- Zahra Chowdhury
Community Leaders: Danish Siddiqui
This section is dedicated to telling the stories of prominent Muslims in the Memphis community. If you would like for us to a highlight a specific community member, please email Zahrachowdhury@pv.school
This month, PVS student Zahra Chowdhury sat down with Danish Siddiqui, a native Memphian and community member, to discuss his contributions to the city in terms of politics and how growing up in this city has shaped and inspired him.
Zahra Chowdhury: What was it like growing up in Memphis and what are the major changes you’ve seen over the years?
Danish Siddiqui: I think the most significant change I’ve seen is the increase in diversity in all parts of the city. I grew up primarily in the suburbs of Germantown. When I was growing up there, when we were kids, my dad used to tell us if someone asks where you're from, even though we were from Pakistan, tell them you're Indian. So that's what I did early on. As I started getting older, I became more comfortable with my identity. I went to Shelby County Schools from K through 12, and even though there weren't a lot of people who looked like me, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to express myself and educate others on my faith and background. I felt better being able to express myself but I also found that people were very receptive to learning.
In addition, the schools in Memphis have grown a lot. In Memphis, we’re very lucky to have Pleasant View as a large Muslim school in the city. My family has been happy to witness this growth as my dad has been involved with the project early on and continued to help over the years so I feel a connection to the school even though I didn't go there.
Along with the school’s growth, the community growth has been astounding. When I was growing up, there were three main masajid: Salam, Noor, and Muminun. Now, Alhamdulillah, we have more than triple that amount.
The Muslim community in Memphis has become a base and model for smaller Muslim communities in the tri-state area. These small communities are growing but Memphis has helped provide them support when those smaller communities needed it.
Zahra Chowdhury: So, you’ve mentioned that you grew up in Memphis. You completed high school and college in this city and are now raising your own family here. Why have you chosen to stay?
Danish Siddiqui: I had a lot of pressure to leave and have had lots of opportunities to leave but I feel a deep attachment to the city and community. I feel like the work here isn't done yet and that there is a lot of untapped potential and I have the ability to tap in and help in a lot of areas. I don't have all the answers obviously but I feel like I can play a good role in helping the community. While I can do it in other places, the scope and width and the extent to which I can do the work in those areas is unmatched to the extent I am able to do the work here. I've had those opportunities presented to me in those other places, and economically it might be better if I lived in a bigger city, but I see it as an opportunity cost. What means more to you in this dunya vs akhirah?
Every place has its challenges and Memphis is no exception to that. I defend the city fiercely but I’m not in denial. I know this city isn't for everybody but the people we have are good people and the community is a good community. We have a lot of untapped work and potential. If we keep seeing good people go (I wouldn't necessarily include myself in those people), but generally, if we see them go, what becomes of the city?
A city improves when people give back to it and that needs to happen here. We see Memphis as a city/metro area improving on a national level. It’s become a hotspot for millennials, with major employers like St. Jude attracting young talent. A lot of economic and urban development has come with changing political leadership. The Midtown and downtown areas have witnessed tremendous development with more being planned. People not originally from the city like Ustadh Ashir and Imam Hamza have helped to establish a part of the community inside the city where we needed attention and they’ve done so in a meaningful way that is not only helping the city but showing the Muslim community what’s possible.We need to see more of that. All the local organizations are doing meaningful work but what’s important is that not everyone is doing the same thing in the same way.
Zahra Chowdhury: You're involved in lots of nonprofits in the community like BRIDGES and MIC. However, you’ve helped found and are still associated with several political organizations like the ACO. In reference to politics, what inspired you to go into politics and how have you seen these movements change locally with regards to the Muslim community?
Danish Siddiqui: I followed politics early on since high school but I didn't really understand a lot of it. I didn't understand it deeply and I'd listen to the news and hear my parents and community members talk about it. I’d read here and there. After college I had an opportunity presented to me when a local elected official reached out and offered me a spot in his campaign. This opened my eyes to a lot of things, as I got to witness a more hands on approach to politics. Seeing the scope and depth and importance of local politics really opened my eyes. I saw, for the Muslims in Memphis, as a community, there's opportunity for us to make an impact. I saw my role as a facilitator, and continue to play that role as best I can since I got involved in local politics. I'm happy to see more people active and interested, like you're doing an interview with me. This shows that the community’s interest and awareness in politics has changed and grown significantly. This wasn't happening 10 years ago, and it’s really refreshing.
There’s an old adage I believe: all politics is local. I believe this because local is where it starts and affects us day in and day out and we have a say in every part of it. It’s definitely not as glamorous and it looks very much like knocking on doors and listening to people complain and shaking hands. It’s not the most fun but this is where you get to know people and develop relationships, which is what makes a good city/community. So many people see politics as one-dimensional but it’s actually multidimensional. There’s so many ways to get involved and several different opportunities to serve not just through campaigns. For example, there are civilian commissions made up of volunteers, like planning and zoning committees. I used to be on a technology commission, as it fits my professional life. These groups report directly to the city council and mayor. They review the issues assigned to them and they deliberate and research and their decision goes into effect for the municipality or the city and across the county. We are making a much greater impact than we were 10-15 years ago.
There are also a lot of different opinions in our community, which is fine. We don't have to have the same viewpoint. What’s important is that we’re getting exposure and in that process, people are getting exposed to us. We can't say we want America and Memphis to think positively about us and stop talking negatively about Muslims, but we don't engage with them and don't show who we are.
Young people are becoming more interested and InshAllah, we will see more local officials being elected in the city. However, to serve, you don't have to be the main official or the face of a campaign. There are lots of Muslims working for the city in a civilian capacity and this election cycle that just finished saw almost 2 dozen Muslim local and state representatives and officials getting elected across the nation.
Zahra Chowdhury: What tips do you have for young Muslims in Memphis to become politically active?
Danish Siddiqui: Understand there are multiple dimensions of involvement, not just being part of a campaign or being an official. It’s definitely not glitzy or glamorous, it’s a lot of work, and for the most part, a thankless job but you have to have the desire to serve. You have to think who you’re serving, the legacy you’re going to be leaving behind in this dunya and when you meet Allah in the Akhirah on the Day of Judgement, what's your legacy going to be? Work backwards to see how you're contributing to your end goal. Think of what skills you’ve been blessed with and continue to develop those. Think of what capacity you can serve in public service.
There are so many Muslims in major offices, like Keith Ellison and Rashida Tlaib, but we also have Mohamed Elibiary, who used to be in IT and realized he had more to offer and worked at the national level under the Obama administration and is now a national security and intelligence figure who has a major voice in shaping policy behind the scenes.
This is my long winded way of saying find what you’re good at, go into that, and once you have a plan work backward from there, because once you know the destination, it’s much easier to ask for the directions on the way there. Dream big, but make sure you do the things you want to do because if you don’t like what you do or do it for the wrong reasons, you will not be successful or content.