Practically Fearless with Chris Girata: Episode 3, Almas Muscatwalla (Part 1)
In this episode, Chris shares in an optimistic conversation with Dallas Housing Authority Commissioner, Almas Muscatwalla. Almas reflects on how her faith as an Ismaili Muslim has influenced her work to create unity among all DFW communities. She also shares experiences as a Muslim American, especially post-9/11 and the responsibility of being an ambassador for Islam.
Q&A with Almas Muscatwalla
Chris: Welcome back to "Practically Fearless with Chris Girata." Today, I'm excited to be joined by Commissioner of the Dallas Housing Authority, Almas Muscatwalla. Beyond her role as Commissioner, she wears many hats around the DFW area including President of the Board of Directors with the Texas Muslim women's Foundation, member of the DFW Muslim Jewish Advisory Council and member of Family Gateway. She also co-founded Faith Forward Dallas at Thanks-Giving Square. Almas, I'm very glad that you're here.
Almas: I am super delighted to be here.
Chris: I would love for you to start by telling us just a bit about your background. You were not born in the US?
Chris: You got here in the late 1990s, right? Would you tell us a little bit about your journey and what brought you to the U.S.?
Almas: Absolutely. I moved to the U.S. in 1998 and the pure purpose of migrating was because I had very young kids. Their ages were five and two. We definitely knew that, at some point, when they're ready to go to a university, it's going to be the U.S. where they'd aspirie to go. In that regard, we thought it was a great idea for us to move to the U.S. when the kids are younger, grow with them and immerse ourselves into this great country that we call America. So, we've been here since 1998. I've lived in Plano since then.
Chris: What brought you to Texas?
Almas: That's a very interesting question. I think we picked Dallas in particular, because my sister-in-law lives here. My husband went to Atlanta and checked out that place, but then he thought, you know, Dallas is going to be better. Another reason was we have a very large Ismaili Muslim community in DFW. In fact, the largest Ismaili population [in the U.S.] is in Texas. Houston has the largest, then Dallas, followed by Atlanta.
Chris: So much of your work is bridge-building and bringing people together who may not have exposure to one another, to understand deeply one another. I'd love for you to start by saying a little bit about what makes an Ismaili Muslim different than perhaps other Shia. I imagine most people probably are familiar with Sunni. Explain where the differences really are.
Almas: Yeah, I think that's a very important distinction that I always like to make. More so, because the moment I say I'm Shia, people typically relate to the largest Shia population in Iran, but we are the second largest Shia interpretation of Islam. We are diverse. We are scattered across the globe in almost 25 countries and all the population that you see in North America are all immigrants. Most of us have moved from Africa and Asia. The distinction between the Shias and the Sunni is, Sunnis believed that after the death of Prophet Muhammad, Allah did not appoint a successor, but as far as the Shias believe, Allah did ordain a prophet to declare a successor, which according to the Shias, it was his son-in-law, Ali, who was the first Imam. The Shia Ismailis are the only interpretation of the Shia tradition which has a present living Imam. He has two titles - His Highness and Aga Khan. Across the globe, he's making strides in building bridges. When you talk about building bridges, honestly, that inspiration comes directly from my faith. So the distinction is about believing in the notion of Imam and the authority of the Imam. This notion of authority is not just a secular idea. There's esoteric and spiritual connotation to it, which means he was not appointed, but it is a spiritual lineage. One Imam designates the next Imam.
Chris: Where's he living right now?
Almas: He lived most of his life in France, in Aiglemont. The country of Portugal actually gave him the seat of Imamat. So, just like the Pope sits in the Vatican, His Highness has an office in Portugal. He pretty much runs his entire Aga Khan development network, which is the second largest private, nonprofit organization that he has established. He can run that from that office in Aiglemont.
Chris: It does sound like much of the work you have been doing in the DFW area for the last 25 years is work that's directly inspired by your faith.
