Masood Akhtar | Madison, WI
He said, ‘Why is that?’ I answered, ‘Well, I’m reading a lot about America and learning about the U.S. Constitution, particularly its freedom of religion. I am Muslim, which is a minority in India. I see the U.S. as the country that allows you to practice your religion and fulfill your dreams. That’s not possible anywhere else, as far as I know.’ Then my father said, ‘Okay. Well, nobody in the family has gone there, so you need to keep working hard to make sure that you get to the United States.’
I come from a big family. I grew up in Shahjahanpur in a small home with seven siblings, my mother, and father. My father’s passion for education was remarkable. People would often reach out to him and say, ‘My son is going in the wrong direction, and we need your guidance.’ Even though we had a very small house, he would bring those kids to stay with us.
Years later, when I graduated from college, I saw an opportunity in the national newspaper. The government of India had decided to send 50 people overseas for higher education. I showed this to my dad, who said, ‘Oh, this is perfect. This is what you were talking about 15 years ago. Apply for it.’ Although I didn’t think my chances were good being a minority in India, I turned in my resume.
A month later, I got a letter from the government that said, ‘Dear Masood, we got 60,000 applicants for these 50 positions; we selected 200 people for the interview, and you are one of them.’ My dad was the kind of person who, when anything good happened in our community, would tell everyone. So, everyone learned that I was going to Delhi for the interview. In Delhi, I was selected, and my journey began.
After finishing my post-doctoral studies at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, I talked to my dad by phone. He said, ‘Your fellowship has ended, and you have an exceptional job offer here in India. What do you want to do now?’
I replied that I wanted to do three things: ‘Number one, I told you when I was seven years old how great this country was just based on my readings. Now that I have spent two years here, I know that I was right, that this is the best country on the face of this Earth, where I can practice my religion and fulfill my dream.’ So, I want to give something back to America. Second, all my education was paid for by the government of India. So, I’m going to give something back to India, including all that they paid for my education. Plus, whatever else I can do to serve my country. Number three, I have a passion for education like you. So, in this or other countries, I want to make sure that every single kid who graduates from high school — regardless of who they are, what their ethnicity is, what their color is, I don’t care — should go to college.’
After listening to my five-minute speech, my dad said, ‘Masood, those three things, if you come back to India, they are not going to happen. So, you better stay there in the U.S.’
Today, I’m doing exactly what I promised 38 years ago. I have developed partnerships between Indian and American energy companies. I started and still run multiple businesses. I founded Empowering Students for Success, Inc., to help give students from low- and middle-income families access to higher education. And I founded We Are Many – United Against Hate. These efforts are reaching into schools throughout Wisconsin. If my dad were alive today, he’d be happy to see that I’ve accomplished all three of my promises.
Being Muslim, I eat halal meat. At that time in Columbus, it was a challenge to find shops with halal meat. I knew a guy from DC who would drive a truck every month to Columbus with halal meat and other groceries. My friends and I would meet him in a parking lot to buy our groceries. I didn’t have a big freezer, so my neighbors let me store my meat in their freezer. However, I didn’t know how to cook. Every day, I would talk to my mother or my sister and ask, ‘How do I cook rice? How do I cook meat?’ When I was at the University for the day, I would call my neighbor to let them know I was coming by to get some of my frozen meat. Most of the time, when I got there, they had already cooked it for me.
I moved to Madison in 1987, married, and have two kids. I got my degree in microbiology and have been an entrepreneur for over 30 years. I founded and led several companies and have been involved in supporting Wisconsin’s manufacturing and energy industries. My work is satisfying, and I have been successful, bringing millions of dollars in federal grants to Wisconsin and outside Wisconsin as well. I have received several awards, including the Wisconsin Small Business Innovation award.
After 9/11, a big challenge for the Muslim community was how others perceived us. Muslims were often portrayed in the media as terrorists, and some politicians used that to fuel misunderstanding. Hate crimes against Muslims increased substantially.
Often, whenever there was a shooting, I would not leave my house until I found out about the shooter. If the shooter is Muslim, right away, you will see the phrase ‘Islamic terrorist,’ which associates terrorism with a specific religion. As a Muslim, I feared that some people might take out their anger on me. But when the shooter is white, you don’t see anything about his religion, only that he’s mentally disturbed. As a result of all this, I became very active in Madison’s Muslim community and helped to organize events to educate people about the misconceptions they might have about Islam and Muslims.
In 2016, when President Donald Trump was talking about starting a ‘Muslim Registry,’ a Madison TV station called me, as an activist in the Madison Muslim community, for my reaction. I accepted an invitation to appear on a local public affairs program. I said, ‘I came from India 35 years ago and gave up my Indian citizenship more than 25 years ago based on what America offered. Singling out a minority based on religion is un-American, unconstitutional, and will divide the country.’ I proposed the idea of starting an ‘Anti-Hate Registry’ that would bring people together, regardless of religion, color, or ethnicity, or political affiliation. As soon as the program aired, I received an overwhelming response from people, who were eager to sign up for the movement I suggested. That’s how We Are Many – United Against Hate began.
