Tar Heel of the Week: Manzoor Cheema aims to change perceptions of Islam

Tarheel Manzoor Cheema.
Tarheel Manzoor Cheema. Courtesy of Manzoor Cheema

The shooting deaths of three young students of Muslim faith this month in Chapel Hill sparked an outpouring of grief across the world. The tragedy is also bringing about what Manzoor Cheema sees as a long overdue conversation about discrimination against Muslims in the United States.

Police are still investigating whether the deaths of Deah Shaddy Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha, were motivated by their religion or a parking dispute.

But even as their deaths brought international condemnation, the hate crime accusations made by the victims’ families and others also led to anti-Muslim comments. To Cheema such sentiments are evidence that more understanding is needed.

Cheema is a human rights activist who has long spoken out about discrimination against Muslims, and last year won a humanitarian award for his activism. This week he’s leading a panel discussion on Islamophobia at Wake Forest University that he helped organize.

Cheema also works with groups in his native Pakistan to curb discrimination against Christians, who are in the minority there. His overall goal, he says, is to educate and unite people from a wide variety of backgrounds against intolerance and extremism.

“I’m all for painting those pictures of peace and justice so that we can defeat the extremist elements in both societies,” he says. “Extremists here paint all Muslims as terrorists, and there are people in the Muslim world whose only vision of the United States is war and occupation.”

Cheema co-founded Muslims for Social Justice in 2013 and has been a member of the Triangle Interfaith Alliance since 2010. Before that, he produced a popular public access news show that combined international and local reporting on social causes.

“He’s so passionate, and he represents his community very well,” says Lana Dial, president of the Triangle Interfaith Alliance.

Providing a voice

Cheema, 39, grew up in Pakistan, part of a well-to-do family in a country with a steep divide between rich and poor. His father trained as a veterinarian in the United States, and as Cheema was growing up, the family lived in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

He attended high school and college in Pakistan before planning his own trip to the United States. Following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled in the veterinary medicine program at N.C. State University in 1999.

He would eventually pursue a degree in immunology instead, focusing on HIV. After earning his master’s degree, he went on to work as a researcher at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

Arriving in the United States shortly before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Cheema says he witnessed an abrupt change in the way he and other immigrants from Muslim countries were treated.

There were the frequent searches at airports, but also the suspicious looks of fellow travelers. In the years since the attacks, favorability ratings of Muslims dropped steeply in U.S. polls and never recovered.

“It was a big crisis for many Muslims,” he says. “All of a sudden we became enemies in America. We ended up being treated as second-class citizens.”

Cheema believed early on that the key to changing people’s perceptions was to give them more information, to help them understand that the same types of struggles take place around the world.

The experience fueled Cheema’s next move, starting a popular public access news show that would run for five years.

He took some low-cost classes in filmmaking through Chapel Hill’s People’s Channel, found a few like-minded producers and went to work on a project he says wouldn’t have been possible without new technologies and easy access to expertise.

“I always had a passion for film, but I never had the tools in Pakistan to do this,” he says.

In all, Cheema produced about 50 episodes of the show from 2004 to 2009, including coverage of anti-war protests in Pakistan, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the treatment of workers at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel.

Independent Voices would go on to be honored as the best documentary-based television show by the People’s Channel.

Cheema ended the show to concentrate more on his work and growing family, but he remained active in social causes.

Early organizer

Cheema’s interest in social movements began in Pakistan, where as a college student he became an advocate for poorly paid dairy workers.

He was also aware of the way minorities were treated, and the misunderstandings that lead to racism and intolerance – which he saw both in Pakistan and after moving to the United States.

Yet Cheema says that the backlash against Muslims after the 2001 terrorist attacks came as a shock to a community that had long felt isolated from other minorities. Much of his current work aims to integrate Muslims into broader social justice movements to fight racism and other forms of discrimination.

One conference brought together African-American and Palestinian groups to highlight the similarities between events as seemingly disparate as the police killings in Ferguson, Mo., and the recent attacks in Gaza.

He organized a voting rights seminar at an Apex mosque, and has tried to build relationships between Pakistani and U.S. labor groups.

In his speeches, Cheema strings together a number of recent events as evidence of discrimination against Muslims, such as the passing of anti-Sharia laws in North Carolina and other states and the destruction of a Missouri Islamic Center in 2012.

Locally, a plan to amplify the Muslim call to prayer from the chapel at Duke University was scrapped after an intense backlash that included a statement by evangelist Franklin Graham that “followers of Islam are raping, butchering, and beheading Christians, Jews, and anyone who doesn’t submit to their Sharia Islamic law.”

“It’s so easy to repeatedly portray Muslims as extremists and terrorists without anyone challenging you, while it would be difficult to do that to any other group,” he says. “Even if there is no connection between these events, it is the right time to talk about Islam.”

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