Building Interreligious Relationships
True Grit: A Profile of Marium Mohuiddin
by Ruth Broyde Sharone
You can understand the power of one individual to make a difference when you meet 39 year-old Marium Mohuiddin – feisty, independent, and articulate – proud to be a Muslim and not afraid to take on the big issues of our times.
Her dark, expressive eyes also tell some of her story even when she is not speaking.
Marium resides in Los Angeles, where she established her own communications firm, Pracca, Inc. to serve as a consultant for small non-profit organizations especially in the area of social media. She is also a studying for her MBA in non-profit management at American Jewish University, one of only a few Muslim students on the predominantly Jewish campus.
Using her social media savvy and her wide-ranging interfaith connections, Marium recently organized an innovative series of Muslim-Jewish events in Los Angeles. Held at eight different synagogues, once a week for eight weeks, in April and May, she called it 8 Weeks of Shabbat. Her goal was simultaneously profound and simple: to have Muslim friends come and sit in solidarity with different Jewish congregations during their Friday evening prayers, to be present and to observe Jewish practice and tradition – nothing more, nothing less.
That idea arose in response to the desecration of Jewish graves in a St. Louis cemetery earlier this year, an event that openly affected Marium and other Muslims around the country. They themselves were witnessing and experiencing a sharp rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes following the recent election, the twice-attempted Muslim travel ban, and other troubling executive orders directed at minorities, generated and signed by President Trump. After word of the Jewish cemetery desecration hit the news, a group of Muslims gathered together in DC and raised upwards of $100,000 to restore the graves, a spontaneous gesture of solidarity that was deeply appreciated by Jews across America. The Muslim fundraisers rallied because, as they emphasized, “Everyone deserves to rest in peace.”
But then Marium came up with her own plan. The way she phrased it was: “Don’t write letters. Don’t send money. Just show up. Stop coming into interfaith spaces with an agenda. Come into a space to observe and to learn.”
That notion of interaction through observing and learning is one of the primary goals of The Guibord Center, an interfaith organization where Marium works as the Operations Consultant, and also of NewGround, a local organization Marium joined as a fellow three years ago.
NewGround was formed in 2007 by two Los Angeles organizations, one Jewish and one Muslim, and originally funded by a liberal Jewish activist/philanthropist, Wally Marx. If Jews and Muslims can truly get to know one another, they believed, they can eradicate stereotypes and prejudices they had acquired and nurtured for decades, especially concerning the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
As written in their mission statement, “NewGround envisions an America where Muslims and Jews are empowered to create lasting partnerships, engage in authentic communication and mutual cooperation. This vibrant model of engagement – not bound by history, theology or politics – affirms that conflict is inevitable and yet not intractable.”
Their plan was simple enough: to create a safe, intimate space for young Muslim and Jewish professionals to interface, listen, and ultimately to re-examine their dearly held beliefs. Simple enough, on the surface, but ultimately very challenging. It demanded a certain kind of rigor, honesty, and self-examination to which most of the participants had never before been asked to submit. As a result of her participation in NewGround, Marium had a revelation. She uncovered, in her own words, “some deeply hidden anti-Semitic notions.” It’s something she believes she had carried with her from childhood.
Marium, in her signature style of refreshing candor, has been vocal about her discovery, challenging others in her own community to overcome their own biases just as she has challenged herself to come clean.
Elaborating on other factors that inspired her plan to create the 8 Weeks of Shabbat, Marium recalled hearing a report on public radio that described a group of people outside of Atlanta who were trying to build a Muslim burial site but had been receiving threats. “My maternal grandparents and my father are buried on a small hill in Texas, and when I heard the news, I felt so defenseless.”
In January 2017 Marium was invited to participate in a special Muslim Leadership Initiative sponsored by the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She had a profound “aha” experience when she went to visit the Machpelah in nearby Hebron, the well-known cave where the Jewish patriarchs are buried. Today it is a much-contested site that is equally claimed and uncomfortably shared at different times of the day by Jews and Muslims. Abraham (Ibrahim, as he is known in the Kor’an) is also the founding patriarch of the Muslim faith, the father of Ishmael. “When I saw Prophet Ibrahim’s grave I could barely breathe,” Marium confessed. “I felt like some great force was leaning down on me. The weight of it was scary, overwhelming. This was the burial place of the first prophet I had ever encountered.”
