Dr. Agha Saeed , a towering American-Muslim figure has passed away today in a nursing home at the age of 72, due to complications from Covid-19. He had also been silently suffering from Parkinson’s for over eight years. The history of American Muslims will be incomplete and extremely inadequate without recognizing Dr. Saeed’s life achievements and his tremendous efforts on their behalf. This and future generations of American Muslims, particularly the youth, must recognize, know, and appreciate their intellectual and community leaders and pioneers over the past decades such as Dr. Ismail Al-Farouqi, Dr. Mohammad T. Mehdi, Imam W. D. Muhammad, Dr. Jamal Barzanji, Dr. Maher Hathout, and Dr. Agha Saeed. They paved the road towards the American Muslim community’s empowerment, and carried great burdens to fight the enormous efforts to marginalize it, and deny it the respect and status it deserves.
Harvard-trained with a PhD in political science from UC Berkeley, and working as an academic for decades in California and other places, Dr. Saeed was not content with the life of a university professor, but wanted to make a real difference in the life of his community and Ummah. Since the late 1980s and for over two decades, Dr. Saeed led the efforts towards the political empowerment and recognition of the American Muslim community. He believed that respect and recognition is earned, not conferred from the powers. From the streets to university campuses and community centers, and from conference halls and TV studios to the corridors of Congress, Dr. Saeed was the renowned leader and assuring voice fighting for recognition, inclusion, and dignity.
By educating, mobilizing, organizing, and uniting the major American Muslim political and civic engagement organizations, he was able to inspire and mentor countless people towards their civic duties and political involvement. He was a true visionary, a great intellect, a genuine leader, a strategic voice, a most decent human being, a fierce fighter for truth and justice, a brave spokesperson for the weak, exploited, the poor, and downtrodden, a sworn enemy of injustice, tyranny, and dictatorships, and a passionate defender of civil and human rights in the tradition of Malcolm X, MLK, and Mandela. But with his sharp intellect and leadership skills, he was also a humble and loving person with a soft, big heart, and teary eyed upon hearing of suffering or pain.
In the early 1990s, Dr. Saeed was among the first American-Muslim leaders to establish a Muslim-based political organization with dozens of chapters around the nation, the American Muslim Alliance (AMA), with the goal of achieving American Muslim political empowerment through electoral politics. But despite the obstacles and resistance, his approach was a principled one. He was unwilling to compromise his faith, tradition, and values, nor would he ever sacrifice any great cause, no matter the temptations or rewards for short term political gains or self-interest.
From Palestine to Kashmir, and from Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq to the genocides, massacres, and famine in India, Burma, and Somalia, he was leading, advocating, and speaking up, as well as devising the roadmap and setting the redlines. Whether the issue was Jerusalem or fighting occupations and racism, or tyranny and dictatorships in the Middle East, or whether it involved racial tension domestically and the entrenchment of the security state after 9/11, Dr. Saeed was at the forefront of speaking truth to power and setting the high bar of moral clarity for championing truth, justice, freedom, democracy, and human dignity.
Building coalitions and alliances was his passion and understanding that fighting injustice, tyranny, and racism is a universal struggle that needs all impacted people coming and fighting together regardless of faith, color, gender, or race. Singlehandedly, he established and led the American Muslim Political Coordination Council (AMPCC) in the 1990s to organize all national political campaigns. After 9/11, he led the American Muslim Task Force on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT) to lead the efforts against the erosion of civil liberties in the US in the so-called war on terror, and to encourage American Muslims to continue to be active politically. For many years, he was the face and address of American Muslim political engagement in the US and in countless Islamic conferences and meetings around the nation.
In 2003, he insisted on testifying during my bail hearing despite the tremendous fear and intimidation tactics orchestrated by the government. When he was asked by the judge if he’d still consider himself my friend after my arrest, his answer was that not only was I his friend, but his brother. He was willing to give up all what he owned, and pledged to do everything within his power to secure my release. Over the years, he had never relented in his efforts to fight against injustice, racism, Islamophobia, and government repression. For example his voice was unique among American Muslim leaders in advocating for the innocence and release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, another victim of government overreach.
When I was released under house arrest in September 2008, he flew immediately to celebrate with me. Over the following years, he’d visit me several times a year, as he continued his tremendous efforts on behalf of the community traveling coast to coast until Parkinson’s slowed him down.
In 2010, he served as the first board chairperson of the organization I founded to champion the cases of America’s political prisoners and victims of the government’s targeting of the American Muslim community, called the Coalition for Civil Freedoms (CCF). When I left for Turkey in February 2015, he flew to Washington DC to say a final goodbye despite his deteriorating health. It was to be his last flight from California. Last October, I had the tremendous honor to present to him a Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of CCF as it celebrated its tenth anniversary.
People of the caliber of Dr. Agha Saeed, and his other colleagues are rare commodities. Their lives need to be embraced. They endured a life of struggle and offered tremendous sacrifices so that their community could gain respect and live in dignity and security. What’s disappointing and painful is when these lives are not known or recognized. When history is denied, memory is faint, and great lives are not celebrated, is when societies and communities disintegrate and break apart. Perhaps the most important sign of great societies is when they recognize, offer respects, and remember the lives of their role models, elders, and statesmen.
Our hearts are heavy, our eyes teary, and our souls grieving. May the Almighty bestow His mercy, forgiveness, blessings, and grace on Agha’s soul. May his abode be Jannah (Paradise). May He join us one day in His eternal peace. Dr. Saeed is survived by his dear daughter Maryam. We offer our sincere condolences to her and the rest of the family.