Almas: Absolutely. When I served as the Executive Director with Faith Forward Dallas, I offered my services in a volunteer capacity. I was just offering my time, knowledge and my expertise without getting paid. I think what is interesting is that if you were to go to any place in the world, you will find an Aga Khan Council, or the Ismaili Council, which is the social governance body of the Ismaili Muslim community and their role is to support the community in a fashion that they become self-sufficient, so they're able to offer their time and knowledge to the larger community. The whole purpose is that when I migrated, I had people guiding me on which school I should be sending my kids to. The whole support system in terms of my spiritual, my intellectual, my educational, physical – and even to select what kind of ISD my kids should go to -- someone who has already done that prep work, for me. All I'm doing is following some of the direction that was given by Ismaili council. If you're guided by a faith tradition, and if you have such a strong support system, then your natural instinct is to give back that time and knowledge that you have accumulated back to the community. That's exactly what I've been doing. I can tell you, I think it has been an awesome, amazing journey so far.
Chris: So, of all the things that you've done in the DFW area, what would you say is most fulfilling or what do you look back on and have perhaps most gratitude or think it had the most impact? I'd love to hear highlights of some of the things that you've done.
Almas: I absolutely want to be vulnerable here and say that I struggled to make a distinction between justice and peace. I always used to kind of rate peace higher than justice. Harmony and peace was important. So it's okay if sometimes justice gets compromised. That's a very early part of my journey. Obviously, the creation of Faith Forward Dallas has definitely been my highlight, because I think what Faith Forward Dallas has done is brought all the different faith traditions together, faith leaders together and has encouraged them to actually extend their idea of their faith beyond their congregations and offer it to the larger community. To be able to actually extend themselves outside of their own distinct nests and find a common ground has been a joy to watch.
Chris: You've been doing this for quite a while in Dallas. I have to think, just to place myself in your shoes, coming here in the late 90s and 9/11 happened a couple of years later. As a Muslim American, that had to have shaped so much of what you have become. My own experience was, I did a lot of world religion, comparative religion and when 9/11 happened, I knew a lot about Islam, and immediately was able to clarify for friends who knew nothing, that Islam is grounded in peace. Over and over and over again, that is what is taught, and that a particular group of people who take that idea, and twist it and pervert it and make it extreme is not everyone else within the tradition. But I was also not Muslim and so it was a little easier for me to speak about it because I was not feeling any sort of judgment or violence against me or anything like that. How much of that shaped what you then did over the last 20 years?
Almas: I like to convert all my adversities into opportunities. While it seemed like a disaster for Islam, it also gave a lot of opportunities for us to be able to share with the world what Islam is. I remember distinctly His Highness, his visit to Houston around the time. In his guidance, he talked about being the ambassador of the faith of Islam. It's very typical that one knows how to practice one's faith in the four walls or even to the larger community. One knows that really well, but suddenly, you've been charged with this responsibility to be the ambassador of your faith, and not only articulating what your faith stands for, because you can speak one way, but also living it out so that your actions really exemplified who Muslims are and what Islam stands for. That was not something that I had experienced growing up in India. Even there, Muslims are the minority. It was a milestone event in my life, and all Muslim's lives.
Chris: I have to think that's both an opportunity and a frustration for any one person, to be put in a position to speak for an entire, very diverse, group of people that others might think is homogenous, or monolithic and they are not. That's got to be difficult.
Almas: Even today, in Afghanistan, the whole government is vulnerable to Al Qaeda. Now, if you're gonna say, what happens in Saudi Arabia, and what happens with Al Qaeda, is what Islam is -- then you have to take on the responsibility of constantly challenging those notions. In some cases, those voices are larger and louder than maybe some of the other Muslim voices that may have a whole different interpretation of Islam and they may be exemplifying it a whole different way, but then the media doesn't cover that. We haven't recovered from that. We can say that we converted that adversity into opportunity, but it has still not given us the fruits that we're still seeking for. We still see so much of Islamophobia and the fear that people carry.
Look for Part II of this conversation. It will post in two weeks on November 15.