CNN interviews 100 Muslims for its '25 most influential' list, and takes a few hits from critics

It’s been almost two weeks since CNN ran a “25 most influential American Muslims” list.

Lists are popular in this clickbait era, but they are tricky things to put together, as was the case when Time magazine put together its “25 most influential evangelicals” list in 2005. Those of us who track such things had strong opinions back then on who should’ve been included and who should have been left off. It was certainly interesting to see active Catholics on that list.

Unlike the evangelicals list –- which was assembled by Time’s staff –- CNN asked 100 Muslims who should be on this list. (Asking evangelicals for input on the 2005 list might have improved it greatly).

What resulted was a list of 12 women and 13 men. Which I find curious. Did Muslims really vote in that many women? Religious lists tend to be skewed toward men. The evangelicals' list only had four women, two of which were coupled with their husbands.

So let's work our way through some of the CNN list, adding some comments from me and other publications. The list consisted of short videos each with a descriptive paragraph. I include a few of their choices:

Hasan Minhaj: The comedian -- Hasan Minhaj says his faith doesn’t inform his comedy, exactly, but growing up Muslim in California offered a unique perspective on American life. “I had the whole course of my life to think back on all these situations where I was on the sidelines, whether it was, like, not being able to eat pepperoni pizza all the way up to (President Trump’s) travel ban.” …
Ibtihaj Muhammad: The Olympian -- Ibtihaj Muhammad has heard the stereotypes about Muslim women: they’re docile and oppressed, wear nothing but black, speak only Arabic and aren’t allowed to play sports. “I speak English, I like wearing bright colors, I’m athletic and I’m on Team USA.” In the 2016 Olympics, Muhammad became the first Muslim-American to wear a hijab in Olympic competition, where she won a bronze medal in the team sabre event. …
Feryal Salem: The teacher -- Feryal Salem (is the) co-director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary. The Connecticut seminary offers one of the country’s few accredited programs for Islamic chaplaincy, which means that Salem has a large role in training the next generation of Muslim interfaith ambassadors and spiritual counselors …
Eboo Patel: The bridge builder -- Eboo Patel’s … Interfaith Youth Core is one of the largest inter-religious organizations in North America, with an $8.5 million budget and 45-person staff who train thousands of students on nearly 500 college campuses. The author of three books, Patel was also a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer: The ‘arrowhead’ -- “When people talk about what it means to be black in the United States, they don’t talk about the Muslim experience,” says Su’ad Abdul Khabeer, a scholar, artist and activist. “And when they talk about the Muslim experience in the United States, they don’t talk about African-Americans. Black Muslims are not part of the popular imagination.” …

Muslimreformers.com had huge problems with this list, partly because measuring influence is a very inexact science.

Does merely being a comedian at the White House Correspondents Dinner make you an influencer, they asked. Good question.

A demonstration of media-backed social engineering, CNN’s top 25 list adds a thick coat of primer over the seismic movements and rapid growth taking place within the American Muslim community. … CNN presented a lobbying of Sunni hegemony and sanitized some of the deeply troubling associations and behavior practices of several people presented as influencers.

Moving on to CNN's political nominees, including the two current Muslim members of Congress:

Rep. Keith Ellison: The groundbreaker -- In 2006, Keith Ellison became the first Muslim-American elected to serve in Congress, representing Minnesota’s 5th District. Several months later, Ellison took the oath of office on a Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson …
Linda Sarsour: The fighter -- Linda Sarsour … co-founded the Women’s March. Often outspoken, Sarsour has faced criticism for aligning with questionable characters and sharply denouncing Zionism. But many Muslims say she is the kind of uncompromising, unapologetic leader their community needs right now. …
Rep. André Carson: The lawman -- Raised in a Baptist family and educated in Catholic schools, André Carson converted to Islam when he was 16. A year later, he says, he was arrested by Indianapolis police as they tried to enter his local mosque without probable cause. The experience helped motivate Carson to become a police officer … he is now … one of two Muslims in Congress …
Farhana Khera: The strategist --Farhana Khera co-founded Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy group that is challenging President Trump’s travel ban and other perceived infringements on Muslims’ civil liberties. “The last eight months have honestly been the craziest time in the 12 years of the organization,” Khera says.
State Rep. Ilhan Omar: The resilient refugee -- Ilhan Omar’s journey to become this country’s first Somali-American Muslim lawmaker began in a refugee camp in Kenya, where her family was escaping Somalia’s brutal civil war. …

