When My Story Became Our Story

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When My Story Became Our Story

In 1992, I took a leap of faith into a journey I’d never imagined.

I had just read the Quran in the aftermath of the first Persian Gulf War and begun practicing Islam for the first time in my life. The only Muslim I knew was my co-worker, who hailed from Malaysia. Desiring to live a life that was more congruent with my values, I left a well-paying job and an upscale apartment in San Francisco and rented a room in the home of a Muslim family in Santa Clara, living off my savings. My enthusiasm and willingness to work hard made me a popular volunteer for various Muslim organizations.

However, after surveying the work that was being done by Muslim organizations at the time, I realized quickly, from my personal relationship with Islam as I grew up in the U.S., that we had a huge unmet need to provide education to the public about Islam and Muslims. We needed ordinary Muslims to reach out to their neighbors and institutions in their local communities, instead of relying on the handful of “spokespeople” on American Islam that I saw in the mosque and at Muslim conferences.

So I decided to launch ING, an organization that, through Muslims speaking for themselves, would attempt to provide a better understanding of a faith that was increasingly vilified in the media. I soon found that the enthusiasm with which my volunteerism had been met previously now sometimes turned to distrust, fear, and even accusations that I was a spy or was seeking fame and fortune. I was also the only Muslim woman who was publicly leading an organization at the time, with no mentors to turn to.

For the next eight years I scrimped and saved to get by, sometimes running out of money to buy gas and missing meals more than I’d like to admit. But these challenges only served to strengthen my faith and resolve, making me the person I am today. And along the way I found people who believed in my cause and supported me in various ways. And alhamdullilah (praise God), the programs not only took off but grew and were duplicated all across the country.

The terrible tragedy of 9/11 changed everything. For years, many people had seen the work of ING as unimportant in comparison to political and civil issues. Both the terrible event itself, however, and the Islamophobia that emerged as a result brought a sense of urgency to the task of creating religious literacy around Islam. Interfaith work at large, a vital component to our work, also suddenly was viewed as not only legitimate but crucial.

Since that time, ING has grown into one of the largest educational organizations working with the public to provide Islamic perspectives and speakers from the Muslim and other religious communities. We now have 22 affiliates across the country that duplicate our work, with hundreds of speakers that are reaching hundreds of thousands of people each year through presentations and panels on a variety of topics.

But this was not a personal triumph; it was a communal effort, supported by those who believed in me and my mission in large and small ways across the years. I must acknowledge those irreplaceable supporters and volunteers without whose help and encouragement ING would not be what is today. As the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, “the one who does not thank people does not thank God.”

On the evening of April 20th, 2013, I will be honored to recognize some of the many people who have contributed to ING over the last 20 years. I hope you will join me in recognizing these people and celebrating our accomplishments together.

Maha Elgenaidi
Founder and President