We sat down with Arsalan Bukhari, a 2004 Seattle University finance graduate and current Executive Director for the Washington branch of the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Originally from Pakistan, Arsalan came to the United States with his mother and sister in 1990 as a ten-year old. They moved to Seattle to be closer to his uncles who relocated to Seattle after retiring from the United States military.
Arsalan smiled as he recalled being a child in Karachi, Pakistan preparing to move to the U.S. “Seattle had a reputation for being rainy, but in Karachi the rain was warm and tropical so that was what I thought Seattle would be like.” He was in for a shock his first Pacific Northwest winter.
Attracted by its small class sizes, good reputation and scholarships, Arsalan found his way to Seattle University after completing his associates degree at a local community college.
As a transfer student, Arsalan became actively involved in Seattle U’s campus life. He served as an officer in the Toastmasters Club, organized student activities, wrote an occasional editorial for the Spectator and even performed on the Quadstock main stage after his band, Irtiash, won Battle of the Bands.
“Seattle University helped prepare me for my career, especially the Albers Career Services Center. They encouraged a lot of internships, reviewed my resume and helped prepare me for job interviews,” Arsalan said.
The skills he learned as an intern and an Albers student remain relevant in his career at CAIR.
CAIR is a national Muslim civil rights organization. They defend Muslims in civil rights cases, for example, if someone is denied the opportunity to practice their religion or experiences discrimination.
In his role, Arsalan engages in proactive media work, organizes major events such as a state-level Muslim Lobby Day and works to build coalitions made up of civil rights groups, religious institutions and those in academia.
CAIR works to provide the Muslim community with political empowerment, educate the public and to teach the media how to responsibly report on the Muslim community.
The lack of representation of mainstream Muslims’ lives in the media is a national issue. According to the Gallop Poll 60-75% of national media coverage of Muslims is negative. Arsalan and his team have been working with the Seattle Times for a more fact-based realistic representation of the American Muslim community. CAIR does this through ongoing analysis of the Seattle Times articles that feature Islam, Muslims and relevant topics to see how the articles are framed, if they contain problematic words and to see if the coverage is a factual representation of the Muslim community. They then share their findings with the Seattle Times.
CAIR shared with the Seattle Times that the word “Islamist,” considered an offensive anti-Muslim slur, was used over 388 by the Seattle Times in 2012. Since they began working with Seattle Times to educate its journalists, there has been more accurate coverage of Muslims in the Seattle media.
“There’s still of lot of work needed to educate the public, especially with groups actively promoting fear,” Arsalan said. “In 2001, 40% of the American public had a positive view of Islam. In 2005 it was 41% but in December 2010 in dropped to 30%. That’s a 10% increase in negativity toward Islam attributed to the national controversy over Park 51, “the Ground Zero Mosque,” perpetuated by groups with extreme anti-Islamic agendas.
Arsalan went on to explain that the American public has a lot of misconceptions about the Muslim community. There are facts that would actually challenge those misconceptions. For example, according to a Gallup Poll, Muslim women are the second most educated religious group in the United States and Muslim men and women have the smallest pay gap of any group. Islam is also the most racially diverse religious group in the U.S.
Despite how far there is still to go in the fight for understanding and acceptance of Muslims, Arsalan is not discouraged. He finds meaning in the work they do and the difference they make. “What is most meaningful about the work we do is when we fully resolve someone’s case after they’ve been fired for religious reasons. Many people suffer because they feel they need to hide their faith,” Arsalan said.
Arsalan said that the Seattle U community can make a difference by being allies with the Muslim community. “You can affirm your values by standing up to bigotry when you see it. Hold media editors accountable for factual reporting and don’t let others divide us along ethnic or religious lines.” Arsalan conclude by saying, “The United States has so much opportunity and is the best place to raise a family, get educated and be a Muslim.”
You can learn more about CAIR and their work by visiting their website.