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How Ghazala Salam became bigots’ worst nightmare

“Terror Group Leader Appointed to School Board.”

“Jihad hopping from one Islamist Group to Another.”

These are the headlines that followed Ghazala Salam, a Muslim woman in Broward with an always sunny disposition, as she became a well known advocate for tolerance and inclusion of the Muslim community in post-9/11 America.

The headlines ran in the extreme right-wing Frontpage Mag, and the articles were written by Joe Kaufman, a Republican candidate for Congress who lost in the recent elections.

Islam has always been a part of her identity, though not the defining one. But the deluge of cyberbullying has made it increasingly central.

Today she is owning her role as a modern, practicing female Muslim – and her ability to change people’s perceptions of what it is to be Muslim-American today.

Call to action

Salam was born in India and moved to Philadelphia when she was young. Though she attended Catholic girls school there, she never felt discriminated against. Her family moved to South Florida when Salam was in high school to be closer to their large family.

Salam was involved in the local mosque, fasted for Ramadan, and observed the tenets of the faith. She married another Muslim and had children. For many years she was focused merely on raising her children and her career as an entrepreneur and working in hospitality.

But then 9/11 happened. Watching and feeling the rising discrimination against Muslims, she felt called to action.

“I saw there was a gap, a need, not a lot of women speaking out, or men for that matter… I just saw career professionals, imams, not regular everyday, people talking about their experiences as Americans, so I felt called to share my experience of being an American Muslim,” she explains.

She joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) on their civil rights advocacy team, which revealed to her the full extent of discrimination, civil rights violations, and policies out there that disenfranchised the community.

For the last 15 years, Salam has climbed her way up through the tiers of social advocacy. She was the first Muslim woman to be appointed to Broward County’s Women’s Hall of Fame,  she holds a position with the Commission on the Status of Women and Broward’s League of Women Voters. In 2015, she was chosen to lead an advisory committee on diversity with the Broward County School Board.

Becoming a target

Because there are few Muslim women in South Florida who put themselves out there, Salam’s rising notoriety has made her more of a target. The first articles attacking her came out three years ago.

“The more vocal I became and the more community engagement I started to have, that caught their attention and they wanted to stop me.  They called all of the places that appointed me and said I needed to be removed for infiltrating my faith into the system,” Salam said.

Once she received the appointment for the school board, the attacks grew louder, more intrusive, and more intense.

While at home one day, she received a call from an attorney leaving the Broward County Courthouse to let her know that there were groups of protesters outside with signs saying that Salam was a terrorist.

“For most of 2015 and 2016, there were people stationed outside the Broward County Courthouse calling me a terrorist and that’s all they were doing, passing out pamphlets about me and saying that Islam is the devil’s religion,” said Salam.

Not backing down

The cyberbullying has only strengthened her resolve. In 2016, she ran Get Out the Vote initiatives for Muslim-Americans, including a phone bank and training at her home.

Through this work she’s become friends with Dr. Leonarda Buike Duran, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Florida.  The two women traveled to Philadelphia together as delegates for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and Duran has invited Salam to speak on several panels.

“She was very smart and caring and opened a big door so that everyone there could realize what a beautiful religion Islam is,” said Duran.

“Opening up as a person and showing that we are all concerned with the same things, the same issues, that we are all human beings is what helps people get over the fact of not knowing,” Salam says.  “People are more easily swayed to believe negative things about Muslims if they have never met one.”

For the last six years Salam has organized the Day of Dignity event to provide services and activities for the homeless ran by a team of mostly Muslim volunteers. Serving hot meals, creating a reading area for children, donating groceries, clothing, shoes and school supplies, blood and HIV testing are some of the activities that take place during this day of free services for the homeless in a public park.

“People were amazed by the Muslim community volunteers who ran the event,” she explained. “’Is everyone here Muslim? I had no idea you all were so great’ is the type of comment I hear every year.”

Next up: a national platform

Salam is now focused on building a nationwide Muslim caucus. She was able to meet and network with other Muslim-American delegates at the DNC and they are planning to meet in Washington D.C. this month.

“The Muslim community is so diverse – we come in all colors, Chinese, blonde and blue eyed, Arabs, Indians, etc. It’s not about religion at all, it’s for people to see us as a community.  When we see the discrimination, xenophobia, hate crimes, it is because they are Muslim.  In that respect, we have so much in common and coming together will make us stronger.”

By Maya Ibars
Maya Ibars is a human rights lawyer and a writer. She grew up in Miami and has lived in New York, Chicago, Paris, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro and Hanoi. She is passionate about the arts and social change.