Member Spotlight: An Interview with Mohammad Shakir
Global Ties Miami is always delighted to feature our members who hail from many regions of the world, and who bring their passions and diverse perspectives toward promoting citizen diplomacy. This month we feature Mohammad Shakir, a U.S. Army Veteran, former Miami-Dade County government civil servant, a peace activist, and citizen diplomat.
Originally from Pakistan, Mohammad Shakir immigrated to the United States in 1970. He has been married to Shahida for 48 years and they have two daughters — Sofia and Sadia, and five granddaughters. Sofia is a police Sergeant with Miami Dade County Public Schools and Sadia is an attorney in Canton, Michigan.
After majoring in accounting, Shakir’s first job was with Paramount Pictures, a subsidiary of the American Broadcasting Companies. He says that this inadvertently pushed him into the marketing and public relations field. “This lucky break set the course for the rest of my professional life — connecting and engaging with people. During this job, I met many prominent performers and film industry people, such as Diana Ross, Sammy Davis Junior, the Great Muhammad Ali, and the Bee Gees — all of whom I had the privilege to host at my theatres.”
He explains that exposure to some prominent people at an early age gave him confidence and high aspirations as a young immigrant. “During this job, I also learned to work with the media when Hollywood Sun Tattler published my personal profile in October 1975. After a brief stint with Eastern Airlines, I went to work for Barry University for the next eleven years where I got the taste of interfaith relations.” He says that during the last twenty years with the Miami-Dade County Asian American Advisory Board is where he got deeply involved with community relations.
Some of his advocacy work includes his roles as the previous Executive Director of the Miami-Dade County Asian American Advisory Board; a founding member of COSMOS; a founder of the NUR Center for Asian women and children in distress; and co-founder of the women’s support organization SAHARA. “The role with the Asian American Advisory Board was a destiny that I must commend the leadership of the Miami-Dade County Commission who envisioned the advocacy program under various cultural boards to empower the diverse communities in the County. As the Director of the Board, I had the opportunity to work closely with a highly diverse Asian community, explore their needs, and undertake projects to empower various Asian communities.” Shakir adds that this role is where he learned about the Miami Council of International Visitors (the previous name of Global Ties Miami) and came to admire its bridge-building role for citizen diplomacy within the global community. “I witnessed the great national tragedy on September 11, 2001, and the post 9/11 response by the U.S. In this role, I learned to appreciate how civil servants serve competing agendas to advance their mission.” He explains how he saw agencies responding at that time. “I saw the U.S. Department of Justice rounding up people of Asian/Middle Eastern heritage to protect the homeland and at the same time the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice working diligently to protect the civil rights of the innocent. I worked with the media, law enforcement agencies, and the FBI.” Shakir added that the Board’s engagement with the FBI was so important that the FBI chose to recognize it for its service with FBI Director, Robert S. Mueller III, presenting the Director’s Community Leadership Award to the Asian American Advisory Board.
“Post 9/11 media coverage of Muslims was hostile and very negative and they were taking their cues from the international media about global violence often involving Muslims. It slowly began to permeate our media market, especially electronic media. So, we gathered a cross-section of Muslim community members: men, women, African Americans, immigrants, white Americans; doctors, lawyers, teachers and requested meetings with media leaders.” Shakir explains that the meetings “sensitized individuals” and drove an important message. “When you follow global reporting, there is sometimes a failure to recognize that the American Muslim community is not foreign. We are here, we are local, and we are consumers of your reporting.” He adds that when Muslims are thought of as a monolith and depicted as the Taliban just for being Muslim, that the next day Muslim children in schools are bullied, and people out in public conducting consumer transactions are subjected to taunting and insults. “Instead of healing and creating a healthy community this kind of reporting is causing friction and pain.” He says that most of those who the group met with were humbled by the information, were sensitized, and agreed to be mindful of the consequences of their reporting. In many cases, they allowed the Muslim community’s input with their reporting. In the aftermath, COSMOS — Coalition of South Florida Muslims was established in May 2010.
When explaining how SAHARA was started, Shakir recounts the following story: “Police found a distraught young Indian woman sitting at a bus stop late at night. She had been thrown out by her in-laws. The police called the Miami-Dade County Asian Advisory Board the next morning to find if we could help her. We did. Once the word got out a flood of phone calls started coming in. My office was not geared for something like that so I reached out to Sofie Brion, a friend, and Women’s Fund official, and asked her if we could establish a support group for Asian women. She readily agreed. I also called another friend, Dr. Shashi Jagadish, a psychotherapist, and together we started SAHARA, a word which means support in Hindi and Urdu languages.” Later an independent facility creating a safe house for women called the NUR Center was established. The NUR Center was acquired in 2010 to accommodate the women and children who were thrown out of their own homes and needed safe housing. Since its acquisition it has never been vacant; it is the only Muslim institution in South Florida that is operated 100% by women. Shakir explained that the NUR Center absorbed all SAHARA services and collaborates with the UHI Clinic to provide healthcare and works with the Muslim FOOD Pantry to subsidize food for women in distress who have moved out of the NUR Center and provides legal assistance and training for clients to become independent and self-supporting.
