“What’s going on in places like northern Virginia is an organic, grass-roots revolution of mama bears who are standing up to protect our cubs,” Asra Nomani, vice president of Parents Defending Education, said. “This has nothing to do with Donald Trump, who is not on the ticket.”
Nomani was speaking to the Wall Street Journal (where she herself was a reporter for years) about the grassroots parents’ movement that has sent shock waves through the American political system. Nomani was specifically addressing Virginia parents who showed up at school board meetings to protest Critical Race Theory and mandatory transgender pronouns. Seemingly coming from nowhere, the Virginia parents ultimately loomed large in the Virginia governor’s race.
When U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued his infamous directive for the FBI (!) to keep an eye on these parents, based on a since disowned letter from the National School Boards Association, Nomani defended parents on Fox & Friends. “It’s outrageous what the federal government is doing now,” Nomani said. “We have parents, right now, waking up from sea to shining sea to bring their children to school to urge them into the day. And what has happened now is that the federal government and the National School Board Association has declared a war on parents. All we have done over the past year is stand up and speak up for children. It’s unconscionable that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should spend even a minute thinking about us.”
Recognizing that parents often don’t know how to take the first step to get involved, Azra teamed up Parents Defending Education (PDE). Azra formerly served as PDE’s vice president for strategy and investigations. PDE builds coalitions, engages in litigation when necessary, and conducts investigative reporting. IWF’s Julie Gunlock hailed PDE “a much-needed resource for parents.”
Nomani is not new to activism. She is a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, who appeared before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs to talk about the ideology of political Islam, especially as it applies to women. She testified alongside Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the two women were stunned by the silence with which Democratic women Senators greeted their testimony. “Just as we were invisible to the mullahs at the mosque,” Nomani and Hirsi Ali later wrote in the New York Times, “we were invisible to the Democratic women in the Senate.”
How did a nice Muslim girl like Nomani come to embrace activism?
Asra was born in 1965 in Mumbai in India. A paternal ancestor in her extended family was a famous Islamic scholar of India, Shibli Nomani, during the British Raj. Her father, Zafar Nomani, is an academic who fell in love with the United States while studying at Kansas State University in the early 1960s. When she was four and her father was a Ph.D. student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, her parents decided to bring Asra and her older brother to the U.S., to join them. Their paternal grandmother dressed the two children in matching outfits so that they could be more easily identified and reunited if they became separated.
When Asra was ten, the family moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where her father had a position as assistant professor of nutrition at West Virginia University, which would become Asra’s alma mater (nice Muslim girls didn’t go away from home for college, though Zafar Nomani eventually consented for his daughter to go to graduate school in international communications at American University in Washington, D.C.). She had an idyllic American girlhood. “I learned to swim at the YMCA and befriended Nancy Drew, because I loved to read. I learned how to do a Christmas gift exchange at school–they still let us do that then–and attended a school named after Martin Luther King Jr.” From the moment she arrived in the U.S., her mother eschewed the veil she had worn in India in her conservative family, and her father started a local mosque–but he was careful, Asra said, to avoid contributions from foreign sources, funding Asra regards as radicalizing. There were a few restrictions: Asra didn’t go to Friday night dances with her American friends, because her parents would not allow it, believing that girls and boys shouldn’t dance together, and she didn’t go to Friday prayers at the mosque because that was off limits to women and girls.
Aspiring to a career in journalism, Asra worked on the school newspaper and had plum journalism internships, including at Harper’s magazine. She worked briefly as an intern at States News service before being hired at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent fifteen years. She started on the commodities column, considered a place for rookies to cut their teeth. Nomani has worked for the Wall Street Journal in Chicago, Washington, and New York, regularly getting scoops on the airline and lobbying industries, which she covered. It was at the Wall Street Journal that she became friendly with Daniel Pearl, a fellow Wall Street Journal reporter, who was kidnapped and beheaded.
In 2002, Asra Nomani found herself living in Karachi in Pakistan, on leave from the Wall Street Journal, writing for Salon and finishing her first book, Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love, an eclectic spiritual quest involving Islam, Hindu, and Buddhism. Daniel and Mariane Pearl came to stay with her in her house in Karachi. One night, when Daniel was off, supposedly interviewing somebody in Karachi, Mariane and Asra became worried: Daniel was not answering his phone. He always picked up, even if just to say, “Can’t talk now,” and would call back later.
As the women became increasingly worried, they looked at Pearl’s computer–he hadn’t even password protected it. “I started seeing red flags right away,” Asra recalled. The two women called the Wall Street Journal and the U.S. Consulate. The Marine on duty at the consulate told Asra to call back in the morning. At dawn, at the call to prayer, they called again and were given the names of two Pakistani police officers the Regional Security Officer at the consulate trusted. “They rushed to the house and immediately suspected me because I was from India,” Asra said. She convinced them she was safe and her house was converted into “an operation to find Danny.”
“I realized that there was something strange in the back-and-forth Danny had with the man who set up the supposed interview, but I never imagined that Danny would be kidnapped and murdered.” Asra knew something was terribly wrong when crestfallen police officers showed up at the door one night, five weeks into the search for Danny. “That’s when the Pakistani officer we called Captain stood at the door and told Mariane, ‘I couldn’t bring your Danny home.’” Asra was comforted by saying the Islamic prayer for protection, for Danny’s soul, Mariane, and their unborn baby, Adam. “In the trenches of life, I turned to my faith for courage, protection and hopefulness. My faith was a part of me in the darkest moment of my life, and it gave me light. But an extremist interpretation of my faith had also led men to take Danny’s life. I knew then that it would be my life’s mission to challenge all interpretations of Islam that cast darkness in our world and replace them with an Islam of grace,” she said.
Asra had a reason to try to forge a better world. In Karachi, she had “violated an edict” of Islam with a boyfriend she had planned to marry and learned, in the fourth week of Danny’s captivity, that she was pregnant. It was a crime under Sharia law in Pakistan for a woman to be unmarried and pregnant. After seeing Mariane’s baby safely into the world, in Paris, she returned to the U.S. and safely had her son in her hometown of Morgantown, West Virginia.
After returning to the U.S. Nomani for four intense years, led the Pearl Project, founded by Nomani and Barbara Feinman Todd, director of journalism at Georgetown University. They investigated Danny’s kidnapping and murder. Thirty-two graduate and undergraduate students acquired investigative skills by interviewing and delving into other sources. Through their reporting, they pinpointed twenty-seven people involved, far more than the FBI found. Asra also traveled to Guantanamo Bay–she felt she had to see for herself Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the al Qaeda operative who confessed to beheading Pearl. “It didn’t bring Danny back but I needed to do it to process the grief,” she said.
In 2015, Nomani became a cofounder of the Muslim Reform Movement, which describes itself as “a global coalition of Muslim reformers.” She worked with reformist Muslims such as Zuhdi Jasser, author of Battle for the Soul of Islam, Raheel Raza, president of the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow and author of Their Jihad–Not My Jihad. Nomani is author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Nomani has said that reform Muslims must “take back the faith” on principles of peace and social justice, women’s rights, and secular government. Part of her re-examination of Islam was going on a hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. She took her parents (her father was required as a chaperone) and her then-small son.
It seems natural that a woman who engaged in the daunting task of trying to reclaim Islam would be up for the hard work of reclaiming the public schools. PDE offers parents some great tools (including excellent original reporting). But perhaps its greatest boon to parents was summed up by IWF’s Julie Gunlock. Upon learning of the organization, Julie urged parents to breathe a sigh of relief and know something important: You are not alone.