Omar Ashmawy tells his story like he has no idea how extraordinary it is.
He weaves the tale slowly, carefully choosing the words that will make it all fit together.
It’s not a simple story, but it has a simple beginning, and Ashmawy uses simple words to tell it.
“My mother was born in Italy. My father was born in Egypt. They met in the United States and got married.”
And then the story becomes extraordinary.
Omar’s father, Seif Ashmawy, was born in Egypt. He was Muslim.
“My father was always a very vocal individual who had certain disagreements with the society he lived in,” Omar said. “He was very vocal about his disagreement with a lot of government policies.”
So vocal, in fact, that Seif’s family was concerned for his safety. It was not unheard of, Omar says, for known adversaries of the Egyptian government to disappear.
“His family was very concerned that one day they’d wake and find that he had disappeared – that he was just gone.”
Seif studied geology and chemistry in Egypt, and worked for a year as a geologist in the Sahara Desert. Then he packed his bags for the United States.
Here, Omar pauses. He tries to organize his thoughts, but things begin to spill together.
He tells the story the way he thinks his mother would tell it: She met Seif in New Jersey. He was an executive at Lipton, she owned a pharmacy.
Maria was born in Italy to a Roman Catholic family. She came to the United States when she was 10 and went to Catholic schools when “they could still whack you,” as Omar puts it.
“She had always questioned Catholicism and when she met my father, she had never even heard of Islam,” Omar says.
But the more Seif explained his religion, the more she realized – he was putting a name on something she already believed.
“She always believed in it, she just never knew what she believed in,” Omar explains.
So she converted to Islam, and when Omar was born a few years later, the couple raised their only son in the Islam faith.
“My mother had a crib in the back of the pharmacy and she would work in the front, and then come back and take care of me,” Omar says.
His story changes here, and he settles back to tell it. He’s told it many times; the twists and turns it takes are the twists and turns of his life – he knows them well.
“Seven years ago, my father began a newspaper called The Voice of Peace,” Omar says. “It’s dedicated to the peaceful communication of ideas and it’s half in English and half in Arabic.”
The paper, he explains, was a melange – part community newsletter, part issues forum, part scholarly journal. It was a place where issues would be handled fairly and news would be covered accurately.
Omar backs up a moment and retraces his steps.
“My father started the paper in response to a growing extremist movement in the Islam community that was advocating against the tenets of the religion,” he says.
Islam, he explains, is about tolerance. It is a faith based on inclusion that teaches kindness, peace and mercy. Seif felt the extremism creeping into the Islamic community ran counter to the religion.
“My dad and the people who worked with him on The Voice of Peace were moderate individuals who were interested in promoting peace, understanding and education – they were trying to promote the actual teachings of Islam,” Omar says.
Slowly, Seif’s voice and voices like his became louder, and Omar remembers his dad’s slow evolution into a leading advocate of the moderate Muslim point of view.
Seif began to speak on radio shows devoted to the discussion of religious issues. He spoke at churches and synagogues about Islam and its teachings. He was part of an interfaith group that traveled to the Middle East to advocate peace to political leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, West Bank and Israel.
Omar weaves his own life in from time to time, but it is the story of his father’s passion that drives his tale.
“I was on the radio with my father sometimes. I spoke to youth groups at churches and synagogues about being a young Muslim in the U.S.,” Omar says. “Teachers would ask me to come in and speak to their classes.”
But he was happy in the background. He and his mother were Seif’s support – they stood behind him, they offered advice, they offered love.
And when it came to The Voice of Peace – funded out of the family’s pocket – Omar was a jack-of-many-trades. He was a reporter, an editor, a layout designer, a typesetter. Even now, in his second semester at GW Law School, he goes home the weekend before the monthly paper comes out to put the paper together, often on the Ashmawy kitchen table.
Omar leans forward as he tells the next part of the story, rearranging the pieces in his head, wondering if things really could have happened as they did.
“Supporters of Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman threatened my father’s life.” He says it matter-of-factly, firmly – he’s said it before.
Omar explains that Seif had openly confronted Rahman – a Muslim extremist considered the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“They were trying to silence what my dad was saying. It made all of us think, `Is this something we feel so strongly about that we’re willing to risk our lives for it?’ ” Omar says. “We decided it was – it solidified our intent. My father didn’t miss a beat.”
Omar is still for a second. He looks out the window.
“My dad died on a Friday,” Omar says. “That Monday was his last day of work – he was retiring. He wanted to devote more time to The Voice of Peace and to his advocacy work.”
The day was Jan. 23, 1998 – two weeks into Omar’s second semester of law school. Seif died in a car accident on an icy day. He was 60.
Seif left behind a family as devoted to a moderate Muslim voice as he was.
“While my father was still alive, in the back of mind I was always saying, `Well, my father’s doing such a great job,’ ” Omar says. “I was very comfortable supporting him in whatever I needed to do because I didn’t see any reason to duplicate efforts. And I don’t know how comfortable I was being in the public eye.
“But all of a sudden, there was this vacuum, and it was important for someone to keep saying the things my father was saying. There aren’t a lot of people saying those things.”
A week after Seif died, the Ashmawy family got a call from the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. The committee had planned to have Seif testify in front of its Subcommittee on Technology, Terrorism and Government Information.
The hearing was to be a look at the World Trade Center bombing, almost five years to the day after what one senator called “the most devastating act of foreign terrorism in the United States.”
The committee’s staffers wanted Seif to testify about the threat that Muslim extremists pose to the Islamic community. When they discovered that Seif had left behind a son dedicated to his father’s cause, they asked Omar to testify.
So Omar spoke in his father’s stead.
“My father believed strongly in his faith and in peace,” Omar told the committee. “During his life, he fought to defend and protect his country, the United States of America; to defend his faith; and to speak out for the moderate voice of the world’s fastest growing religion – Islam.”
It has been three months since his father’s death and almost two since he spoke on the Hill.
Omar’s story continues.
He is in law school, and is beginning to consider his future. Criminal law, perhaps? Maybe civil liberties. He writes poetry. He reads – political theory, work on the psychology of terrorism, whatever catches his fancy.
Once a month, he goes home to help his mother with The Voice of Peace. His efforts now are focused on the development of the Muslim Coalition, an advocacy group Seif established only days before his death.
“There is still a very pervasive opinion in this country that Muslims are terrorists,” he says. “It is our responsibility to self-educate and to educate others. We’re at a point now where we need to bring people together more – we need to point out that we’re more the same than we
Ideally, the Muslim Coalition will bring together disjointed groups, Omar says. It will be an education-oriented organization that provides a non-biased, accurate perspective on issues and ideas.
The story is simple – it’s about a man passionately devoted to a cause, the love that binds a family, a son’s respect for his father’s life.
“My dad was amazing,” Omar says. “He was so fair. He had this attitude of, `Be sure you’re right before you go any further.’ I think I’m open-minded too, but I’m stubborn.
“I will feel very lucky if, as I get older, I find myself to be more like my father.”