Marin man makes history as first Muslim on an ADL board

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As a young man growing up in Hyderabad, India, social justice work was the furthest thing from S.A. Ibrahim’s mind.

“Even 20 years ago, if you would have asked me about fighting prejudice, I was too focused on my career,” said the businessman who calls Tiburon home — even though his work as the CEO of Radian, a private mortgage insurance company, keeps him in Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., most of the time.

It might be a surprising sentiment, coming from the first Muslim to serve on an Anti-Defamation League board. Ibrahim was elected to the ADL’s Philadelphia regional board May 9, in a move that the 60-year-old banker sees as “pioneering.”

S.A. Ibrahim at Israel’s Western Wall with his wife, Nina

“It’s an unprecedented step, that they were this comfortable putting somebody like me on the board,” Ibrahim said of the ADL’s Eastern Pennsylvania/Delaware regional chapter. “They’re an outstanding team of passionate, committed people, and this just further illustrates their commitment to fighting hate of all kinds.”

The 60-year-old’s election to the regional board came six months after he spoke to that body about his first trip to Israel, in 2010, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to open channels between American Muslims and Israelis.

“We have to address the continued bias against Jews, as well as new biases against new immigrants — Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs,” Ibrahim said, speaking of his decision to join the ADL. “It shows that in the U.S., we can collaborate and create new partnerships between peoples.”

Marc Kaplin, an ADL regional chair in Philadelphia, said Ibrahim’s story “speaks for itself. He has reached out across religious and ethnic lines. We are pleased to have him.”

So how did somebody who spent much of his life thinking about business and little about religion evolve into an interfaith activist, one who has become knowledgeable about the Koran and a student of the Torah?

Ibrahim said if he learned one lesson growing up in the fourth- largest city in India — the product of a cosmopolitan, business-oriented Muslim family — it was that religion need not serve as a barrier between peoples. In Hyderabad, Hindus and Muslims often took part in one another’s religious festivals, he said.

He attended Catholic and Anglican schools and read everything he could get his hands on, including the works of Chaim Potok and Leon Uris, mostly because he was obsessed with America in general.

“I always viewed Jews as an extension of me. When I was a kid, I went to see ‘The Ten Commandments.’ I thought it was a movie about my own religion,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we live in a world where people growing up will get very negative information about Jews or Muslims,” Ibrahim added. “I was fortunate that my childhood did not have that kind of negative stereotyping.”

After graduating in 1975 from Osmania University in Hyderabad with a degree in mechanical engineering, he went to Philadelphia and, in 1978, earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

S.A. Ibrahim on the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia

His meteoric rise in business took him to top-tier management stints at GreenPoint Mortgage (which is based in Novato), American Express and Chemical Bank. Since 2005, Ibrahim has been at the helm of Radian, a firm that employs about 1,100 people in offices in New York and Philadelphia. Recently, he was one of two finalists to become the new CEO of Fannie Mae, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Like so many Americans, especially Muslim Americans, the lives of Ibrahim and his wife, Nina, also a Muslim of Indian ancestry, were changed, and deeply shaken, by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I never thought I was any less American than anyone else. All of a sudden, there was stuff in the media, and people confronted me and somehow made me feel that I couldn’t be American because of my faith,” he said.

“I was just as offended by the people who caused 9/11 to happen as anybody else,” he added. “I don’t see how I could even identify with them. Anyone who attacks my country, regardless of my faith, is just as much my enemy as anybody else’s.”

He began to study Islam more seriously and traveled to Saudi Arabia to complete the Haj pilgrimage, as required by the faith. He also studied other religious texts and said he saw more commonalities than differences.

Enlisting the help of his now 25-year-old son, Winston — who was a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity at Johns Hopkins University — he established the Ibrahim Family Founda-tion. Three years ago, the father-and-son team created the Ibrahim Leader-ship and Dialogue Project, which each year takes a group of about six college students — Muslims, Jews and Christians — on a trip to Israel for several weeks, with a stop in at least one Arab country for frank exchanges with individuals who span the religious and political spectrum.

Even though he was funding trips to Israel, Ibrahim didn’t visit the Jewish state himself until late in 2010.

“I had some deep reservations about Israel and how I would be treated there,” Ibrahim said. “It was an eye-opening trip. I was made to feel more welcome than I ever could have imagined.”

In 2009, Ibrahim served as an informal adviser to the White House in advance of President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world, delivered in Cairo.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL and a friend of Ibrahim’s, said, “The fact is, there are few voices such as his that reject extremism and fundamentalism. I’m just delighted he’s there [in Philadelphia].”

Ibrahim said he one day would like to work with the S.F.-based Central Pacific Region of the ADL, when he begins to spend more time at his Tiburon home and in the area. He said that Silicon Valley is one place where embracing diversity of ethnicity, race and religion has proven to be not only good business sense, but an ideal recipe for creative innovation.

“One of the best models of how this can work exists right in our backyard,” he said. “People of all colors, religious backgrounds and different orientations have contributed to making this a center of innovation. It’s one of the reasons I’m proud to live here.”

Ibrahim said he often finds himself wondering when more religious and lay leaders will “start using religion as a force to bring people together rather than as a force to divide us,” he said. “You can look at it either way, and God knows there are plenty of people who are looking at it the other way.”

Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent; Emma Silvers is a staff writer for j.