Frank F. Islam is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic leader and thought leader. Frank has a special commitment to civic, educational and artistic causes. In all of his endeavors, he strives to create opportunities that are sustainable and uplifting for humanity — guided by the virtues of hard work, focus, quality, innovation and kindness.
Frank currently heads the FI Investment Group, a private investment holding company that he established in 2007 after he sold his information technology firm, the QSS Group. Frank founded the QSS Group in 1994 and built it from 1 employee to more than 3,000 employees and revenues of approximately $300M before its sale.
Frank devotes the majority of time currently to a wide variety of civic and philanthropic activities. In an exclusive interview with Danish Reyaz for Maeeshat Magazine he reflects on his experiences, and reveals how he manages an elite career and a commercial profile under intense public scrutiny.
Please tell us something about your early life, family and education.
Growing up in India had an enormous impact on the person I am today. It’s there that I learned lessons from my motherland, my faith, my family, my home city of Azamgarh, and Aligarh Muslim University.
All of those forces shaped and influenced me during my formative years. Let me tell you how.
My motherland: I love India. I love the country because I was born there and because of its art, history, music, culture and rituals. But most of all I love India because it stands as an international beacon of democracy, diversity and peacemaking.
My faith: I am a Muslim. Being a Muslim has taught me many things – but the most important one is that the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all of us. My faith firmly believes in equality, dignity, compassion, respect, tolerance, justice and peace for other faiths
My family: I grew up in a middle-class religious family as the oldest of six children. My parents taught me to: Treat people in the way that you want to be treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Work hard and aim high. Do what you can to serve your community.
My home city: I was born and spent the first years of my life in Kaura Ghani, a remote village in the Azamgarh region. The area was quite remote and inaccessible from any of the roads.
There I attended a village school where there was one teacher who taught everything and all grade levels. There were no tables or chairs. So, we students sat on the floor.
When I was 11 my family moved to Varanasi. I treasure the City of Varanasi. No matter where I am, the memory of Varanasi lingers in my mind. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is here that I learned about the richness of different religions and respect for other religions.
My university: Last, but not least of course, is Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). My days at A.M.U. have had a profound effect on me. But, overall my times at AMU was filled with charms, cheers, changes, and challenges. I still remember riding my bike from V.M. Hall to all over campus. It was an exciting time of my life, though I must admit… sometimes it was chaotic.
Since you asked me to talk about A.M.U latter in the interview, I will expand upon my fondness for this wonderful institution and my ongoing relationship to it latter in this interview.
When did you come to America?
I came to the United States from India in 1969 at the age of fifteen to pursue the American dream to go to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
At that young age, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream. But, I knew even then that being a business owner would be part of it.
I also knew that it would mean being apart from my family and developing my own career track with little parental or professional guidance. This was a daunting challenge.
But, it was also an opportunity. That’s the way I saw it – an opportunity to define myself in America, the land of opportunity.
How was life in America in those days?
Boulder is breathtaking. It sits right in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and was a beautiful place to live.
There was a sense of belonging at the University of Colorado. I didn’t feel like a foreigner. There were a number of students from other countries. So, I felt like I fit right in and belonged there.
The early days of my stay at the University were challenging. I flipped hamburgers at McDonalds to earn spending money.
The university years were an excellent part of my life. They helped me learn how to be inclusive, tolerant and give dignity and respect to others. If I had not had to struggle a little and sacrificed, I would not be the person I am today. Those years gave me strength and gave me courage.
How has it changed after 9/ll?
9/11 changed things for everyone in the United States. Before that tragic day, many of us felt invincible. After that, we became aware of our vulnerability. And, unfortunately, some Americans became more suspect of those of different colors and religions.
Who were your mentors? How much are you indebted to them?
My educational mentor was, Professor Wolfgang Thron, a professor at the University of Colorado.
Dick Bishop was my mentor in business. I can’t say enough about his tutelage. He was my boss at Raytheon. He taught me the ins and outs of managing information technology contracts with the government and inspired my entrepreneurship.
