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‘I’m Still An Optimist’: Muslim Leader Alia Salem On Activism, Confronting Hate

Krystina Martinez
Alia Salem.

For the last three-plus years, Alia Salem has been the public point person for just about every controversy involving Muslims in North Texas. Salem stepped down as executive director of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations this week, and she's determined to stay optimistic.

“While we are in trying times right now, we’re still also in a strong position to continue doing this work and inject some new blood,” said Salem. “As I’m departing CAIR, I’m not departing the movement. I’m just departing a position within the movement.”

Salem said the North Texas Muslim community has seen an outpouring of support since the presidential election.

“I’ve never seen this kind of consistent, sustained response,” she said. “Usually, it fizzles out.”

That kind of response, Salem said, is why she's still optimistic despite hate against her community.

Interview Highlights: Alia Salem...

...On the personal toll of activism: 

“In North Carolina, when the three young people were murdered in their home at Chapel Hill, I remember standing in front of a group of people at this huge vigil gathering at UTD and I remember saying ‘my job is to deal with hate.’ I had never uttered it before. It was kind of this moment, this realization, this all-encompassing thing. Like, your job is literally to confront hate on a daily basis, and you can’t underestimate the mental toll that takes. While I felt like I was completely equipped to do the job, you still have to be conscious of it and worry about self-care for yourself and your family.” 

…On people who accuse her of being an ‘apologist for terrorism’:

“You wouldn’t accuse a white Christian of being an apologist for the KKK if they denounced [them]…It’s something that people have sort of heaped onto the Muslim community as this forced position of defending. We’re not going to say this anymore because we shouldn’t have to. It’s completely ludicrous to force people into this position of defending your community. We don’t espouse that, our scripture doesn’t teach that, and the people who sit there and think they can open a passage and read it cold-turkey without any context are ignorant, frankly speaking and we need to elevate our level of discourse on this kind of stuff.”

…On why she’s still an optimist:

“I think that has a lot to do with how the broader American community responded after [President] Trump took office because that was a pinnacle moment. The ACLU raised more than $24 million, people were just pouring money in after the [travel] ban happened. Our own organization was raising a lot of funding and I mention the funding because people are saying, ‘oh, I’m going to do something about this, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and I’m not just going to sing Kumbaya with my Muslim neighbor.’ They’re going to take some sort of action.”

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.