Marium returned to Los Angeles and was asked by NewGround to share a story about death in their ongoing story telling series. She decided to share her experience in Hebron, and it was while she was preparing her talk that she learned about the Jewish cemetery desecration in St.Louis.
That’s when she was inspired to create 8 Weeks of Shabbat.
From Isolation to Connection
It’s helpful to know about Marium’s family background and upbringing to understand the origin of her “true grit.”
Marium was born in Canada to a Pakistani mother and an Indian father. She was taken to Pakistan when she was just one month old and then returned with her family to Canada when she was five. She has no recollection of that time at all.
Then her parents decided to leave Canada, a melting pot of many cultures, and move to College Town, Texas, where she would attend high school. She says she felt decidedly “foreign” there. “There just weren’t many ‘brown’ people around. I would look around and say, ‘Where did everybody go?’”
Not only was her skin color different. She also dressed distinctly from everyone else and had a slight Canadian accent when she spoke. The key factor in her becoming accepted among her white, primarily Christian classmates, she recollected, was because of one girl whom she fondly remembers today, Brandi Coffman, a small-town, blue-eyed, blonde.
“One day when I was sitting alone in the cafeteria at lunchtime, Brandi turned to me and invited me to join her table and her friends. I couldn’t believe my ears, so I turned behind me to see whom she might be talking to, and I realized she meant me. I accepted her invitation, and my entire life changed on that day. No one else had acknowledged me. It was so refreshing. Maybe it was her curiosity that prevailed, but that one gesture allowed me an opportunity to enter the social milieu of my school. I’ll never forget that moment,” she recalls, her eyes misty.
In 1995 she graduated among a class of 400 and, like most of her classmates, she went to Texas A & M University, where she would also face issues of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. She decided at that time to don a hijab, a daring decision which made her stand out notably. Although she began her studies in biology, suddenly, in mid-term, she changed her mind. Her closest high school friend, April, a Christian, was the editor of the campus paper, and she invited Marium to apply for a job on the newspaper. Marium applied and was accepted. “That’s when my role changed. I decided to leave pre-med and become a journalist, and that’s when I started making friends, in particular with the LGBT students. Many of them also took refuge and hung out in the office of the school newspaper – where the misfits gathered,” she says with a grin.
At the time she got a lot of blowback from the local Muslim community because of her association with the LGBT crowd, but it did not dissuade her. As a matter of fact, she volunteers frequently for Jewish LGBT activities in LA. She enjoys the irony of “a straight Muslim girl volunteering for the Jewish Queer Gala.”
Both of Marium’s sisters, one older and one younger, are married and follow a more traditional life. At 39, Marium would like to marry and have a family, but it’s clear her professional goals are important to her, as well as her commitment to interfaith engagement. Her mother, a big believer in interfaith relations, was always strong on social justice and encouraged Marium not just to become well-educated but to volunteer for worthwhile causes. She recalls while growing up that her mother would buy gifts for their Christian neighbors and often take part in local interfaith get-togethers.
Marium acknowledges that professionally she has faced both triumphs and challenges. She worked as a journalist for the Austin American Statesman for seven years and then for the American Heart Association – but they laid her off during the recession. Her father was also very ill at the time. “As a result I became more resilient. I learned how to say ‘sorry,’ because I hurt a lot of people. When you are depressed, you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. But I learned that you don’t really need that much to live. Food, shelter, and friends. I have all of those things.”
But Marium Mohuiddin has much more. She has a can-do attitude, a genius for innovation, and an ability to carry out bold ideas that can change the world.
“I had a hard time in Texas, but I’m grateful that I was the only Muslim they ever met. They were clearly influenced by me. My Christian friends learned everything they know about Islam through me. And today they are protective of me.”
That is the power of one individual to make a difference.