Muslim activist details interfaith work in 'true-blue American story'
Victor Begg arrived in the United States nearly a half-century ago with many goals. Becoming an “accidental activist” was not among them.
But as the Indian immigrant settled into Metro Detroit, circumstances pushed him on that path time and again: uniting fellow Muslims to form a community-based advocacy group; starting an inclusive mosque dedicated to diversity; bonding with regional religious leaders to help launch one of the state’s largest interfaith initiatives.
The retired entrepreneur’s efforts as a peacemaker, interfaith leader and community organizer have drawn national attention and forged bonds with clergy and lawmakers, even visits to the White House.
Today, the 71-year-old grandfather of four believes his message of building bridges is even more critical as Muslims locally and nationwide are reported to face increased harassment and targeting.
“People get to know you as neighbors, and you get to know them, and things change,” Begg recently told an audience at an Oakland County synagogue.
The Florida resident returned to Michigan this month to share insights from “Our Muslim Neighbor,” his memoir published this year.
Touted as a “true-blue American story,” the work aims to upend stereotypical perceptions of those who practice Islam — residents who, like him, consider themselves patriotic, rejecting extremism and striving to reach across divides to uplift their communities.
The book, some of the local interfaith leaders who count Begg as a mentor and friend say, extends his legacy and serves an influential guide in a volatile political climate.
“People of all ages and backgrounds could take a look at this and say: ‘This is a man who shaped his life because he believed inclusiveness is important,’” said Sharona Shapiro, the former American Jewish Committee area director who serves on the trustee board of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield Township. “He’s a great role model.”
Begg, who relocated to warmer climes by 2015 after closing his business, Naked Furniture, spent three years researching, compiling historical facts and retracing his advocacy to complete the memoir.
He was inspired partly by his grandchildren and a need to detail the lives of a demographic that some in the U.S. might misunderstand. As recently as 2017, a Pew Research Center survey found less than half of Americans claimed to know a Muslim.
“My family story, in all of its vulnerabilities, offers a window into the daily life and beliefs of ordinary American Muslims,” Begg said. “You get to know who they really are.”
Born Ghalib Begg (the first name is Arabic for “victorious”) to an upper-class family in Hyderabad, India, he emigrated to the U.S. in 1970 after a stint working in Saudi Arabia, not knowing how to use a pay phone and bound for the University of Detroit, where a friend was enrolled.
While pursuing a master’s degree in business administration, he worked various jobs: pumping gas, washing dishes, joining an assembly line, selling vacuum cleaners.
In 1975, Begg wed Shahina, another Indian immigrant whom he met in class who identified as Hindu then later converted to Islam. In a harbinger of the interfaith work the couple would pursue for decades, their civil ceremony was officiated by the Jewish mayor of Oak Park.
“America — the only place where that could happen,” the father of three said.
His newfound home was also where Begg, who in his 30s started building a furniture chain in southeast Michigan, embraced his faith.
Though having grown up “as a cultural Muslim,” typically attending services during the two major holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, he experienced a religious reawakening that spurred him to learn more from the Quran, exemplify Islamic principles and unify others at a time when few mosques existed in Metro Detroit and worshipers often congregated along sectarian or ethnic lines, the businessman recalled.
First, Begg helped organize an annual gathering of Muslims across the region. That preceded his efforts to connect with mosque leaders in the 1980s to form an umbrella group, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan to represent the demographic to the media and others.
“He was a visionary in that early on, he was the strength of the Muslim community in its diversity,” said Muzammil Ahmed, executive board member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, which formed from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan's merger with another organization.
“That vision of bringing people together, finding those commonalities, is something he always worked toward.”
Begg went on to head the Muslim American Alliance, which focused on media, networking and advocacy, and effectively became a spokesman for the community: fielding queries from journalists as well as offering perspective on issues affecting his religious community.
He also served as a voice of reason.
In 1995, immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing, Begg convened a news conference at a Southfield hotel and cautioned the media not to treat rumors of Muslim involvement as fact. His message: Don’t jump to conclusions.
“The Detroit media was very cooperative, but national media was going nuts because there was no nationally organized group that could speak to the media on behalf of the national Muslim community,” Begg said. “But I was able to do that here regionally.”
It would not be the last time he was compelled to speak out.
Begg, who also was involved with the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion and other interfaith efforts in the area, attended a gathering of religious leaders in Dearborn the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
At one point, he stunned the room by imploring attendees to not settle on a “kumbaya moment” and instead work on ways to prevent tragedies born of hatred and division.
Begg often cites 9/11 as the beginning of a new chapter for Muslims, but it also marked another turning point: the meetings he gathered eventually led to what became the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit. The group gathers lay and clerical people from multiple religions to build relationships through education and community-based initiatives such as lecture series, student field trips and activities.
“That was a really important beginning,” said Robert Bruttell, the council’s board chairman. “He has been a whirlwind in the community.”
Drawing on his myriad connections and commitment to diversity, Begg also co-founded the Muslim Unity Center in Bloomfield Hills, a nonprofit and mosque that initially faced opposition. Today, it hosts open houses and recently coordinated a two-day workshop on combating Islamophobia.
A former Detroit News Michiganian of the Year and recipient of a Community Peacemaker Award from Wayne State University’s Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Begg has joined an interfaith mission to promote peace in the Middle East, ended the holy month of Ramadan at a White House event with other Muslims in the 1990s and appeared at rallies denouncing extremism.
Throughout, Begg has demonstrated a willingness to work with “anyone who has love for God and works for the goodness of mankind,” said Abdullah El-Amin, imam emeritus at the Muslim Center of Detroit.
Associates note that some ongoing Michigan Muslim Community Council projects kicked off through Begg’s connections, and many in the area count him as a mentor.
“Victor certainly spun a web of relationships,” said Steve Spreitzer, president and CEO at the Michigan Roundtable, who has known him for more than 20 years. “He’s very much alive in this community even though he lives in Florida.”
Begg recognizes, though, that Muslims still face a challenging environment.
The FBI found that 18.6 percent of the 1,749 victims of anti-religious hate crimes in 2017 were targeted through anti-Muslim bias.
Begg is a registered Republican who supported local GOP politicians and considered meeting George W. Bush a high point in his public service. But he stresses that he does not support President Donald Trump or what he perceives as the administration's targeting of Muslims — including the travel restrictions placed on those from some countries.
“For the sake of our next generation, we have to respond. Especially with the misinformation,” he said.
That effort, and his genial personality, guided a recent talk at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield Township.
After Rabbi emeritus Norm Roman introduced him as a friend of the synagogue’s founder and “a soul that has brought so much respect and understanding,” Begg addressed a small audience from a sunlit pulpit near a needlework panel that read “Voice of My People.”
He reminded the guests that “advocacy goes both ways. … It’s not just defending your own community, but any community. You also have to work within your community to bring change.”
Diane Crone, a longtime synagogue member from Walled Lake, attended the talk.
“I think in today’s climate, what I realize more and more, the Muslim community wants the same things we all do: a peaceful co-existence and being able to voice our differences without walking away,” she said.