Becoming the Beloved Community
By: Tessa Battles
AUBURN – Sitting in a room of two hundred people, Asim Ali – a Muslim American, member of the Auburn community and volunteer facilitator of the Becoming the Beloved Community event – participates in a dialogue concerning how to combat domestic terrorism at a time when the acts of domestic massacres are only growing. Ali emphasizes the need for inclusivity and diversity, as well as the importance of not labeling others as outsiders.
Q: Would you please tell me about your experience working at Auburn University? What brought you
here and what does your career entail?
A: I was born in Pakistan and moved to the United States when I was 4. My family lived in Connecticut, New Jersey, Tuskegee, Al and then moved to Auburn, Al when I was 10. I grew up in Auburn, attended Auburn High School, graduated from Auburn University and have been working here for about fifteen years. I started working for the university as an IT guy. I had some opportunities that allowed me to
meet people that led to me to the work I do today, which is focused on engaging, online, innovative learning. People ask me if I am from Auburn and I always jokingly say “I am Auburn”. I feel like I am a part of the community to the point that I don’t know where else I would be and this is the place I want to be and this is the place that I want to work to improve.
Q: As far as growing and developing your career, especially being in the United States and Alabama, how
has being Muslim affected that?
A: For Muslims, or any minority group, I think it has a lot to do with identity. I can still remember the time in my life when I finally realized that having confidence and owning my identity is more of a competitive advantage for me than trying to pretend that I’m not different. Although I was born in Pakistan, I grew up in the South. In terms of my lived experience I’m not very different. The perception
of being seen as an outsider or “other” is what has led to the part of my experience that is different.
Q: What do you wish people knew about the experience of being a Muslim American?
A: I recognize that being in the South, people do not have a lot of opportunity to be around Muslims. Exposure to diversity is important. This is true in the aspect of race, gender, ethnicity, and all of the other societal identifiers. I don’t think that the issue lies with just Muslims, it is anyone that is different than you. We have to work hard to not “otherize” people. For example, freshmen students will ask me “Is Auburn welcoming?” When in actuality, I should be asking them that. This person, who has been in Auburn for 3 months, feels more ownership over this town than they allow me, someone who has lived here for thirty years, to have. It is important to try not to assume someone is an outsider because they are different than you even if you are coming from a place of well meaning.
Q: How did you discover the Becoming the Beloved Community event and what role did you play in this
A: I think it discovered me. I feel like I am the token Muslim for those kind of things, which is a role that I have learned to accept. I was emailed about being a facilitator of the event by Kathy, one of the copastors at the First Presbyterian Church. I’m not in any elected leadership role for Muslims or anything like that, so what I usually do with opportunities like that is share them with the local Islamic
Center. I didn’t hear anything back, so I responded by the deadline and agreed to be one of the facilitators of the event.
Q: How do you feel about being considered the “token Muslim” for events like Becoming the Beloved
A: I feel like I have to have the role, I don’t think it’s a choice. If the choice is between having a Muslim at those events and not having one I feel like it is my responsibility to be there because this is my town, this is my Auburn and this is where my kids are growing up; if I want a better Auburn it is my obligation to help build a better Auburn. I jokingly call it the Muslim tax; sometimes you have to spend a little more
time just because you’re Muslim so that people feel like they’re safe.
Q: What does “loving your neighbor in the midst of terror”- the topic of the dialogue at the Becoming the
Beloved Community event look like to you? What does this phrase mean to you?
A: I think living in Auburn, Al we find ourselves shielded from the realities of what may be happening in the world and also in the country. So, it is very easy for us to say that there are no problems because we are not living through problems. As Martin Luther King Jr. would say, “if there is injustice anywhere that is a threat to justice everywhere”. I think from that perspective, Auburn can’t be idle in the face of
knowing that there are people living in fear simply because they are a minority… A part of Becoming the Beloved Community is understanding that fear exists in different marginalized communities in different ways and having that awareness.
Q: Have you ever felt/been targeted because of your religion? If so, will you elaborate on that
A: I have but that’s not really what I like to focus on. I’ve been fortunate to have a very comfortable and good life and that is an outcome of all of those experiences. I have been overwhelmingly positively treated as well. There are times when people mistreat people, sure. I think a lot of it comes from a need for control and power. I’m not one who has to have all of the control and power, but I think that when some people feel like they are losing control and power they feel like they have to mistreat people.
Q: Ten years from now, what do you hope to see from Becoming the Beloved Community?
A: Can we (marginalized groups) get governance representation that isn’t just “oh, that one ward elected a black person”? Can we get leadership positions on city councils, boards and commissions where rules are being made? If we don’t have an equitable reputation in these areas then obviously the outcome is going to be less inclusive. The best example I can give you is that if you work at an organization where the meetings are on a Friday at noon, you’re creating a practice that disadvantages Muslims because that’s the day that Muslims pray. Are we allowing for more inclusive communities to be represented where the rules are being made, where policies are being adopted, where the practices that will impact Auburn for the next thirty years are being developed? Do we have enough representation there so that the practices are more inclusive?