Building Bridges in a Troubled World
– By Julie Kemble Borths
Long before she knew what it meant, Shakila T. Ahmad was reaching out to those who were different from her.
As a young Muslim child in Pakistan, she was friends with the Christian children who lived nearby. As a high school student, she shared her beliefs during a philosophy class that she still recalls as life-changing. And now, as the board chair of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, Ahmad continues to passionately work to promote understanding between people who may think they are different from one another, but really are not very different from the girl who grew up on the West Side of Cincinnati.
At 9, her family moved to Cincinnati and she was, as she describes it, “the only brown person… I was quiet. I didn’t smile a whole lot.”
On weekends, she learned more about her native culture and her family’s faith tradition, praying in the living rooms of other Muslim families since there was no mosque to attend.
It was that class at Colerain High School that really began her journey. “We had these fascinating conversations and I could share my views without seeming like I was talking about religion,” she said. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment for me.” – Shakila Ahmad
“I liked the feeling of retaining some of my culture,” she said of her attendance at prayer and in Sunday School, but it was that class at Colerain High School that really began her journey. “We had these fascinating conversations and I could share my views without seeming like I was talking about religion,” she said. “It was a real ‘aha’ moment for me.”
When she arrived at the University of Cincinnati, she immediately became involved in the school newspaper, as a tour guide and in leading orientations. After earning her computer science degree, she began a career as an IBM consultant while her husband, Masood, continued his medical education. When their third child was born, she stepped away from that career path and looked to give back to her community.
“Frankly, I had not been very involved in the Muslim community,” she said. But she had continued to focus on learning about others while gently educating those she met, and two of her mentors saw that she could bring needed energy and a female perspective to their work at the new Islamic Center, which had opened in 1995.
She began her work there focusing on “Tours and Talks,” inviting others to visit the center and to learn about the Islamic faith.
Just a few years later, everything changed with the events of 9/11.
“It has always been challenging to be an American Muslim. To start with, it’s a minority religion. And there’d always been tension,” Ahmad recalled. “But 2001 was life-shattering. I felt so vulnerable as an American but also for my children and my family. It was heart-wrenching and I almost had a breakdown.”
“But 2001 was life-shattering. I felt so vulnerable as an American but also for my children and my family. It was heart-wrenching and I almost had a breakdown.” – Shakila Ahmad
She recalled that when others flocked to their houses of worship after 9/11, “our community was afraid to come here,” she said. But Ahmad also saw an opportunity.
“I knew that there was far more good in the world than there is bad,” she said. “I wanted to make sure our fellow Americans were able to converse with us and experience this beautiful space. As a Muslim, I am committed to create peace, not to ostracize others.”
Chuck Mingo, the pastor at Crossroads Church Oakley campus, has witnessed that. He describes her as a “bridge-builder … in a world where it’s easy to build walls of division. Shakila is an example of what happens if you extend a hand of friendship instead.”
Ahmad found other ways to extend that hand, even, she said, “when faith is politicized and the rhetoric gets kicked up.”
“She often begins a presentation as an articulate, educated, stylishly dressed American suburban woman answering questions simply and comfortably,” said Daniel Hurley, the interim president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. “At the right moment, Shakila will draw her scarf up over her hair and tie it in a traditional manner. Everyone in the audience is disarmed and will never see a Muslim woman who wears hijab in public with the same suspicions that they might have harbored.”
The Mason resident became board chair of the Islamic Center’s governing body four years ago – the first woman in a role like that in the U.S. – growing the staff from 2 to 13 and developing much of the infrastructure to support not only the faith community but also its energetic outreach efforts and the El Sewedy International Academy of Cincinnati, which includes students in preschool through grade 8.
Even with so much responsibility, Ahmad still finds time to give tours of the Islamic Center and is known as an energetic speaker throughout the community.
