Award-winning playwright and journalist Wajahat Ali delivers the 2016 International Education Week keynote on Nov. 17.

Award-winning playwright and journalist Wajahat Ali delivers the 2016 International Education Week keynote on Nov. 17.

Photo courtesy of: Office of Global Affairs and International Studies

Ohio University’s Baker University Center Ballroom was packed for Wajahat Ali’s presentation “Understanding Muslims: Islamophobia and Turning Villains into Heroes.”

Ohio University’s Baker University Center Ballroom was packed for Wajahat Ali’s presentation “Understanding Muslims: Islamophobia and Turning Villains into Heroes.”

Photo courtesy of: Office of Global Affairs and International Studies

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Hundreds attend IEW keynote to hear from expert on Muslim-American experience


Hundreds of people packed Ohio University’s Baker University Center Ballroom the evening of Nov. 17 to hear award-winning playwright and journalist Wajahat Ali present “Understanding Muslims: Islamophobia and Turning Villains into Heroes.”

Ali’s presentation served as the keynote address for OHIO’s fourth annual observation of International Education Week (IEW). A joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education, IEW celebrates the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. At OHIO, this year’s observation included nearly 20 events and programs designed to celebrate the University’s rich international history and global partnerships and to explore the future of those partnerships.

In introducing Ali to the estimated 500 members of the OHIO and local community who attended the keynote address, International Student Union President Hashim Pashtun noted the speaker’s long list of achievements. Regarded as an expert on the Muslim-American experience, Ali is a journalist, writer, lawyer, television host, award-winning playwright and a consultant for the U.S. State Department. He helped to launch the Al Jazeera America Network; has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and many other publications; and is currently a host and contributor for the Huffington Post. Ali also serves as the creative director of Affinis Labs, where he works to create social entrepreneurship initiatives that have positive impacts for marginalized communities.

A key phrase that Ali repeated several times throughout his speech was: “If you aren’t writing your own story, someone else out there is writing it for you.” Ali has gone to great lengths to ensure that he has written his own story.

As a Muslim American of Pakistani descent, Ali has often been faced with prejudice – something he’s experienced since he was a child in elementary school. Poking fun at himself, Ali said he was the “dark-skinned, husky nerd who only knew three English phrases.” 

It was in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that Ali found himself thrust into the national spotlight and speaking out and educating others about Islamophobia and the Muslim-American experience.

In his keynote speech, he addressed the recently concluded U.S. presidential election and its “Muslim agenda,” how President Barack Obama was accused of being Muslim and the future of the United States under President-Elect Donald Trump. 

While the speech included a lot of “dark humor,” as Ali put it, it also contained a strong message – the importance of hope in the face of adversity.

“I was recently reminded of a quote by a friend of mine: ‘Even if the day of judgment is coming, plant the seed,’” Ali said. “For so many Muslims, people of color, immigrants, women and so on, things seem really bad right now, but a crisis or tragedy can be a great opportunity for hope.”

Many of Ali’s jokes generated laughter and shocked looks amongst the crowd, but his concluding thoughts were met with an enthusiastic, yet somber, applause. Before ending his speech and beginning to answer questions from the audience, Ali wrapped up with a challenge for the students, faculty and community members in attendance.

“Try to be the better person. Offer an olive branch,” Ali said. “We cannot live in culturally isolated oceans because we are more connected than ever. We have tremendous power and tremendous responsibility. Our stories have to be connected and shared.”