At a time when presidential candidates speak of barring Muslims from entering the country and local officials make noises about keeping Syrian refugees out, it seems like a useful moment to check in with Roula Allouch. A resident of Erlanger, Allouch is the national board chair for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), as well as an attorney in the downtown office of Ray Decker. We met in the lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center to talk about Islam and Cincinnati.
What is the biggest misconception people here have about Islam? A big one, I think, is about the status of women in our faith. It’s important for me to let people know I’m an Islamic woman and as American as anybody else. And as liberated as anybody else—in part because of my faith. There’s a misunderstanding that [the hijab] is forced on women by men, when in fact it’s an expression of faith from an individual to her creator. It’s a choice that I make, and it’s not always an easy one in these times. But I’m blessed to live in a country that allows me that choice.
You referred to “these times”: Can you tell me of a time when you have maybe felt the brunt of the current climate? Once I was with a group of female friends, a few with covered hair. We were on the Newport levee in the summertime, eating ice cream, and a few teenagers were circling around. Some nasty comments were made. What upset me the most was the response from bystanders—they seemed to think we were instigating this. It just reminded me that there’s a lot of work to be done to bridge the gap and decrease barriers between people.
What was life like growing up in Lexington? In the summer we could go outside and play all day. It was the classic scene where at the end of the day [my] parents would call us home. I can’t say I was the best at kickball but I enjoyed it. I have five siblings, so growing up involved spending a lot of time playing and/or arguing with them.
Is this region still a good place to grow up Islamic? Certainly recent months have been very difficult—all the hate rhetoric, particularly from the campaign season. When people seeking elected office are making such hateful and bigoted comments, it seems to empower others who share those fears to act out in ways that are violent and intimidating. In Lexington and Louisville, mosques were vandalized or have received death threats. And a young student at UC was attacked near campus—so it feels like there’s a heightened level of Islamophobia. At the same time I’m given hope by responses from other individuals who have said, “We’re not going to let those voices speak for all of us.”