I can honestly say that without their example and assistance I would not have been able to accomplish all that I have. I am eternally grateful to them both.
How did you start the business?
I always wanted to start my own business but I knew that I needed experience first. So, I worked with two major information technology firms in the Washington DC area for a number of years. That gave me the skills and real world grounding that I needed to be a business owner.
Then, in 1994, I purchased the QSS Group for $45,000. We mortgaged our home to get the money to acquire the QSS Group.
Within 13 years, along with my management team, we took that firm from a workforce of 1 employee – me- to more than 3,000 employees and approximately $300 million in revenue.
The team of talented managers was central to everything. Success in business is a team sport. So, if you ask me how I became successful, it was not me but we who made it happen.
What was the high point of your journey?
During my ownership of the QSS Group there were many high points and only a few low ones. The lower ones were in the early years when: we weren’t earning enough to pay me out of the business and we were living on my wife Debbie’s salary; we worried that we wouldn’t get that first big contract; and; we wondered whether we would get the bank loan necessary to build and expand the company.
Those low points pale in comparison to the high points which included: working with a wonderful management team and a dedicated and talented staff; winning contracts against tough competitors; and, delivering a quality of product and service that was differentiating – one that we all could take pride in.
Our corporate motto at the QSS Group was “Performance as Promised.” That was more than a slogan it was our way of doing business.
If there was one high point, it is when the QSS Group graduated from the SBA’s small business program and went into full and open competition against much bigger information technology firms and continued to win contracts. That was proof that we were the real deal. It is the reason that Perot System acquired the QSS Group in 2007 for nearly $300 million.
My journey was not a straight line. It was not always easy. There were twists and turns. There were dark and desperate days. And, the final destination was not certain. What enabled me to prevail in my journey was a belief in my self and those around me and the opportunity presented by the American Dream. Success has taught me to move forward. As importantly, failure taught me to never go backward.
My story can only happen in America. It is America’s inclusiveness and openness that provided me ladders of opportunities to succeed. These are the strengths and values of America that all of us can proudly and truly embrace.
How has America changed since President Trump took over?
Unfortunately, the country has become more divided and much more chaotic. Moreover, in the first year of the Trump presidency, the role of the government in trying to make the nation a better place for all by striving for equality domestically in areas such as the environment, education, and employment has diminished considerably. Trump’s proposed budget also defunds support for important programs such as public broadcasting, the arts, organizations devoted to world peace and conflict avoidance.
This is not good for the future of the nation nor the world. It pushes us back into the darker and less informed and enlightened days of our American democracy.
As for the division in the country, I should be clear. Donald Trump did not create that division. He channeled it and fed it during his primary and presidential campaigns.
He saw there was a large group of citizens – conservative populists, if you will- who were extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with the direction that the country was going and anti-government as well. Bernie Sanders channeled a large group of more progressive populists who were anxious about the country’s direction and their futures but still pro-government and reflected their interests and concerns.
During his presidency, in spite of saying he would bring us together, Trump has worked diligently to maintain or increase the divisions. His tweets are a means of communicating to his base and disseminating his version of reality. His labeling the free press “fake news” is an attempt to delegitimate the country’s primary source of truthful and accurate news so that his supporters will discredit and not accept what they report.
This is all part of the chaos that is the President and the chaos that surrounds him. I am not certain whether that chaos – or at least some of it is intentional or not. I am certain that is not healthy for our country. It normalizes the abnormal and hinders forward progress.
We look to the president – as the nation’s chief executive and our commander in chief – to give us certitude and confidence, a steady hand on the wheel, and a sense of dignity and decorum. We see none of that from this President.
That apparently does not bother the 35% of the people who support him. It frightens, however, a much higher percentage of citizens here in the United States and around the world.
Do the immigrants have a future here as in old days?
