How to Change a Million Minds in 15 Minutes

Islam in the Public Square
Town Hall Seattle
October 29, 2016


By Randolph Urmston, Attorney

Our next speaker Varisha Khan is a student at the University of Washington. Born in Dallas, Texas, to a middle class American Muslim family and raised in Woodinville, Washington, Varisha is a junior at the University of Washington, with a double major in Journalism and Political Science. She is the founding director of the Middle Eastern Commission in the Associated Students of UW. As one of six American Muslim delegates from Washington State attending the 2016 Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Philadelphia, PA, Varisha was among the youngest members of this year’s delegation of about 100 members. Motivated by her experience growing up in a national climate that has become increasingly hostile toward American Muslims, she plans to pursue a career in public interest law after graduation. The title of Varisha’s presentation is, How to Change a Million Minds in 15 Minutes.

How to Change a Million Minds in 15 Minutes

By Varisha Khan, Senior, University of Washington, major in Political Science and Journalism

Thank you so much, Randy for the kind introduction. I want to thank Bishop Greg Rickel and the Bishop’s Committee and all the amazing sponsors for organizing this important dialogue today.

Good morning, Assalamualaikum, and peace be with you all.

My name, is Varisha Khan, and I am a proud American. I am a US citizen, I am a registered voter. I am an American Muslim.

As Randy mentioned, I was born in Dallas, Texas, and raised in the Seattle-area. I went to Woodinville High School, and was captain of my high school golf team.

I’m a journalist, pursuing my bachelors degree in both journalism and political science at UW Seattle.

I’m an educated, athletic, strong, independent, proud American Muslim woman, and I am in charge of my life.

I go about my everyday life motivated to pursue higher education, and give back to our society, and to our nation. because that is the teaching of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). And it’s a teaching which my parents raised me to follow.

I am just one of millions upon millions of American Muslim women who are driven by my faith to pursue higher education and to give back to society:

In fact, a 2009 Gallup Poll on American Muslims found that American Muslim women are the second most highly educated religious group of women, and are just as likely as American Muslim men to have a college degree or higher education.

As I entered professional life, my parents encouraged me to be an ambassador of my faith. They taught me to be humble and grateful for God’s blessings. They taught me to have faith in God no matter the hardships in life.

I believe in America. I’m proud to be an American Muslim. Millions of American Muslims like me, share our country’s strong family values, dedicated to raising and educating our children. And want to succeed in the traditional American way — by working hard and supporting our families. American Muslims deserve the same opportunities as all Americans — to build better futures for our families and children.

Yet unfortunately, today, good, hardworking families and children have become targets of hate attacks and hate violence. And sadly, I’ve been victim to such hate and fear myself.

It was a cloudy Tuesday morning in March, and I was on my way to a small mosque close to the UW Seattle campus to give a guided tour and presentation about Islam and social justice to about 50 grade school children who had come to visit. As I entered a parking lot in front of the mosque, a man who was walking in my direction began yelling at me. I started walking faster and with a firmer stride to get away from him, but he began following me and continued shouting. As he walked closer and closer, his yelling grew louder and louder, and my heart began beating faster and faster. I was now scared for my life in this parking lot and alley where there was no one else around to witness. After what felt like forever, the man finally walked away, and I was safe.

However, the story doesn’t end there. As I was entering the mosque, I noticed broken glass on the concrete outside, and one of the young men leading the tour with me opened the door and looked at me wide-eyed and said “We got it bad.” Little did i know that moments before harassing me, the man who had been following me had barged into the mosque and yelled nasty slurs at the children and adults inside, then ran out, grabbed a brick, and threw it through one of the windows.

Thankfully, no one had been physically hurt. But the children had been so traumatized by the attack, we had to end the event early.

What I, and those 50 children, experienced that cloudy Tuesday morning was a hate crime. And it was just one of hundreds of anti-Muslim hate crimes that happened in just the past few months. And sadly, mine was not nearly as serious as other attacks.

About two months ago, a young Muslim woman in Lynnwood posted on a Seattle Facebook group asking for help because she didn’t know what to do after coming home with a bloodied face, bruised ribs and damage to her head, after being beaten by a man who had yelled anti-Muslim slurs at her as he beat her. Imagine what it must have felt for her mother to see her daughter come home crying, with a bloody cheek, bruised ribs and damage to her head.