“For many in Cincinnati, Shakila is the first Muslim they have met,” said Sandy Kaltman, the president of Cincinnati’s American Jewish Committee. “With great warmth and sincerity, she explains the basic tenets of her religion in ways that everyone can understand, and quickly dispels unfounded myths and stereotypes.”
Each time she gives a tour or a speech, “I feel like it warms my heart,” Ahmad said. “I can see the change in people’s faces.”
Shakila Ahmad “is passionate about bringing people together to realistically explore the tensions that divide us, turning them into moments of understanding and reminding us that we are truly one people grounded in compassion, faith and love.” – Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J.
Joseph A. Hinson, the president and CEO of the West Chester/Liberty Chamber Alliance, notes that Ahmad has reached out to all faiths to educate and inform.
“She has enhanced the awareness of the Islamic Center, while always looking for ways our communities can work closer together. As a visible role model, Shakila embodies the American spirit through her passionate work in interfaith relations, racial injustice and bullying prevention.”
When she hosts visitors at the Islamic Center in West Chester Township, she said a highlight is when tour participants step into the mosque. “They see that it is so peaceful. They feel that they are spiritually connected. And no matter what their religion, they feel like it is a familiar place, a comfortable place.
“She tells them what she has learned in her own journey: That the essence of all faith is to have a relationship with your creator. That learning about other religions and traditions enriches your life, it doesn’t lessen your own faith. And that the best way to alleviate misunderstanding is to listen to others.”
Rev. Michael J. Graham, S.J., president of Xavier University, said Greater Cincinnati is fortunate to have Ahmad as a faith leader. “The need for civil discourse and interfaith dialogue is always important, but even more so now in our current political climate. (She) is passionate about bringing people together to realistically explore the tensions that divide us, turning them into moments of understanding and reminding us that we are truly one people grounded in compassion, faith and love.”
“I appreciate the good that people have to offer in this world,” Ahmad said. “We all have common concerns and we can made such a difference with our ability to give.”
- Is board chair and president of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, the first woman to serve in this capacity at such an institution in the U.S. A board member since 1995, Ahmad was the first woman and the youngest to serve at that time.
- Established ICGC’s Tours and Talks program to teach members of the community at large about Islam and Muslims.
- Is the founding chair of ICGC’s Muslim Mothers Against Violence initiative. The group brings people of all faiths together to explore peaceful and constructive means of conflict resolution and has led many sessions on bullying prevention.
- Served as board chair of BRIDGES
for a Just Community.
- Currently serves on the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council composed of national leaders focusing on strengthening hate crimes legislation and celebrating the contribution of Jewish and Muslim Americans.
On a personal note…
What she’s listening to: Pakistani music gives her a chance to wind down, particularly with the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. She also listens to classical music and NPR.
What’s a great evening out: Either having friends over, visiting at another friend’s home or going to a place like Boca for a special treat with her husband, Masood, an allergist. She also enjoys spending time with her three grown children.
Where she’s going: Ahmad is planning a trip to Italy with some girlfriends. She loves traveling, and particularly Italy, because of the combination of history, culture and food. She just returned from a trip with her siblings, treating their parents to a few days in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. “We don’t gamble or drink but we had a great time,” Ahmad said.
The Islamic Faith in Cincinnati
There are more than 25,000 Muslims in the region, and internationally Islam is the second largest religion in the world. The faith centers on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the sacred text of the Qur’an.
The 18-acre Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, in West Chester, includes community meeting spaces, an international school and the Ahmad Samawi Mosque. The minaret, the tallest part of the mosque, is designed to call the devout to this place of prayer. Inside, the Syrian- and Moorish-inspired space includes a 300-foot-wide golden dome and a 28-foot-wide chandelier.
Nearly 5,000 visitors a year tour the Islamic Center. The 90-minute tours are set up for individuals and groups through firstname.lastname@example.org. Women are asked to wear slacks or long skirts, long-sleeved shirts and to cover their heads with scarfs. Men are asked to wear slacks and sleeved shirts.