Shakila T. Ahmad is a woman of firsts. When the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati opened in 1995 in West Chester, just off Interstate 75, she was the youngest and the first woman named to its board of directors.
Now, 19 years later, Ahmad has been named the first female president at the center where she oversees the predominately male board of directors and the executive council. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly.
Ahmad said her father was educated in the United States, and he moved his family and four young children to Indiana where he was studying at Indiana University. After he graduated, the family was considering moving to Wisconsin, but then settled on the Cincinnati area because it was warmer, she said with a smile.
She worked at IBM in Cincinnati and now serves as director of business management at Allergy and Asthma Speciality Center on Tylersville Road, where her husband, Dr. Masood, is director. They have two sons and one daughter. Two of them have graduated from college and the other is still in college.
When asked about living and working in the Mason area, she said: “This is my village. This is the culture that I’m most familiar with.”
Q: As president, what is your role at the center?
A: Really to be the steward and offer leadership to the board, oversee the use of the facility, and provide educational programs. It’s a volunteer position which means all of the work but none of the pay except from the Big Guy. That’s what counts in the long run.
Q: Being the first female president, do you feel you’re a trailblazer?
A: I don’t know about the word trailblazer. I’d say we definitely are on the forefront in many ways in the United States and maybe beyond in regards to an Islamic Center and the leadership and the responsibilities that women carry at the center. It’s always been a very progressive, open center. So we have always been on the leading edge. It’s very consistent with the center and how women are looked at.
Q: Can you explain how Muslim women are viewed and if they’re viewed differently in the United States?
A: I think there are a couple of things that are extremely misunderstood about Islam and Muslim and the role and status of women is one of them. Women are equal in the eyes of God. The responsibility to their faith is the same as the responsibility that men have to their faith. And so there are many rights given to Muslim women 1,400 years ago that Western society didn’t get until the last 100 years. From an Islamic point of view, it’s very equitable in terms of women. So I think the beautiful thing about America is the level of the playing field as far as providing a foundation. It doesn’t mean that we are perfect in this country and we have many women struggles that we’re still dealing with. We probably are in the best place in the world.
Q: Do you see misconceptions about the center?
A: We see tremendous misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and as a result, the center. There are quite often misconceptions in two areas: Islam and the violence. Islam not only forbids terrorism but there is the religious edict that forbids terrorism, forbids suicides because life is the most sacred gift you have been given and to take your own life is one of the greatest sins you could commit. We believe that God gave us freedom of choice. If God gave us that choice, why would it be right for us to force others to believe what we believe? And we already talked about misconceptions about women. That’s not saying that there aren’t Muslims committing atrocities. Sure there are Muslims, or people who claim to be Muslims, who are abusing the name of Islam for their personal and political objectives. That does not make them consistent with the teachings of the Islam. If a Christian commits an atrocity, bombs an abortion clinic or does another horrific crime, we don’t call that person a Christian terrorist or a Jewish terrorist.
Q: Right after 9/11, in the days and weeks that followed, I remember seeing a police cruiser in the center’s parking lot. That seemed so odd to have a police presence in a place of worship. What was the feeling like at the center?
A: You know, Rick, post 9/11, that day was one of the most horrific days in my life. It’s been the most difficult period of my adult life. Because of the horrific crime, the loss of American life and the loss of innocent lives from all of those people who were here from all over the world, different religions, including, I think, 400 Muslims that were part of the World Trade Tower. Beyond that it was so sad, that fellow Americans lashed out against Muslim Americans for fear and blame. Contrary to what some people may believe, the cruisers were there to protect us because the center got threatening phone calls, they received really some things that were of a concern. It’s really interesting when people saw the cruisers and they didn’t know why they were there. We are thankful for the rule of law in this country.
Q: Is the region’s Muslim population growing?
A: Muslim population and diversity as a whole is growing in this country. The Muslim population has and continues to grow. It grows through people like me having children. Hopefully everyone is staying connected to their faith. I grew up when the best of the best were able to come to the United States because they brought specialized skills and professions that were needed.
Q: What do you think the Islam Center is doing to get more involved in the local community?
A: That’s always been a very, very important aspect of our business. I very much want to make that one of my priorities to have a closer relationship with the greater community as our neighbors, as fellow Americans, as people of faith. We hope to strengthen and build upon our relationship with Miami University and Xavier and other institutions. We also are very much supportive of local businesses, local food pantries.
Q: When you drive up and down I-75, and you look over and see the center, what do you think of?
A: I do feel a sense of pride that this is a beautiful institution that is part of the community and that we want to be a model for non-profit, religious institution that gives back to the community. We want to draw people to the center and we have. Some people have moved to the area because they see this as a strong institution that is anchored in the community, that gives back to the community, and there is an independent school in the center. Everything is through the mercy of God and it’s up to us how we handle it and how we are caretakers. It’s a big responsibility.
Q: Education appears to be an important aspect of the center and one of its main objectives. What are those goals?
A: Connect neighbors with each and clear up misconceptions in a way which is welcoming, transparent and open. We know that people have a lot of questions. If you don’t learn and understand each other you can never get to a point of mutual respect. And you have to have mutual respect to do collective, community work.
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