Just a few months ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A man was shot in the mouth by a man with a rifle after yelling anti-Muslim slurs. This man was fortunate to survive the attack.

But one Muslim child in Kansas City, Missouri, 15-year-old Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, did not make it home. A few months ago, 15-year-old Abdisamad was on his way to play basketball with his friends when was killed by man who ran him over with his truck that had anti-Muslim slurs on it.

These are hate crimes: Attacks on individuals because of race, religion, ethnicity or skin color. And since late 2014, 1-2 of hate crimes like these have been reported every single day from across the country. And that’s just what’s reported. Many more happen that don’t ever get reported.

So why? What’s causing so much hate?

Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. Again and again, we have seen waves of religiously loaded news coverage of crimes and commentary when the suspect is Muslim, result in spikes of anti-Muslim hate violence and bullying of Muslim children. A study conducted by Media Tenor of primetime news 2007-2013 found that Islam is featured in primetime news more than any other religion, and the coverage is overwhelmingly negative.

Research shows that it’s the news coverage and commentary, not the event itself, that determines how the public will react and whether members of a minority group will face hate violence. Research by University of Hawaii, University of Exeter & National Hispanic Media Coalition indicate that media content can have a direct effect on hate and prejudice against minority groups. Accurate language can inform readers, while loaded language misleads readers and fuels hate and prejudice.

This is where hate speech comes from.

And hate speech leads to hate crimes. When hate speech and conspiracy theories against an American minority (like those which were spread by Peter Zieve about the construction of the Mukilteo mosque recently) are constantly spread publicly and go unchallenged, they foster an atmosphere that causes hate crimes. Never before in our nation’s history, have reported anti-Muslim hate crimes been as high in number or in severity as in 2015.

Throughout 2015, CAIR offices nationwide received, on average, at least one daily report of hate crimes targeting an American Muslim or someone perceived to be Muslim. Dozens of mosques were burned, numerous Americans who were Muslim or ‘looked Muslim’ were shot or beaten severely. During most of these attacks, attackers uttered or expressed the same anti-Muslim slurs repeated daily in mainstream headlines and often by candidates and politicians. And we have seen more than a dozen reported anti-Muslim hate attacks in the past 6 months or so right here in our state.

Same slurs used by attackers are slurs that show up every single day in headlines in the news, every, single, day. Headlines from news sources like the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC and Seattle Times. But, these headlines are different from reality of lives and experiences American Muslims.

American Muslims are defined by our commitment to serving our society. We are defined by our service to this nation.

Over 10,000 American Muslims serve in our nation’s armed forces, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including U.S. Army Specialist Kareem Khan, U.S. Army Major James Ahearn, U.S. Army Specialist Rasheed Sahib, and U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan.

There are about 50,000 American Muslim medical doctors across the nation saving lives every day. 1 in 18 medical doctors across America is an American Muslim, who are saving lives every day.

Hundreds of thousands of American Muslims nationwide are community volunteers who, inspired by their faith, volunteer countless hours to make our country a better place. Thousands of American Muslims are public school teachers inspiring, engaging and preparing the next generation of Americans. Thousands of American Muslims are nurses providing compassionate care. Thousands of American Muslims are business people, and in the many other roles building our nation’s vibrant economy.

Yet the same slurs that the young woman in Lynnwood, the man in Grand Rapids, heard by the man who attacked her show up in the NYT and other mainstream headlines every single day.

So what’s to be done?

What if we all had the power to change media coverage, to stop anti-Muslim hate crimes by educating millions of Americans? how would it feel if you could save lives?

Each of you has that power in your pocket.

Simply send an email about what you now know about the lives and contributions of americans muslims and the rise in anti-Muslim hate to a mainstream newspaper so when they publish it, you’ll educate millions of readers.

For the Seattle Times, you should email again that’s Because your email can change the heart and mind of an editor who may be using the damaging words that cause rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. And if your email gets published as a letter to editor, you will be able to change the minds and hearts of millions of readers.

Because, in the end, it’s words that have made history. Your words can save lives. By e-mailing to editors what you now know about the lives and contributions of American Muslims your words have the power to touch millions of hearts and mobilize millions to bring change. And it’s the power of your words sent to mainstream newspapers that can counter the hate speech and stop hate crimes. And as a journalist, I know the power of words. And I know that each of you has that same power. And it’s so easy to do. The question is, will you do what it takes and use your voice to educate millions and start that change, today?

Thank you.