Absolutely. While there is more expressed anti-immigrant sentiment today than there was a decade or so ago, that sentiment comes from a minority of individuals and groups. American remains the land of opportunity and a country unlike any other in the world. As John F. Kennedy said and titled his book, we are A Nation of Immigrants.
I had the good fortune to speak to a group of about 200 immigrants becoming American citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the JFK Library in Boston in November of last year. I told them, “When I look at you, I see America’s future. I see new recruits who will continue to push this great nation, as John Kennedy said, “to far horizons and new frontiers.”
I went on to state, “I am extremely positive about the future of America. I am extremely positive because of the courage, tenacity and indomitable spirit of you my fellow immigrants who I know are committed to being the best you can be in everything you do.”
Do immigrants have a future in the United States here? Absolutely. I would go even further and declare they are America’s future – as they have been since the founding of this country.
If you did not come to America, where would have reached now?
That is impossible to say. I came to the United States while I was attending Aligarh Muslim University I met Wolfgang Thron, a visiting college professor of Mathematics, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. He convinced me that I should go to America to pursue expanded opportunities and get a cutting edge education in the emerging field of computer science.
He was right. This was the land of opportunity for me and I have never looked back or second-guessed my decision.
As a writer, what are you working on now?
As in the past, I concentrate my writing in areas and on issues that matter to the future of America and the world. Topics that I address include: democracy, citizenship, government, business, entrepreneurship, education, innovation, manufacturing, individual economic well-being, and immigration.
I blogged for the Huffington Post from 2010 to 2017. With the change in their format, I am now posting to Medium and most recently to the Washington Monthly.
I have written two books: Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage published in 2010; and, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again published in 2013. I am considering writing a third book in this series with the working title 21st Century Citizenship: Breathing Life Into Our American Democracy that would be published in late 2019 or early 2020 before the next presidential election cycle.
I also write columns for India that are distributed through the news service Indo- Asian News Service (IANS) and have appeared in a number of prominent publications such as the Hindustan Times, Business Standard, and the Economic Times. The topics that I have written on for India include: triple talaq; A call for communal peace and harmony; freedom of the press; and, the emerging role reversal of India and the U.S. in world leadership.
What are your future plans?
I look at my life as a journey and I approach that journey as a life-long learner. As I have said many times in speeches that I have given both here in the United State and in India, my life has had three phases: Developing– my early and educational years, Doing – my business years; and Giving Back – my philanthropic and civic engagement years.
I am in the Giving Back phase now and my journey continues. I consider my life a work in progress. My future plans are to keep on keeping on and contributing what I can to make the United States and the world a better place through my civic engagement and philanthropic activities.
Why did you give such a large amount of money to Aligarh Muslim University?
The first reason is the AMU helped to make me who I am and for that I will be eternally grateful. A.M.U provided me with the basic building blocks to become a successful entrepreneur, to assume serious responsibilities, and most importantly, to become a passionate leader. Aligarh provided me with an excellent education.
As importantly, it instilled core values that have served me in good stead throughout my adult life. They include:
- A love for education
- Eternal optimism about your hopes and dreams
- Being collegial and candid towards all
- Keeping steadfast to your standard of excellence
- Living in peace and harmony by being tolerant & respectful toward the dignity of each person
The second reason is because of the wonderful work AMU has done and continues to do produce graduates who go across India and around the world to make a difference. As I told the students in my commencement address for the graduating class in 2017,
Aligarians have not only gone out across the “length and breadth of this great land,” they have gone all around the globe to make a difference. Over the years, men and women from Aligarh have made significant contributions in all walks of life – educators, politicians, poets, scientists, engineers, lawyers and yes –even a few business people.
There are currently almost 20,000 Aligarh alumni in 100 countries around the world. I am one of them.
Our paths have been different but the common and transcendent bond that has united us has been a belief in and a commitment to equal justice and shared humanity. A combination of technical expertise and moral fortitude has enabled the Aligarh graduates to make their mark in the world and to serve as positive role models for others
The third reason is that every year is producing more new graduates who are the future of India and the world. My wife Debbie and I contributed $2.75M for the building of the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex at A.M.U and the building of Frank and Debbie Islam Auditorium at the Mass Communication Department at AMU.
