Washington: Eminent Muslim American Frank F Islam says Indian needs a unifying nationalism, not the religious nationalism espoused by the BJP, for surviving and thriving as a vibrant democracy and a peaceful developed nation.
”Unfortunately, there are some people whose voices of intolerance, prejudice, hostility and bigotry are dividing India along the lines of faith. I firmly believe India has long succeeded because of democracy, diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance,” Frank Islam said in an interview to India News Stream.
To achieve that kind of society, there was a pressing need for more non-sectarian civic education in the early school years, and, moreover, Indians should find their common spiritual ground to create one nation under God who would be ecumenical and non-denominational, he said.
”I believe all Indians should be united by a common hope for equal treatment and better tomorrow. It will do well to remember that attack on one faith is attack on all faiths. I also believe attacking people along the lines of faith will tear apart the harmonious fabric of India,” he said.
He said it was important for India to become a global beacon because in this 21st century democracy was in decline. The United States of America that donned this mantle for most of the 20th century was in a withdrawal mode, and with the Trump presidency that leadership has eroded and virtually disappeared.
So it was for now India to take the lead, by first becoming an all inclusive society where people of all faith can live together in peace. Prime Minister Modi with his massive mandate in the recently concluded elections has all the power to lead India to that goal, and we expect him to speak out against all voices of hate and bigotry
A reputed entrepreneur and philanthropist of America, who was very close to former president Barack Obama, and an important member of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign team, Frank was born in a dusty village of Azamgarh town of Uttar Pradesh in 1953, and migrated to the US in his teens when he was studying at Aligarh Muslim University.
In the US he achieved his dream, becoming owner of multi-million business and creating a place for himself in the public life of his adopted country. He is proud of his motherland India, and wants to pay back to his native country.
The industry leader, thinker and philanthropist said he had a natural wish to see his country of origin as a harmonious and developing society, but it was unfortunate that some forces were acting against this objective.
He said his faith as a Muslim had taught him to respect all religions, and being a Muslim had taught him many things – but the most important was that the whole purpose of religion is to provide justice and a path to justice for all.
There are people of different faiths and religions across India. They should engage in interfaith dialogues and should be at communal peace with one another. That is the ideal state of harmony and the one that religious people of all beliefs should work together to achieve.
He was of the view that though all Indian citizens have a role to play in achieving social harmony and creating an egalitarian society, those with special opportunities and responsibilities include religious leaders, political leaders, civic leaders, business leaders and educators.
Frank also expressed concern over the state of the freedom of the press in India, saying, it was unfortunate India ranks 140th out of 180 countries In the World Press Freedom Index ranking for, which is is abysmal! Unless India has a truly free press, it cannot call itself a democratic nation, he said.
The United States has also some deficiencies that should not be there in a democracy, and that is why in 2018 I created the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. I established the Institute to address the increasing civic engagement deficit in the United States and the world by being a resource for 21st century citizenship and the 21st century citizen who is interested, issue-oriented, informed, independent and involved.
Asked how has America changed since President Trump took over, Frank said Unfortunately, the country has become more divided and much more chaotic.
Moreover, under the Trump presidency, the role of the government in trying to make the nation a better place for all by striving for equality domestically in areas such as the environment, education, and employment has diminished considerably, and Trump’s proposed budget also defunds support for important programs such as public broadcasting, the arts, organizations devoted to world peace and conflict avoidance, he said.
”This is not good for the future of the nation nor the world. It pushes us back into the darker and less informed and enlightened days of our American democracy” he added.
”As for the division in the country, I should be clear. Donald Trump did not create that division. He channeled it and fed it during his primary and presidential campaigns. He saw there was a large group of citizens – conservative populists, if you will- who were extremely unhappy and dissatisfied with the direction that the country was going and anti-government as well. Bernie Sanders channeled a large group of more progressive populists who were anxious about the country’s direction and their futures but still pro-government and reflected their interests and concerns.
”During his presidency, in spite of saying he would bring us together, Trump has worked diligently to maintain or increase the divisions. His tweets are a means of communicating to his base and disseminating his version of reality. His labeling the free press “fake news” is an attempt to delegetimise the country’s primary source of truthful and accurate news so that his supporters will discredit and not accept what they report.
