Attorney, a native of Pakistan, says being Muslim wasn’t a big part of his identity — until recently.
“I can’t really sit still for more than five minutes,” said Asghar Syed.
That’s one reason the shareholder at Smith Hulsey & Busey built an impressive resume of public service.
Syed is a member of The Jacksonville Bar Association board of governors and serves on the board of directors for Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville.
Over the past two years, he also has been dedicated to serving the Muslim American community.
A native of Pakistan who grew up in Kuwait, Syed, 35, received his undergraduate degree at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and his law degree and MBA from the University of Florida.
Syed traveled extensively as an undergrad. He presented a workshop at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil; studied in Chiapas, Mexico; and worked on an independent study in Renala Khurd, Pakistan.
He helped launch the America China Teaching Program and taught English for a year in China.
Syed and his wife, Sabeen, were among the early architects of TEDxJacksonville. He established financial and in-kind support for the venture, while she focused on programming.
Last year, Syed initiated a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign for Jacksonville’s Muslim-American community, complete with voter registration at Islamic centers, phone banking and interfaith gatherings.
He also appeared on the First Coast Connect public radio broadcast to discuss his community’s views on the so-called “Muslim ban,” presented an anti-hate crime resolution to U.S. Rep. John Rutherford from Jacksonville and is helping produce a video documentary on Muslim American Social Services, a Muslim-run free care clinic in Jacksonville.
The Syeds are expecting their first child next month, but decided not to find out if the baby is a boy or girl. He’d rather not have any preconceived notions of who he or she will be.
This is an edited version of an interview with Syed, who has been a member of The JBA for more than seven years.
When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
I went to law school not necessarily knowing that I wanted to be a lawyer. I did well and really enjoyed law school, but didn’t know I wanted to be a lawyer.
I got a job at a fantastic law firm and still didn’t know. And then one day, you wake up and realize, “I’m actually quite good at this,” and I genuinely enjoy what I do. But I’m definitely not one of those people who knew as a kid.
What is it like working with Steve Busey?
Steve’s my mentor. He’s taught me everything I know.
Steve has two notable traits. He has an incredible ability to simplify complicated things. He gets right to the heart of the matter and, whether it’s oral argument or a brief, he presents what the court needs to hear and nothing more. Here’s the law and here’s the facts. Period.
Steve’s other trait is that as things get more difficult and as things get more intense, he gets calmer. As a team, I think we perform best under pressure.
What did you learn about yourself when you were teaching English in China?
You learn a lot about people as a traveler in a completely foreign environment. You see their hospitality and patience and their core values. And all of those things provide lessons that you take with you.
When you don’t speak the same language — when there are few English speakers around and when your Mandarin is atrocious like mine was — you find other ways to communicate and find commonality with folks.
At the schools where I taught English, I was blessed to be surrounded by truly hospitable people that really appreciated my interest in their culture and history. I’d like to think I return that favor when people are interested in my cultural heritage.
Talk about your involvement with the Muslim Leadership Initiative?
MLI is American and Canadian Muslims traveling to Israel to learn about Judaism and Jewish peoplehood.
It is hosted by the Shalom Hartman Institute and is the brainchild of Abdullah Antepli, chaplain of Duke University, and Yossi Halevi Klein, an Israeli author and academic at Shalom Hartman.
Typically, when Muslims and Jews work together, there’s a tacit agreement that they are not going to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s too hard. MLI flips the framework on its head. In MLI, there’s an assumption that unless we can talk about Israel and Palestine, we can’t really talk about anything.
The conversations we had in Israel were extraordinarily frank. They required a great deal of patience.
And while I’m not sure anyone changed their mind about terrorism or Palestinian human rights, there’s no question that all sides came away with a far deeper understanding of the conflict and, in the process, developed some real trust.
Describe some of those conversations.
There’s a mosque in Hebron where, in 1994, an Israeli settler, who was actually an American physician, committed a horrible terrorist attack against Muslims as they were making their dawn prayer. Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 worshipers and injured 125 others.
We sat in the mosque and heard a recounting of the incident. We could see the bullet holes in the old mosque tiles. And sitting with us was the imam (leader) of the mosque, whose brother was killed in the attack.
Later that evening, we were with the Palestinian parents of a young boy and a young girl who were killed by the Israel Defense Forces in two separate incidents. Their 8-year-old daughter was with us in the room and started shaking as we heard about what happened.
One of the really definitive moments was the day after Hebron when our Israeli hosts listened to us vent for maybe two hours. Then we took a break. Then we sat down again and listened to the Israelis vent.
The statement that really stuck with me was one of the older Israeli professors saying, “I’ve been to more funerals for my kids’ friends than I have for my friends.”
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not my cause. For me, the goal of MLI is to develop Muslim and Jewish collaboration in North America. We’ve begun that work with a series of interfaith and intercultural events in Jacksonville.
These are baby steps but, after all we’ve seen and heard, they are very refreshing.
Share some of the important work being done locally.
I am a big supporter of Muslim American Social Services that’s operated here since 2010. The services are available to any indigent uninsured patient. It’s not just for the Muslim community and most of their patients are not Muslim.
There are several organizations that do what MASS does, but because its executive director has a background in software engineering, they’re really good at tracking and reporting data. The hospitals really appreciate what they do and the transparency with which they do it.
It seems like you put a lot of time and energy in these programs. Why is it so important to you?
I grew up in a Muslim country. My parents are very traditional and while I’m not particularly religious, I’ve always had an immense respect for the Islamic faith, tradition and culture.
In America, the Muslim-American community is still in its infancy. Muslims started coming to the United States after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. They came as technicians, scientists and doctors. So, while the community is well-educated and has plenty of resources, it lacks sophistication.
You see that in the community’s failure to affect public discourse. Leading politicians routinely trash Muslims without consequence.
But it’s interesting. Being Muslim wasn’t a big part of my identity until recently. I’ve definitely become a lot more vocal about it the last couple of years.
Why the last couple of years?
We had a leading contender for the U.S. presidency talking about a Muslim ban. If that’s not going to wake up the community, I don’t know what will. It certainly woke me up.
But most people in my community aren’t interested in playing the victim. Across the board, I hear the Muslim community saying, “How can we engage civically? How can we give back? How can we be positive influencers here?”
There’s a strong feeling that the way we’re going to change the paradigm is by actually showing up and doing the work. That’s what the doctors are doing with MASS.
Are these issues even more important to you as you and Sabeen prepare for your child?
Yes, very much so.
We were at a birthing class at Baptist Downtown and the nurse made a comment about how, when you’re preparing to bring a life into this world, it’s really important to stay positive even when it feels like there are a lot of bad things happening all around you.
The conversations we’ve been having are heavy. But there’s no running away from them. And, at the core, we really are hopeful and optimistic. We think Jacksonville will be a great place for our kids to grow up.
What is the best lesson your parents taught you about being a parent?
My parents had diametrically different personalities. My dad was always very to the point. You need an education. You need a job. How are your grades?
My mom is the polar opposite. She’s much more of a fluid thinker, very intelligent, very high EQ and very good at understanding people.
The tag-team between the two of them was really good. I feel the same way about Sabeen and myself. I think we’ll have a very different approach to parenting and the team effort is going to make all the difference.
What do you want the world to be as your child is growing up?
I really want our kids to honor where they came from and for their unique identity to be a badge of pride.
But, when it comes to being a citizen, I want the things that make our kids different to be completely irrelevant. I want them to be judged on merit, not their religion or the color of their skin.