At the dedication of the complex in February of 2017, I stated, “While the bricks and mortar are important, far more significant is who will be in and what will go on in this setting. It will be a place for sharing of information and imparting and development of knowledge. It will be a space where faculty and students can collaborate on innovative project. It will be an educational empowerment zone.”
I went on to predict that “From this Management Complex will come the future leaders who will make India and the world a better place.”
If you will notice, I used the word “leaders” rather than managers, or executives – or even business owners or entrepreneurs. That is because leaders play a special role in making society and the world a better place.
An American saying goes, managers do things right. Leaders do the right thing. That should be true in all fields – government, religion, health care, education, and yes – even business. The problem is that we have too many people in leadership positions today that do not do the right thing.
I am certain that will not be the case for the AMU graduates who study in that Management Complex. I am confident that will be true because of AMU’s values, vision and proven performance.
Why are you engaged in philanthropic activities?
I engage in what I call purposeful philanthropy. I look at the contributions that I make to organizations, groups and individuals that I support here in India and in the U.S. not as charity but as investments.
Those philanthropic investments are directed at helping to make a difference in pivot point areas that matter to the future of society. The returns on those investments are positive changes to problematic conditions and/or the creation of individuals who will become change agents.
The distinction between purposeful philanthropy and charity is a critical one. The focus in charity is to provide a handout. The focus in purposeful philanthropy is to provide a hand-up.
There certainly must be charitable support and assistance to address problem areas and the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged. The handout approach, however, has serious limitations. It does not get at the root cause nor change the underlying reason for the need for the charity.
By contrast, purposeful philanthropy concentrates on improving circumstances and conditions. This hand-up approach can take a wide range of forms ranging from eliminating contaminated water that poisons those who drink or bathe in it to enhancing the safety of working conditions to developing the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, attitudes and behaviors for a person to be successful in life.
Tell me what areas your foundation focuses on?
The priority areas for my wife Debbie and myself through our Frank & Debbie Islam Charitable Foundation are education, arts, world peace, and civic engagement.
We have chosen those areas because they are important to us and because I know that improvement in them can make a substantial difference. The short reasons for picking and investing in them are as follows:
- Education is the great equalizer and opportunity creator. It moves people up the ladder and to help others climb the ladder with them. It is the gift that keeps on giving. Our educational investments here in the United States include support for scholarships and financial support to institutions of higher education such as the University of Colorado, American University, Marymount University and Montgomery Community College. My most significant investment though has been in India where in Feb 2018 my wife Debbie and I dedicated the Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex at Aligarh Muslim University.
- As President John F. Kennedy said, “Art nourishes the roots of a culture.” It connects and inspires citizens and communities. It has a unifying and healing power. Art represents the best of our humanity. We have made a seven-figure investment in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
- We are living in an increasingly dangerous world and turbulent times. World peace is essential for the future of this planet. There is a deadly conflict now and threats of it around the globe which must be controlled. Recognizing this, we support the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. We made a $1M investment in USIP.
- India and the United States of America are the world’s two largest democracies. Civic engagement is essential to keep those democracies vibrant and vital. We have given money to preserve the freedom of the press both here and in India, to think tanks such as the Brookings Institution that do research and develop policy papers, and to political candidates.
- Our foundation fund fellowship for Indian Journalists to come to Missouri School of Journalism for six months. Our foundation has joined hands with Alfred Press Partners (AFPP) to administer this fellowship. During six-month program, the fellow will: gain experience in reporting, editing, and editorial decision-making that will enhance professional performance; secure a practical understanding of the function and significance of the free press in American society; acquire first-hand knowledge of the industry’s technological advances; and develop the skills to transfer knowledge to colleagues at home in India.
I name these pivot point areas for illustration purposes only. Each citizen must choose an area or areas that matters to them for their purposeful philanthropy.