The Daily Caller faulted CNN for not mentioning Sarsour’s and Ellison’s support for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. The Daily Wire asked whether an influencer is merely someone who’s made it in the popular culture or whether this person is actually helping Muslims. 

Moving on, to belief and practice. Makki’s blog is a favorite of mine. I’ve been aghast at some of the women’s areas I’ve ventured into at various mosques. Ditto for women’s areas at Orthodox synagogues.

Imam Zaid Shakir: The people’s imam -- Imam Zaid Shakir converted to Islam while serving in the Air Force, after years of living in rough inner-city neighborhoods. … In 2009, Shakir co-founded Zaytuna College, and in 2016 he conducted the funeral services for one of his heroes: the late boxer Muhammad Ali.
Hind Makki: The door opener -- Hind Makki … says her blog, Side Entrance, refers not just to the separate door that many mosques make women enter, but also the physical and emotional expectations placed on Muslim women. Women across the globe have cheered her -- and sent in pictures of their own mosques.
M. Hasna Maznavi: The dreamer -- When she was a child growing up in California, M. Hasna Maznavi dreamed of founding a beautiful mosque, with soaring architecture and inspiring artwork. …In 2015, that dream became reality, as Maznavi and her co-founders opened The Women’s Mosque of America, which they call the country’s first mosque just for women.
Imam Suhaib Webb: The ‘Snapchat imam’ -- For years, if you wanted to know if whether watching “The Walking Dead” was halal or haram (allowed or forbidden, in Muslim parlance) the imam to ask was Suhaib Webb. Webb, a convert to Islam whose grandfather was a Christian minister, combines a love for popular culture, particularly hip-hop, with deep Islamic learning. …

This list was an eye opener for me, as I’d never heard of some of these folks.

Who would be our picks? I thought of people who I could call up for quotes; folks like Ihsan Bagby, the University of Kentucky scholar known for his mosque surveys; Imam Yahya Hendi at Georgetown University and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, co-editor of “The Study Quran” that we wrote about here.

Also Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini, a Shi’ite scholar out of Detroit who would be my choice for the first Muslim to pray at a presidential inauguration; Muzammil Sidiqqi, chair of the Fiqh Council of North America; Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, a Muslim scholar from UCLA who had this amazing interview with the Los Angeles Times after the Paris attacks three years ago. (A hat tip to fellow getreligionista Dick Ostling for contributing to this list).

Lastly, there is:

Dalia Mogahed: The data guru -- Dalia Mogahed … is now director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, where she helps conduct “solution-seeking” research on American Muslims. Her TED Talk on “What it’s like to be a Muslim in America” has been viewed 2.8 million times.
Reza Aslan: The storyteller -- Reza Aslan immigrated from Iran to the United States with his family in the early 1980s … Last year, CNN cancelled his show, “Believer,” after Aslan used profane language to describe President Trump. But American Muslims say Aslan remains influential as a writer, Hollywood producer and public intellectual.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The ‘MuslimGirl’ -- Amani Al-Khatahtbeh … she started her own platform, MuslimGirl.com. With “Muslim Women Talk Back” as its motto, the online magazine challenges everything from ridiculous religious edicts -- one section is called WTF?, meaning “What the Fatwa?” -- to gender dynamics in Islam and American foreign policy.

Read the whole list. We can argue  as to who should or should not be on it, but at least CNN put one out there. I hope more such lists follow, preferably with an explanation of what "influence" really signifies.

Please respect our Commenting Policy