This is all part of the chaos that is the President and the chaos that surrounds him. I am not certain whether that chaos – or at least some of it is intentional or not. I am certain that is not healthy for our country. It normalizes the abnormal and hinders forward progress,” he said.
”We look to the president – as the nation’s chief executive and our commander in chief – to give us certitude and confidence, a steady hand on the wheel, and a sense of dignity and decorum. We see none of that from this President. That apparently does not bother the 35% of the people who support him. It frightens, however, a much higher percentage of citizens here in the United States and around the world,” Frank said.
Asked whether he saw any future for immigrants in the US as in old days, he said, ” Absolutely. While there is more expressed anti-immigrant sentiment today than there was a decade or so ago, that sentiment comes from a minority of individuals and groups. America remains the land of opportunity and a country unlike any other in the world. As John F. Kennedy said and titled his book, we are A Nation of Immigrants.”
Replying to a question on American Muslims’ influence on US policies, he said there was no major formal coordinated lobbying being done by American Muslims as a unified group. There are groups by country such as the Indian American Muslim Council and the American Muslims for Palestine.
He said he had not had direct contact with either of these groups, but he did not believe them to be very influential.
He sees the American Muslim influence as more individual than an organized effort, which has resulted in the influence being fragmented and modest at best. He thinks the influence was much better with the prior administration than this one. There are at present only two Muslim representatives in the U.S.
House–Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. However, American Muslims contribute to political campaigns and provide input into policy papers for both parties, Frank said.
Answering a question on the impact of the Trump Administration’s Middle east policy on its relations with the Muslim World, he said the US has tried to be an honest broker for improving the relations between Palestine and Israel for decades, and early on in this administration, there was some thought that President Trump’s son-in law, Jared Kushner, might be able to help negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. However, the announcement of the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem combined with the recent killings of 60 Palestinians on the day the move took place has diminished that possibility and most likely eliminated it altogether.
”When the U.S. was seen as neutral it could play an intermediary role. I do not believe that it is seen that way now.It will have a negative impact on US relations with the Muslim world. But, even greater, in my opinion is the “Muslim ban”. The ban and other statements by the President Trump have definitely made the Muslim world view the U.S. in a different and less positive light. ”
On Pakistan’s relations with the United States, he said,” I do know that Pakistan and the U.S. have had an on-again off-again relation dating back to 1947 when the U.S. was one of the first countries in the world to establish diplomatic ties with Pakistan. President Trump’s tweet at the beginning of the year regarding the aid that the U.S. has “foolishly given” to Pakistan over the past fifteen years followed by a suspension of military aid have made those relations off- again. I have not followed this closely but it appears to me that nothing has happened in the first five months of this year to improve those relations. From a distance and not being involved directly my view is that the relations are attenuated and for them to strengthen would require serious diplomacy from both the U.S. and Pakistan. ”
Frank Islam also answered a number of questions on his early life and work. He said growing up in India had an enormous impact on the person he was today and he loved India because of its art, history, music, culture and rituals, but most of all I because it stands as an international beacon of democracy, diversity and peacemaking, adding, however, that these distinctive features of the Indian society had come under threat of late, and all efforts should be made to preserve them.
He grew up in a middle-class religious family as the oldest of six children. ”My parents taught me to treat people in the way that you want to be treated, give dignity and respect to others, work hard and aim high, and do whatever you can to serve your community.I was born in Azamgarh and I spent the first years of my life there. When I was 11 my family moved to Varanasi. I treasure the City of Varanasi. No matter where I am, the memory of Varanasi lingers in my mind. It is a beautiful city and a tolerant one. It is here that I learned about the richness of religious diversity and respect for other religions.”
His said his days at AMU had a profound effect on him. ”But, overall my times at AMU was filled with charms, cheers, changes, and challenges. I still remember riding my bike from V.M. Hall to all over campus. It was an exciting time of my life, though I must admit… sometimes it was chaotic.