The essential thing is to make that choice and to invest. The size of that investment isn’t what counts. The act of investment not only of money, but also of time and talent is what does.
Tell me about your civic engagement activities?
In my opinion, there are five forms of civic engagement. They are individual, organizational, political, community, and social.
Let me define each of those forms briefly
- Individual Engagement is being the best one can be and personally responsible for one’s actions
- Organizational Engagement is contributing to the success of the groups to which one belongs such as the place where one works, the place where one worships, and the places of affiliation.
- Political Engagement is participating in those processes that shape the structure and nature of government
- Community Engagement is collaborating to make the locale and the world in which we live a better place
- Social Engagement is advocating for justice and equality of treatment and opportunity for all
Those definitions may be a little abstract. Let me add some meat to the bones by sharing a little about my own civic engagement.
- My individual engagement began in India at AMU where I got the quality education that helped me become the best that I can be. I continued that education and got two degrees at the University of Colorado in the United States where I came here to pursue the American dream. With that preparation, aiming high, hard work, and assistance from others I was able to achieve that dream
- My organizational engagement centered on starting my own information technology business, the QSS Group. I did that after learning the profession at two other firms. With the help of key managers and employees, in the brief span of ten years, we built the Group to over 3,000 employees and a volume of $300 million before selling it to Perot System in 2007.
- My political engagement began as soon as I was old enough to vote. For many years, my involvement in the political arena was simply voting in elections. As my business grew and after I sold it, I got much more involved politically contributing to campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels, serving on finance committees for candidates, and developing policy papers in my areas of expertise such as small business, education, and economic development.
- My community engagement was driven in response to another call from John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy said, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
I understand this requirement and since selling my business have made a major commitment to community and social involvement. My community involvement is concentrated primarily on higher education.
- My social engagement takes a number of forms. I have written two books – Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage; and, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again. Both books are focused on reducing inequality and strengthening the social fabric of the United States.
As part of my civic engagement, I serve on a number of boards and advisory councils including: the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art, the JFK Library, American University in Emirates, Marymount University, John Hopkins University, and the Brookings Institution.
Most importantly, at the beginning of this year I established the Frank Islam for 21st Century Citizenship which will be funded through my foundation, Potomac Charities.
The Institute has been created to address an increasing civic engagement deficit in the United States and upgrade the concept of citizenship for the challenges and opportunities of our times.
The Institute will provide information and assistance targeted at closing this civic engagement gap. In 2018, the Institute will have two key functions:
- Issuing a monthly newsletter comprised of five sections, highlighting civic pivot points; civic learning and engagement in the classroom; civic communities; active citizenship; and top readings in the civics arena.
- Making Civic Engagement Championawards of $5,000 each to three middle school teachers in disadvantaged communities who are making a difference with their students in the classroom and beyond.
In this first year, the Institute will also collaborate with other organizations to seek joint solutions for the civic engagement deficit. The work and progress of the Institute will be highlighted in future issues of our newsletter
What do you see as the major issues in the United States today?
There are numerous issues that are problematic including increasing inequality, America’s gun lobby being much too influential, the crumbling infrastructure – especially in our inner cities – and many others. But, the overriding issue for me is our declining American democracy. There is substantial evidence that we are in serious decline.
Freedom House is the authoritative source for examining and evaluating democracies world-wide. In its annual report titled Freedom in the World 2018 released in January of this year, it noted that the United States aggregate Freedom score rating on a scale of 0-100 went from 95 in 2010 to 86 in 2017.
The score fell from 95 to 89 during the eight years of Obama administration and went down an additional 3 points during the first year of the Trump administration. There is no question that what has happened or not happened under presidential leadership and the dysfunction and bipartisan bickering within the Beltway over the past six years accounts for much of the downward movement on the Freedom House metrics.
