The Face of “The Muslim Guy”: Arsalan Iftikhar Finds the Time to Do It All
By Yara Souza
July 27, 2009
Odds are you’ve already seen him on a CNN roundtable, heard him on NPR or read his stuff in the opinion section of your hometown newspaper. He was even featured as an extra in the 2008 film Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe. The question is: Where does Arsalan Iftikhar find the time to do it all? A Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer by profession, Iftikhar is the self-described “snake-charming, belly-dancing Muslim Guy” for the U.S. media, spearheading his popular TheMuslimGuy.com website, all on top of his other responsibilities, including contributing posts at Islamica magazine and the Tell Me More show on NPR. Arsalan recently spoke with elan about his accomplishments, motivations and penchant for Diet Coke.
Q: What was your main aim behind starting TheMuslimGuy.com?
A: To many people who know little or nothing about Muslims, since I was already the snake-charming, belly-dancing, Slumdog-Millionaire Muslim-human-rights-lawyer-talking-head on international television every single day, TheMuslimGuy.com was my insomnia-induced attempt at shedding light at tired stereotypical tropes while discussing some very serious global issues. To be quite honest, the naming of my Web site was also meant to be tongue-in-cheek, since I have spent much of my professional life as (literally) “the Muslim guy” on global media since the tragedy of 9/11.
On a more serious level, TheMuslimGuy.com was launched on the seventh anniversary of 9/11 to remind myself (and hopefully others) about the small, meaningful contributions we can all make in helping to bring some peace, love and humanity back within our global community during the short time we all have here on God’s wonderful Earth.
Q: Where did you grow up? What was your first job?
A: Chicago, Chicago and Chicago. I grew up in Downers Grove, Illinois. By the way, did I mention that I am proud to call Chicago my home? My first job was at The Gap. My second, third and fourth jobs were at Banana Republic (in three different states).
Q: What/who inspired you to become a human rights lawyer? How has your international focus enhanced your career?
A: Even though he probably does not know it, my wonderful father inspired me to become a human rights lawyer. He is an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago and I remember, in the mid 1990s, when he volunteered his services to operate on two Bosnian amputees who were victims of the genocide in former Yugoslavia. Upon returning home to Bosnia , one of the men sent our family pictures of his newborn girl. To our surprise, on the back of one of the photographs was a note saying that their daughter’s middle name would be Tariq (my father’s first name). At that moment, I knew that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my insignificant life for the overall general betterment of humanity. Thanks, Baba.
Q: What have been some high and low points for you, professionally speaking?
A: For me, winning the March 2008 Doha Debates on BBC World News Television was like winning the Super Bowl and was most certainly the high point of my professional life thus far. Being the eternal optimist, there has been no “low” point in my professional life. Since even Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Roger Federer lose matches every once in a while, we must simply always strive to bring our A-game to everything that we do and I guarantee you that there will never be any low point in your life. The bottom line: Leave your trust in God and leave everything else out on the field.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the Muslim community, particularly from your human rights perspective (since you’re fortunate to be in a position of influence)?
A: In my opinion, the biggest challenge that we face as a Muslim community today is our “selective outrage” in terms of geopolitical issues. For example, we saw massive protests over a bunch of stupid Danish cartoons in 2005, but we have yet to see that same amount of outrage over Sunni/Shia violence in Iraq , political assassinations in Pakistan and continued human-rights abuses within our own so-called Muslim nations. We seem to be the first ones to express outrage when Muslims are the victims, but do not seem to have the moral clarity to express that same outrage when so-called Muslims are the culprits of oppression.
Q: If you could jump on a 747 right now, where would you go?
A: South Africa , probably because my friend Antoine Michon just became French Consul General in Cape Town, and that is one of the venues/site locations for the 2010 World Cup. Antoine…if you’re reading this…dude, this plug certainly deserves some World Cup tickets!
Q: What’s your greatest indulgence?
A: An ice-cold Diet Coke. Seriously, I’m like a baby with a pacifier with Diet Coke.
Q: Who would play you in a movie?
A: If George Clooney and Kal Penn had a (fictitious) lovechild, that dude would totally be cast as me in any movie.
Q: What’s the one thing you can’t live without on a daily basis?
A: Diet Coke. Seriously, you do not understand!
Q: What’s next on your to-do list?
A: Currently, my top three professional priorities are: 1. My book 2. My book and 3. My book. I am currently half-way done with my first full-length book manuscript, which should be in Fall 2010 book catalogs and book stores around the world.
Q: What are Muslim youth currently doing well and what do we need to improve upon as a group?
A: I earnestly believe that the next generation of Muslim youth can help show the universalistic message of Islam by being completely and utterly pluralistic in every aspect of their lives toward all human beings, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status. Additionally, I think that our next generation of Muslim youth must enter into under-represented professional fields like journalism, academia, social sciences and the fine arts…because let’s be honest, we have enough doctors and engineers to last us for several generations.