Frank has recently donated $2.5 M to AMU to build Frank and Debbie Islam Management Complex and Frank and Debbie Islam Auditorium at the Mass Communication Department.
He came to the United States from India at the age of fifteen to pursue the American dream to go to college at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
”At that young age, I wasn’t quite sure how I would achieve that dream. But, I knew even then that being a business owner would be part of it.I also knew that it would mean being apart from my family and developing my own career track with little parental or professional guidance. This was a daunting challenge. But, it was also an opportunity. That’s the way I saw it – an opportunity to define myself in America, the land of opportunity.”
”My days at the university of Colorado were an excellent part of my life. They helped me to learn how to be inclusive, tolerant and give dignity and respect to others. If I had not had to struggle a little and sacrificed, I would not be the person I am today. Those years gave me strength and gave me courage,” says Frank.
After completing education, he started his own information technology business, the QSS Group, and he did that after learning the profession at two other firms. With the help of key managers and employees, in the brief span of ten years, he built the Group to over 3,000 employees and a volume of $300 million before selling it to Perot System in 2007.
He said after he achieved his aims, he thought it was time to give back to the society and that was the reason he and his wife Debbie established Frank & Debbie Islam Charitable Foundation to promote education, arts, world peace, and civic engagement.
‘We have chosen those areas because they are important to us and because I know that improvement in them can make a substantial difference.”
Frank sees education as a great equalizer and opportunity creator as it moves people up the ladder and to help others climb the ladder with them. he said his educational investments here in the United States include support for scholarships and financial support to institutions of higher education such as the University of Colorado, American University, Marymount University and Montgomery Community College.
”We are living in an increasingly dangerous world and times. World peace is essential for the future of this planet. There is a deadly conflict now and threats of it around the globe which must be controlled. We support the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. We made a $1M investment in USIP. We have given money to preserve the freedom of the press both here and in India, to think tanks such as the Brookings Institution that do research and develop policy papers, and to political candidates. Our foundation fund fellowship for Indian Journalists to come to Missouri School of Journalism for six months.”
Frank Islam has been politically engaged in addition to his civic engagements. He says as his business grew and after he sold it, he got much more involved politically contributing to campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels, serving on finance committees for candidates, and developing policy papers in his areas of expertise such as small business, education, and economic development.
As part of his civic engagement, he is serving on a number of boards and advisory councils including: the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art, for which he has donated $1M, the JFK Library, American University in Emirates, Marymount University, John Hopkins University, and the Brookings Institution.
He said his community engagement was driven in response to another call from John F. Kennedy who said, To whom much is given, much is required.”
”I understand this requirement and since selling my business have made a major commitment to community and social involvement”.
He has also written two books – Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage; and, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again. Both books are focused on reducing inequality and strengthening the social fabric of the United States.
Frank writes and blogs regularly for several leading Indian and American publications. Besides, he hosts his own TV show “Washington Current Review” on FOX 5 News and Washington Calling on South Asia Monitor (SAM) and is called upon to speak frequently in a variety of business, education and non-profit venues.
In 2014 he was awarded The Indus Entrepreneurs (Tie) Legends Award, and next year came Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award for International Service.
He was honoured with Montgomery County Business Hall of Fame Award in 2016 and the same year he he was awarded Interfaith Leadership Award and Global Leadership Award
Frank was an active participant in the information technology, aerospace engineering services, and systems integration business for more than twenty-five years. During his professional career, he garnered multiple industry awards for leadership, entrepreneurship and excellence. He was recognized by the Ernst and Young as Maryland Entrepreneur of the Year and the US Small Business Administration selected him as the Small Business Person of the Year of the Washington DC Metropolitan Area in 2001.
He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Computer Science from the University of Colorado.
Frank lives in Washington in a beautiful mansion called Norton Manor which a marvelous piece of architecture and tasteful decoration, having the best of the English and the French . Its architecture has also the imprint of the Taj Mahal, Rashtrapati Bhawan and the White House.The house, built on a sprawling 47,000 sq feet area, also has a 9,000 sq feet five-bedroom guest house and a tea house. It is situated in the city’s most posh locality Potomac.