But, all of the blame for this decline should not be placed there. Instead, we need to look at who we are as citizens to recognize that the blame must be shared. Various recent studies showed that:
- Nearly 50% of all Americans were not fully committed to America’s representative democracy
- Among millennials, one in six felt it would be a “good” or “good” thing for the “army” to rule the country
- Only about 1/3 of those surveyed could name which party controlled each chamber of Congress
Combine these stunning statistics with the low turnouts of eligible voters in national, state and local elections, with young people voting in recent elections at lower rates than in the past forty years, and it should become evident to even the casual observer that American democracy is at risk. The question becomes what to do about it.
The answer I think is that we need to revive the democracy over time. This can best be accomplished by placing civic learning and engagement at the center of our educational system for future generations. Note that I said civic learning and engagement and not civic education.
The provision of civic learning and engagement opportunities is important at all points along the educational continuum from middle school through high school to college. It must begin in middle school, however, because that is where a citizen’s primary values, attitudes and beliefs are formed. That is why I am placing the primary focus of the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship that I discussed earlier on that point on the continuum.
What do you see as the major issues in India today?
I stay in close touch with India. I usually visit my motherland at least once a year for a period of two to three weeks or so. As in the United States there are many issues such as a lack of economic development and disparities in wealth from region to region; climate change and pollution control; and, the need for more freedom of the press. But, the three issues that are top of mind for me are: empowerment of women; higher education for Muslims and those in the weaker sections; and, increased communal peace and harmony throughout the country. Let me elaborate briefly on each of these.
Empowerment of Women
Various studies have shown that women entrepreneurs in India are among the most disadvantaged in the world. In spite of an increase of women business owners and operators over the past several years, entrepreneurship in India still remains a male bastion.
A recent study found that only 14% of Indian business establishments are run by females. The same study disclosed that most of the women-run businesses get very little support from financial institutions with about 79% being self-financed
A second study found that India ranked 70th out of 77 countries in terms of female entrepreneurship. And, a third study ranked India 49th out of 54 countries in terms of women’s advancement outcomes.
This is a powerful indictment of the current state of affairs that needs to be changed.
In my opinion, there is an empowerment continuum with three points on it:
- Dependence in which a woman has no power or control over her life or outcomes
- Independence which is the mid-point where a woman has developed the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and attitudes to be liberated and self-actualizing
- And, interdependence where a woman is empowered to sit in full equality with men to influence and make decisions and establish directions for a family, a business, a community, a region, or a nation.
How do we collaborate to help create a state of interdependence for women in India? I recommend doing it by applying a 3-E formula: Those E’s are education; enlightenment; and entrepreneurship.
These E’s are intertwined. And, I could go on at length on each of them. Suffice it to say that this process must begin with education and be integrated to ensure the desired end state of interdependence. I think this can be accomplished by:
- Educating and empowering women to become entrepreneurs
- Ensuring adequate financial resources to support their entrepreneurial ventures
- Providing mentoring to promote success in the entrepreneurship
Higher Education for Muslims
The second area that I think needs intensive attention and action is higher education for Muslims.
It is not a secret that Muslims in India are socially, educationally and economically disadvantaged. What is a secret or a surprise I would say, for those of us American Muslims who have invested time and money to try to help reduce that disadvantage, is the relative lack of progress that has been made for our brethren in India.
The well-known Sachar Committee Report issued in 2006 identified a development deficit for Muslims and those in the weaker sections. The Report set out recommendations for closing and eventually eliminating that deficit.
It would seem that things were on the right path for the Muslim community. Unfortunately, as a report titled Six Years After Sachar issued in 2013 by the U.S. India Policy Institute in Washington, DC revealed that is not correct. Progress has been exceedingly slow and in some case things has been moving backward – that is especially true when it comes to higher education..
Only 11% of Muslims in India pursue higher education compared to 20% of Hindus, 31% of Christians and a national average of 18.8%. In rural India, only 6.7% of Muslims entered higher education.
Those are bad numbers for Muslims. Worse yet is the fact that Six Years reports that “the general category of Muslims in higher education” has seen a 1.5% decline between 2004-2005 and 2009-10.