I believe in educating through the real-life stories of people. Our board includes former Neo-Nazi and KKK leaders and other former right-wing extremists, along with an expert in domestic terrorism, a teacher, a sheriff, and a man whose 21-year-old son was murdered because he was Muslim. This man shocked a courtroom in Kentucky and had everybody in tears, including the judge, when he forgave and hugged the man who killed his son. On the last day in court, the father faced the guy who was going to go to jail forever and says, ‘You were simply misguided that you killed my son. I am a Muslim. My religion is Islam, and Islam teaches forgiveness. So, I am forgiving you today.’ I’m proud to have this father on my board. I tell people, ‘Islam is not what you see on television. Islam is what you see in this guy. Forgiveness is the greatest gift in Islam.’
When I started United Against Hate, I also reached out to Arno Michaelis and Pardeep Kaleka. Arno is a former White Supremacist who started the hate group behind the 2012 killing of seven people, including Pardeep’s father, at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek. As part of our educational program, we bring both men to high schools, colleges, and community forums to share their powerful stories. They talk about how they overcame differences, found common ground, forged a close friendship, and now work together to promote peace. After organizing events like this, we began to work closely with students, teachers, administrators, and community members to understand the root causes of hate and bigotry in their communities, identify best practices to deal with them and make resources available to schools and colleges. In short, we are action-oriented.
I was there when Arno and Pardeep first met. I’ve seen the impact they are having by sharing their story and their work — all made possible because two people decided to sit down together. It’s something that normally doesn’t happen in this kind of situation.
Arno and Pardeep were the main speakers at ‘Moving Past Hate,’ one of the first events organized by United Against Hate, at Madison’s Monona Terrace. Both the Republican and Democratic parties of Dane County sponsored and promoted the event. That was important, because our group is non-partisan. I don’t call it bipartisan, because that makes it an ideology issue. We are now living in an environment of fear and hate. That’s not a Republican issue nor a Democratic issue, but a human issue that should be dealt with outside of politics.
United Against Hate is committed to community engagement, even one-on-one counseling and mentoring to help people work through prejudices and recognize our common humanity. Instead of just condemning the latest hate-inspired violence, we dig down to the root causes of division, fear, and hate. When students in Baraboo were photographed making a Nazi salute, many people condemned the community. We reached out to local leaders to organize a community-wide response.
Once in a while, I receive hate letters, which often start by pointing out that I am a Muslim and telling me what I should or should not believe. I never react in a negative way, but always respond simply: ‘Dear _______, Thank you for sharing your concerns. You’re not the only one who has concerns about Muslims and misconceptions about my religion and people like me.’ I describe all that I have been doing as a part of my community, getting out and engaging with people, organizing events. And I share a recording from one of our meetings. I invite them to our upcoming events and even offer to sit down with them to discuss their concerns.
A few weeks after Arno and Pardeep spoke, I got a call from a Mount Horeb school teacher, who said, ‘Two of my students went and listened to Arno and Pardeep and showed me the flyer from the event. They told me that listening to them changed their lives. They said, you should call Masood, so that he can bring Arno and Pardeep here. They want all 800 of their fellow classmates at Mount Horeb School to listen to the same message.’ That was an amazing moment. It led me to establish a Student Ambassador Board in an effort to employ students. That’s when I knew this was really resonating with people and it was a way that I could make a difference.
When I asked why I was selected from among hundreds of people, they pointed to two things about United Against Hate. One is our real-life stories approach, that is, taking former leaders of hate groups into classrooms and communities. I believe that we can all learn how to address racial and cultural hate by listening to those who were once consumed by it. The other is that we empower young people to be leaders. It is students who are starting chapters in their schools. The White House also liked that we keep our work nonpartisan.
I started United Against Hate in response to being asked by a television reporter what I thought about President Trump’s idea of starting a Muslim registry. I see this idea as distinctly un-American. I suggested that, instead, let’s create an Anti-Hate Registry, of people standing up to fight against hateful speech and actions. Because of the immediate, positive response to my suggestion, I decided to create United Against Hate, with an advisory board that brought together people representing different communities.
I really love this country, but we are facing some significant challenges. In recent years, we have seen growing divisions and a rise in hate crimes. The FBI reported a record 11,000 incidents of hate in 2021. That’s one of the main reasons I started United Against Hate. I want to see people come together to build an inclusive community that rejects violence and extremism, to speak with one voice against those who want to divide us. Learning as a kid about the rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution convinced me that the United States would be a great country to live in.
America is unique in what it offers. I think many people born in this country take that for granted. And despite all of our differences, there are still opportunities. But we all need to work together. The percentage of people who are truly extremist, and active in hate groups, is still very small, but they are getting so much attention. Most Americans are good people.
Bringing former heads of hate groups, former KKK leaders, into classrooms makes a huge difference. Hate groups often start recruiting members from an early age — from middle schools and high schools. So having a former KKK or Neo-Nazi leader share their stories of how they got involved with hate groups is powerful, and students are really listening. Some have been inspired to start United Against Hate chapters in their schools. Right now, we have student-led chapters in McFarland, Dodgeville, and Deerfield, with many more expressing an interest. In addition, we now have 5 chapters overseas.
As we move forward, I believe that our young people can provide the most effective leadership. That’s why I want to create more opportunities to bring them together, so that they can help develop ideas and strategies for combating these destructive forces.
I tell students that these are the basics: ‘Be proactive in your community; be strategic; be nonpartisan; act. Silence is no longer an option.’ I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that if people can be taught to hate, they can easily be taught to love.