Swim Above the Sharks

What negative publicity taught me about my narrative — and my community

Back Commentary Jun 22, 2015 By Basim Elkarra

In high school, I was a skinny 6’4” basketball center who played against opponents who were taller and stronger. My coach taught me a move that has helped me in life beyond basketball. In order to get in front of a larger opponent without fouling or expending too much energy, all I had to do was gracefully “swim” around the obstacle to make the play to support my team.

A calm and graceful response to any negative publicity is the best way to maintain control over your own narrative.

Earlier this year, I decided to run for the Twin Rivers School Board. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. First, my wife was due with twins around election time. Second, as a civil rights activist working for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy organization, I am a frequent target of Islamophobic smears. Because of my high profile on civil rights issues impacting American Muslims, I knew there was a strong possibility that I would face rhetorical attacks during the school board campaign.

A $119-million industry (2008-2011 funding) works day and night to attack American Muslims, CAIR and its staff nationwide. A Google search of my name will show any number of scurrilous untruths based on recycled falsehoods, distortions and misinformation. Some propaganda is clearly designed to keep an American religious minority from asserting their civil rights. However, some of this misinformation is actually quite sophisticated, due to the fact that it is developed by professionals seeking to profit from anti-Muslim hate. They have an army of staff and supporters who work to make their posts, blogs and websites go viral. They have mastered search engine optimization.

Despite understanding this challenge, the decision to run was personal for me. With two young children — and twins born on election night — I have a vested interest in helping turn around the worst-performing school district in the region. This was not about politics. It was about my children and my community. Having also founded and run a successful youth leadership program at the State Capitol, I was ready to do more for the children in our region.

I believed that my record would allow people to see through any hate propaganda. Over the course of a decade in Sacramento, I have done hundreds of media interviews regarding the Muslim community, terrorism, foreign affairs and civil liberties. Everything I have done since moving to Sacramento in 2004 has been public and transparent; two components that helped me maintain control over my narrative.  

When I was attacked during the school board campaign in an anonymous, illegal, inaccurate and bigoted flyer, I had to rely on my reputation. Neighbors, community leaders and elected officials came out strongly to support me and to denounce the flyers as hateful propaganda meant to sway an election. I spent the last decade building bridges and supporting others in their efforts to improve our community; so when I needed support, I did not have to ask.  

In a crisis it is always more effective to be defended by influential leaders instead of defending oneself.  I did not have to change my campaign strategy or shift my narrative in response to the hate-filled flyer. My hope was that the thousands of community members and leaders who met me or read my campaign materials would make a judgment based on my reputation, endorsements and standing in the community.

While the ordeal caused a minor distraction in the campaign, I stayed positive throughout. I did not take it personally and refused to respond in kind. As a child, my parents told me a story of an ordinary man who enters heaven based solely on that fact that he went to sleep each evening without malice in his heart toward anyone, even the ones who had wronged him.

I believe the goal of those who distributed the hate flyer was for me to react defensively. In that they failed.

Even in California, Sacramento is unique in its cultural heritage, diversity and tolerance — it is arguably the freest, most welcoming place in America to be a racial and religious minority. This is why I am  proud to call the Sacramento region home. Sacramento is also a tight-knit city in which community leaders of all walks of life and sectors regularly meet, get to know one another and collaborate. Furthermore, leaders in the Sacramento Valley are very open and accessible. For example, if you attend the Metro Chamber, American Leadership Forum or Urban League’s annual banquets, you will get to know key leaders from many sectors of this region and, more importantly, they will get to know you. Your reputation is your narrative.


Melissa (not verified)June 22, 2015 - 11:16am

Wonderful essay. At one juncture in my life, I taped the following to my desk: l'aigle ne chasse pas les mouches......"the eagle does not chase the fly". It helped me remember to carry on with honesty and calm and to try to see the humor in pitiful attempts at slander. You are correct, your reputation is your narrative. Grace, patience and a sense of humor are lifeboats.