This problematic situation must be rectified. India needs to focus like a laser beam on ensuring appropriate educational opportunities at the level that brings citizens into the social and economic mainstream. That level is higher education.
By higher education, I don’t mean just 4 year colleges or universities. I include technical, vocational and professional education at the secondary and post-secondary levels.
Education in those areas also provides avenues for participation in 21st century careers, the competencies to compete in a globally economy, and the capacity to contribute to lifting fellow Muslims out of poverty and deprivation. Higher education is the bridge to the future for those who are currently trapped in the shackles of the past
Communal Peace and Harmony
The third area that I would signify upon is that of communal peace and harmony. Last year there was a spate of incidents in India with Hindu vigilantes attacking and killing Muslims. There were other isolated cases in other regions of India.
This type of ugly and intolerant behavior by some people does not represent the character of a country that has been a shining symbol of secularism around the globe.
These current conditions are saddening. They must be confronted both for the sake of the good Hindu and Muslim citizens of India and the distinctive and honorable “multi-hued” reputation of the nation itself.
Some may think this call will not be answered. I believe it will because in the past many of India’s greatest leaders have stressed building community through collaboration and cooperation.
For example, consider the teaching of Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University. He was visionary who saw the world not though religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya Ji instructed, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.” Taking a lesson from him, in order to create an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony, we need to discover our “spiritual common ground.”
We can discover that common ground not by looking to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship but by looking at the earth and the people and the family that we are.
There are many actions that the members of that family can take to move India toward communal peace and harmony. In my opinion, the key actors and actions are:
- Religious leaders promoting interfaith dialogue
- Political leaders promoting a framework for unity
- Citizen leaders promoting communication and collaboration
- The media building and promoting an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony
There is much work to do. That work must begin, however, by imagining an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. Imagining will not make it so but not imagining will make it impossible.
What are your thoughts on freedom of faith in India?
The one thing I know is that the Indian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That constitutional freedom should be unabridged. Unfortunately, there are some people whose voices of intolerance, prejudice, hostility and bigotry are dividing India along the lines of faith. I firmly believe India has long succeeded because of democracy, diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance. I also believe all Indians should be united by a common hope for equal treatment and better tomorrow. It will do well to remember that attack on one faith is attack on all faiths. Today Muslims victim. Tomorrow you will be the victim. I also believe attacking people along the lines of faith will tear apart the harmonious fabric of India.
Having said that, let me share my personal perspective on freedom of faith with you.
My faith as a Muslim has taught me to respect all Religions. Being a Muslim has taught me many things – but the most important is that the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all of us.
I have learned as a Muslim to believe in the unity of all creation and that everything and everyone is a reflection of God on earth. Because of that I have also learned that there are just people and that just people do just things.
I treasure my faith. My faith firmly believes in equality, dignity, compassion, respect, tolerance, justice and peace for other faiths.
In November of 1963, just weeks before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, speaking before the Protestant Council of New York City, said, “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country…the family of man is nearly 3 billion strong. Most of its members are not White and most of them are not Christian.”
President Kennedy went on to say, “The members of this family should be at peace with one another.” I agree with President Kennedy.
There are people of different faiths and religions across India. They should engage in interfaith dialogues and should be at communal peace with one another. That is the ideal state of harmony and the one that religious people of all beliefs should work together to achieve.
Who is your role model and why?
I do not have a single role model. I have had different role models at different stages of my life.
My first role models were my parents. They taught me to treat people in the way you are being treated. Give dignity and respect to others. Do what you can do to serve your community. These were the core values established in me as a youth. They are my guiding principles today
Even though he was not educated, my father stressed the need for education and taught me that through dedication and hard work all things are possible.
When I came to the United States, to get my higher education, my role model was one of my college professor Wolfgang Thron. He challenged me to be the best that I could be and showed that he cared about me not only as a student with an intellect but as a whole person with feelings and emotions. He understood that I was a “stranger in a strange new land” and helped me make the necessary adjustment to the American way.
