we left Karachi without Danny, and without the full truth, his families and his friends and his colleagues have wanted to get to the bottom of what happened to Danny. Since that summer of 2002, I’ve had that project in my computer, e-mailed it around to different folks. By chance, this friend of mine who I met in Pakistan knows [Professor] Barbara [Feinman Todd], and introduced me to her earlier this year. She wrote back immediately and said, ‘I love this project, I want to try and find a home for it here at Georgetown.’ I’m a professor’s daughter and I know the wheels in academia are not the fastest in the world [but] within two months time it became a course number.

Having been a student of religion, I’ve really respected the Jesuit tradition. I’ve always felt that Muslims could benefit from borrowing from the Jesuit notions of critical thinking and investigation. And so I’ve always had an appreciation for what the Jesuit tradition tries to create in terms of truth seeking. When I thought about it, I decided it was perfect fit because the Jesuit tradition is about going out into the world with the principle of finding out the truth, no holds barred, without prejudice and without any sacred cows.

What does your background as a journalist bring to your writing about Islam?

It’s not by chance that when I was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I didn’t write a single thing about Islam. I wrote about the commodities market, international trade, the airline industry, corporate America. In those 15 years working at the Journal, I was grounded in solid journalism; principles of ethics, and reporting and writing that are the highest standards in journalism. When I then started to write about Islam, I could do it grounding myself in reporting but I had a really gut and instinctive understanding about the religion and the culture. As a journalist, I don’t have issues about airing dirty laundry. I know the deal in our communities, I know the politics, I know the dynamics. There’s definitely much more for me to learn and to know but I don’t have to take an Islam 101 class. I’ve lived this global phenomenon of Islam in the 20th and 21st century. I’ve seen the influence of Wahhabism in our communities, I’ve seen the changes in our mosques, I’ve seen this whole war for hearts and minds of Muslims on all sides.

One of the important aspects of this project is that I found [between] the extremists and the moderates, there is a common agreement of distrust of the media. The people who kidnapped Danny didn’t care that he was a journalist who risked his own life trying to bring voice to Muslims, they saw him as a spy, and then they killed him. On the moderate side, I hear from local reporters and metro reporters all the time that community members don’t want to speak with them because [community members feel reporters are] going to be biased anyways, they don’t open up, and its really hard to source within the Muslim community. This mistrust is something we’ve definitely got to dismantle if we’re going to move the world forward with understanding on both side.

And then, as a woman, you’ve been an activist—and a little bit controversial—advocating a more progressive Muslim community.

That’s a compliment to say I’m just a little bit controversial. It’s difficult to take on challenging critiques of our Muslim world. ( Messengers are never appreciated till much later, or understood. What I think is vital for us to do as Muslims is really to remember the progressive values with which Islam was formed, and the degree of social challenge and intellectual challenge with which Islam was born. We need to read and take advantage of centuries of discussion that we’ve had in Muslim theology. We have to challenge some of the assumptions that we have about religion so that we can move forward in the 21st century instead of staying stuck in medieval ideas. The amount of intimidation that we’ve got in our community, the groupthink, is phenomenal. And that influences a lot of the silence of Muslims, and the fear of speaking to the media …

How do you deal with that intimidation?

If you dare to differ, you are slamming the religion and dissing it, and I think it’s quite the contrary. If we actually have an engaged debate and conversation about theology, we can honor the religion even more. A lot of Muslims have their backs up against the wall. The foreign policy and politics of the day have created that kind of atmosphere. We’re going to have to step forward from that wall and engage, and really challenge these ideas that are keeping us stuck in quicksand when it comes to progress in our community.

You’re also an American Muslim in a time when there is a lot of trepidation in America about Islam—how does that influence you?

In my 20s I would wear dresses at work, but never in front of my father. I had a life that was separate from my family life, and the two didn’t meet. Since Danny’s death and my experiences … I don’t want to contradict myself in society and in my family life. I am now comfortable in my own skin. I am grounded now in the notion that Islam is a feminist tradition, so I don’t have to feel shame about being a strong woman. I’m honest about my life, and I think those are the most virtuous principles of any religion, and so that’s how I’m able to live with myself as both a Muslim, and American, and an activist and a journalist.

I’m sorry that I’m entering this phase so late in my life, and my hope really is that younger generations of kids can come to that kind of clarity earlier. To me, the story of this Virginia Tech killing spree is so sad because, I don’t know the backstory on what happened with this kid, but I feel for him as an immigrant kid, the contradictions that he may have lived in his life, the inability to assimilate socially, the inability to get help when you need it, there’s this connection to my experience as an Muslim immigrant kid. Oftentimes, for a lot of Muslim immigrant kids, those kinds of contradictions become unhealthy and debilitating.

How are you raising your son to avoid these kinds of problems? Are you raising him as a Muslim?

My son has heard the call to prayer since his earliest days, when I would take him into the mosque with me and when he went on the pilgrimage to Mecca. He heard Allahu Akbar and his baby way of saying it was “Ababooboo.” From our travels to Greece, where we saw a little Church to the Virgin Mary to the local Synagogue in town and Hindu temples that we saw in India, I tell him that these places are all places of “Ababooboo.” That’s one of the strongest messages that I want to communicate to him, that the divine rests everywhere without prejudice for the name of the place of worship or the people who follow different theologies.

You’re also a single mother, which is frowned upon in Islam. What challenges does that bring you?

I’ve gone out on a limb by declaring my single-motherhood without shame. That’s why my dad cried when he found out I was pregnant; he was happy that I had a baby but he was so afraid of what I and my son would face. It’s been ugly at times, people have called me every name in the book. I get that just like the Christian world had to have Hester Prynn, somebody had to wear the scarlet letter and then take it off with their own decision. I’m just so lucky that I had parents who stood by me and welcomed my son into this world. I don’t even remember the person that I was before I had him. I think every mother goes through that, every father goes through that. I would not have wanted to make any other decision.

Interview by Tim Fernholz

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