These kinds of community investments are critical. When it comes to long-term community planning and investing in future leaders Shakir expresses the notion that technology is a tool. “It is an instrument that can be used or abused in many ways, but the human relationship is the foundation of every society. It deals with people’s sensitivities and behavior and builds the character that sets the course of people’s relationships. To develop good community relations, we need to groom young leaders and train them to appreciate human relationships, respect diversity, and respect others’ values. And based on these fundamentals, build bridges domestically, nationally, and internationally. I believe good internship programs and forums where many young people could engage with each other would be helpful. Young leaders are also more adept in new technology, and they will use it effectively and efficiently to advance their ideals.”
Shakir says that his peace activities and Global Ties’ citizen diplomacy were like hand and glove, an excellent fit and perfectly complementing each other. “My bridge-building efforts with AJC, ADL, and MCCJ were recognized by the American Jewish Committee who nominated me to Project Interchange resulting in my trip to Israel. It also took me to India and Egypt, but the most interesting event occurred locally.” He recounts a story about an Afghan/Pakistan International Visitor Leadership Program that Global Ties Miami hosted right after Kurt Westergaard, a Danish cartoonist who created a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, sparked outrage that resulted in an attack upon American forces in Afghanistan. “While visitors and Commission staff were sitting in the conference room, I stood at the head table and asked the visitors, suppose Prophet Muhammad was chairing this meeting, and you presented the case of the disparaging cartoon to him, what would be his verdict on it. There was a pin drop silence, they looked at each other muttered a few words under their breath, finally, one spoke out (and said) the Prophet will forgive him and they all one by (one) endorsed this response. If the Prophet will forgive him, how come the Muslims now overrule the prophet and take revenge, killing people? Trapped, one of them shot back, what would you do? I calmly responded, we did respond by seeking friendly media support, writing op/end pieces, even interfaith leaders including (the) archbishop wrote how inappropriate it is to publish insensitive material about other faiths.”
He adds that in November 2004 a delegation of high-ranking military officials from Asia and Africa visited Miami. “We arranged for them to witness our election process. The ambassador who led the delegation was intrigued by my facilitation and more surprised to learn that I was a veteran. A few months late I received the invitation to attend the 2005 Army War College seminar and share my experience there.”
In 2009 Shakir visited Egypt on a U.S. Department of State program to study the role of religion in the public sphere. “It was a sobering experience to meet and hear the members of Coptic minority in Egypt who were stuck between a proverbial rock and the hard place.” Prior to this work, Shakir became active in interfaith relations and peace activism because he says, “I realized that when a bomb goes off in a garbage can, it kills anyone around it regardless of if it is a Jew, Christian, or Muslim. Terrorism is an equal opportunity killer.” He started bridge-building, and often writing pieces about promoting peace, rejecting, and condemning violence, and speaking out at various forums while organizing interfaith gatherings.
Regarding Shakir’s international work he says that he finds that the most pressing issue that thought leaders in the world should be focused on is promoting education and working to eradicate hunger and disease and the rest will fall into place itself. A travel enthusiast, he says that the United States has everything inside of one country that one would like to see. Forests, mountains, valleys, and falls, he says that we have it all! “I would, however, like to travel to Asia to enjoy old culture courtesy, respect, and common humanity. I don’t mind traveling anywhere from Turkey to Malaysia.” He shares the following travel story: “In Hong Kong when I arrived at the airport, I realized that I did not have my wallet and my passport. I ran to the airport police station to report the loss. ‘Where do you last remember having it, sir?’ asked the policeman. I had it at the last station when I passed the check-point turnstile. He called and confirmed that it was there. But I could not go to get it as my flight was leaving in 45 minutes. The policeman told the other side to give it to the conductor on the next train. In twenty minutes, I had my walled and fifteen minutes later I was on my way to Bangkok. It is an excellent example of efficiency, honesty thoughtfulness, and consideration.”
A current member of Global Ties Miami, Shakir served on the board of the Miami Council for International Visitors, where he shares a highlight from the experience: “Rosa Santiago O’Neill worked with me to bring the visitors to the County and one day she invited me to join the organization for a meeting. I attended to feel out the organization and ended up meeting two wonderful friends- Annette Alvarez and June Frost. A couple of months later I joined the Board and Annette became Executive Director. Together we developed the first brochure for the Miami Council for International Visitors. My biggest achievement was to connect the Asian and Muslim communities.” He says that he also became a great admirer of citizen diplomacy. “Immigrants mostly come to this country searching for the proverbial American dream. It comes with a lot of hard work, some lucky breaks, and connecting with the community. Despite today’s poisonous political environment Americans by and large are friendly and helpful. I was privileged to know some of those unrecognized heroes like Mr. James T. Barnett who hired me for my first job at Paramount Pictures; Rabbi Barry Tabachnikov; Jim Howe, Executive Director of MCCJ; Joan Canner, Executive Director of AJC.; and Rabbi Schiff and David Lawrence, who mentored me, influenced me, and helped me understand American diversity.”