After I graduated, my role models were the two managers for whom I worked at the information technology firms where I developed my business acumen. I was not born a business person. I had to learn the ropes from them.
Finally, if there is a famous role model that I could cite, it would be John F. Kennedy. Kennedy said two things that have influenced my life significantly and my civic and philanthropic involvement since I sold my business in 2007.
He said, “For of those to whom much is given, much is required.” I have been blessed and I have the responsibility to give back.
In his inaugural address famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I have heeded that advice and have been trying to do much for my adapted country in the past decade.
I have not tried to emulate Kennedy. But, what I have done is to try to make those two sayings my mantra as I go forward.
For of those to whom much is given, much is required. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
Good words to live by. And, I am trying my best to do so.
Do Muslims in India need preachers or do they need teachers?
Both! And, they need people who can do both.
Muslims need preachers who can teach and teachers who can preach. To my mind, preachers and teachers share a common ground of informing and inspiring. The emphasis may be different in each of those professions but they both can help develop the knowledge, skills and abilities individuals need in order to lead good lives and to contribute to making India a better place for all regardless of religion or race.
Any message for our readers?
I am not good in giving advice. It is kind of contrary to my upbringing. Let me share some of my thoughts and messages to your Readers:
- Dream big, aim high, work hard, and pursue your dream.
- Be the best you can be
- Exploit your fullest potentials.
- Get a good education
- Stay true to you
- Be a lifelong learner
- Never give up
- Create your own legacy
- Make it your own journey
- Do well but do good
- When you are successful provide ladders of opportunity for others to succeed
- When you are successful invest in others by sharing and giving back
- You should become not only leaders for the next generations but also makers of change
Today, thanks to a lot of bad press and unrestrained stigmatization led by right-wing forces, Azamgarh is notorious as a hub of terrorists. How do you perceive the situation? You think there is a way to change that perception?
I perceive it from a distance of thousands of miles and with no personal or direct knowledge. It dismays me, however, to read and hear bad things about the place of my birth.
My memories of Azamgarh are fond ones of a happy and special place. Azamgarh’s current negative notoriety is hard to comprehend. Still, it appears that there are serious problems that need to be addressed.
As for changing the perception, it would be irresponsible as someone so far removed from the current situation to propose specific solutions. I would observe, however, that if the reality is changed then the perception can be changed.
As the old saying goes, perception is reality – a better reality provides the basis for creating better perceptions.
Is there anything that you plan to do or have done for the betterment of Azamgarh?
I am in process of establishing a technical college for girls in Azamgarh in memory of my mother. My mother was central to instilling in me the love of education. This is why I dedicated this technical college to her. Women in India still lag in the educational area beyond high school. They need to develop 21st century skills in order to be successful and to make their fullest contribution to their families and India in the 21st century.
They need education to secure these skills. A technical college of high quality is an excellent place to get that education and so excited about contributing to establishing this college
What message do you have for Indian Muslims, particularly those living in UP, where the community is not only victimized through targeted violence and biased treatment, but also used as a tool of politics?
I have spent a fair amount of time advocating here in the United States and on my frequent visits to India advocating for improved conditions for Indian Muslims. I place a special focus on education for all and most especially higher education as the means to advance the economic and social mobility of Indian Muslims.
This advancement can only occur through public-private partnerships and with the support of honorable individuals and groups in India and Indian Muslims from around the world.
As for a message to Indian Muslims, I would say, “Keep on keeping on. Don’t give up. Do well but do good.” I would also say to Indian Muslims: Your best days are ahead of you not behind you. I also tell them no country and no religion and no race has monopoly on wisdom. Wisdom belongs to all who are willing to work had and aim high. I also tell them you must never be frightened of the future but you need to build your future. I tell them when you are successful invest in others by sharing and by giving back. There are many people of good will who understand your plight and are willing to work in combination with you to bring about the changes that will be necessary to correct decades of neglect.