This is the first article in a two-part series on Iranian-American activist and author Melody Moezzi.
Melody Moezzi is an activist in every sense of the word: She embraces causes, and she does something about them.
"I feel like I've accomplished a lot in the short time that I've had on this planet, but I think part of the reason that I've done that is when I was 17 years old until the time I was 21 I had a serious physical illness [pancreatitis caused by a tumor], during which time doctors told me several times I would not live," Moezzi said. "And I thought, 'I'd better get ... in gear because I may not have a lot of time here.' So I wanted to sort of make my mark before I left."
Melody Moezzi's activism took her to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, where she hula-hooped for peace while doing interviews, including this one in Spanish.
Moezzi, an Iranian American who lives in the U.S. state of Georgia, embraced justice and became a lawyer, then a writer, a speaker and a political volunteer. She embraced Islam, then wrote and spoke against stereotypes of Muslims in America. She learned the hard way that she has bipolar disorder, and while she didn't exactly embrace it, she writes for fellow patients and works to clear up misconceptions about them.
At 31, Moezzi is a lively, often humorous commentator, through speeches, in newspapers, online and on television, about such serious topics as politics, Iran, the West's relationship with Islam and public health. She found a fun way to make political points by starting a group called Hooping for Peace, for which she hula-hooped for six hours straight outside the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She's an award-winning author of War on Error: Real Stories of American Muslims. She also is a lawyer and the part-time executive director of 100 People of Faith, a nonprofit group in Atlanta, Georgia, that supports interfaith dialogue and education.
"The idea is to bring people of different faiths together to just see that we have more that unites us than divides us," she said.
Moezzi is acutely aware of society's divisions. She was born in the United States to two Iranian physicians. "I consider myself Iranian. I consider myself American. I consider myself Muslim," she said. "And if you were to say to me, 'Okay, do you consider yourself one-third of each?' I would say, 'No, I consider myself 100 percent American, 100 percent Iranian, 100 percent Muslim.'"
For that matter, she added, she's 100 percent bipolar; she's just been remarkably successful at working around her illness.
It helps that she has a cause. "I was really young when I realized that I was good at fighting for other people, standing up for other people - and standing up for myself," she said. During the 1990s, when war raged in Bosnia, "I decided that I wanted to be an international human rights lawyer. It sounded really nice. And then I went to law school and realized that it's really, really difficult to enforce international law. ... The system, for me - I'm very impatient - moves very slowly, and I realized that writing was a much quicker way to get my message across." So Moezzi entered the court of public opinion, using her legal training to shape "the way I think and the way I write."
It helps that she is happy in the spotlight. She said her secondary school in Ohio had a wonderful speech and debate program, which she loved. "After that, if someone offered me a microphone, I was willing to take it," she said.
The issues facing Muslim Americans attracted her first, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "I had realized that there was a lot of ignorance toward Islam ... and not really minded too much because I never really faced discrimination on that basis, and I didn't see that much toward anyone else," said Moezzi, who does not wear a hijab. "But then after 9/11, I saw that not only was there this ignorance, but suddenly there was this level of hatred that I hadn't seen before."
Moezzi said that while attending law school in Atlanta, she often studied in a bookstore that had a large gay customer base, enjoying the music and the atmosphere. "I just expected a level of open-mindedness, I guess, since I was there, and there was this couple, and one of them said to his boyfriend he saw a Muslim woman crossing the street who was wearing hijab, and he said, 'You know, if I were driving that truck behind her, I would have just run her over.' And I turned around and I said, 'I'm Muslim, and I don't discriminate against you on any basis. What do you know about Islam?' And he turned and he said, 'Well, I didn't fly planes into buildings.' So I said, 'Well, neither did I. Do you think I did that? Do you think she did that?'"
Moezzi channeled that anger into her 2007 book War on Error, which looks at a dozen Americans, remarkably diverse, who practice Islam in different ways. "I knew a lot of Muslim Americans, and I thought, well, a lot of Americans don't have the benefit of having all of these Muslim friends," she said. "So my idea was I'll introduce them to Muslims, and if they meet us, at least even through a book, if they meet us and they know that we're Muslim, then it'll be a lot more difficult for them to hate us."
"I think there's a very large silent majority of moderate Muslims who go unnoticed, and I wanted them to go noticed."
The book was noticed: Moezzi won the Georgia Author of the Year Award from the Georgia Writers Association.
Next up, she said, is a book that, like War on Error, will give a human face - hers - to the issues of living with bipolar disorder. She already has written about the subject for CNN.com, and the response was overwhelming. "I just got such amazing comments and e-mails, and all very supportive," she said. "It's just something I'm not used to, getting all that positive energy."
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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