Aneelah Afzali understands connections and networks.
Afzali is the executive director of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound/American Muslim Empowerment Network (MAPS/AMEN), but she does not limit her efforts to fight for social justice within her Muslim community.
Afzali partners with different organizations, both religious and secular, in addressing social justice issues. She values the relationships built online or offline.
Movements don’t begin and end in marches, Afzali says. She says the events, stories, and photos posted on social media also form connections and networks for social justice.
We recently sat down with Afzali and talked about why social media is now an important tool for social justice movements. This article has been edited for clarity and length.
Charissa Soriano: What were you doing before becoming the executive director of MAPS/AMEN?
Aneelah Afzali: I was an attorney before doing community activism. Specifically, I was serving as general counsel of a healthcare IT company. Before that, I was working at a law firm where I had been partner in the litigations department. I decided to leave my legal career because I had a spiritual transformation that made me realize that I need to give more, to give back and to fulfill my faith duties of knowledge and service. I did that on my own for about three years before starting MAPS / AMEN. I had a vision for AMEN but I didn’t think that it was financially feasible. When my mosque leadership approached me, we decided, “hey, we can make this happen through MAPS.”
CS: Why are you passionate about social justice? Can you tell us about the justice mandate from the Quran?
AA: The Quran commands us in multiple places to stand firmly for justice, to pursue justice even if it’s maybe against ourselves, or our family members, or rich or poor—it just does not matter. We have a firm belief to stand for justice. And the justice mandate—there are beautiful quotes about it both from the Quran and in the prophetic tradition. The justice mandate is so strong that it’s seen as acts of worship too when you are standing for justice.
For me, justice has always been something important to me. That’s why I went into a legal career. I’ve always had a strong sense of justice, individually and based on the Islamic values that my parents taught us. And when I had a spiritual transformation, I really wanted to find a way to stand up for social justice issues of our day that were growing and becoming very problematic. I saw how our various works of justice, our struggles for justice are interconnected. I realized that, as I tell people, Islamophobia doesn’t just hurt me as a Muslim—it hurts all of us, and all lives cannot matter until black lives matter. Immigrant rights are for all of us. All of these various struggles for justice are interconnected. By struggling and advocating for justice on these issues, I am fulfilling my faith values and the mandate for justice in Islam.
CS: How do you address social injustice through MAPS/AMEN?
AA: In multiple ways: I work with friends, coalition partners, allies and reach other people who may not think like me or agree with me or may have differences, really try to build bridges of understanding and unity and find ways for us to take effective, concrete action on issues of justice.
CS: What was your experience during the Womxn’s March in Seattle?
AA: The Womxn’s March and any of these kinds of marches or rallies or action, what we try to do is we try to get the Muslim community to be aware about them and to know that there will be others there with them. But I know that there was a lot of people at this Womxn’s March, a lot of Muslims that did show up that we were not able to connect, unfortunately. Still, it was good to march together, to be there together — with allies, with friends, with other people who also want to advocate for justice together. And I have to say that what I really liked more about the march itself was the commitment to action beyond that. That’s why I’m always pushing people. Marches can be a good way to get people together but it’s not about just having to show up on one day. The work cannot end on that one day, a few hours, that people are together.
CS: Why do you think it’s important to work with allies, with faith leaders, with community activities and with the government?
AA: It’s important to work together because that’s how we have strength. As long as, say, we are isolated and divided, we don’t have any real power—political power or political strength—to make a difference. As bad as things may be right now, it is an amazing time to be alive. I firmly believe we have more power and possibility now to make a difference that we ever have in my lifetime. I believe that we can be the change that we want to be but it requires work. It requires us showing up. It requires us working in alliances; to alliances, to coalitions.
CS: How do you think social media connects organizations to work together?
AA: Social media is now a wonderful way for all of us, as individuals and organizations, to be empowered, to really make a difference in a way that we’ve never been able to do in the past. We can reach people, significantly larger groups of individuals, that we couldn’t in the past. Every single one of us now is empowered to be a journalist. We all have phones that have video recording capabilities. There are videos that people take on their phones every day that end up on social media and really make a difference. We can all do that. We can tell our stories that way. We can reach people to share information about events.
Organizations can work together to raise awareness about events and issues, and using comments and hashtags. These are all different ways that individuals and organizations are more empowered today than ever through the use of social media to really make a difference and have a significantly broader reach than we ever did in the past. That is a significant power that each one of us has, so it really helps us be in a position today that we’ve never been this fortunate. Before we had to rely on mainstream media oftentimes to be able to have this kind of reach. Now we can sort of do that directly, without having to rely on mainstream media organizations that may or may not cover our stories, our issues, our needs. We are now empowered to do that directly ourselves.
MAPS / AMEN has a [Facebook] page. That’s the best way for us to get the word out about events. That’s the best way to communicate with others. That’s often the best way to organize some of our events, especially when we’re working with a lot of other groups and organizations. It’s critical. I honestly don’t think you can do effective advocacy right now without using social media.
Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s 2019 Emerging Tech Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.