Muslim in Kansas: Taben Azad’s quest to belong

Azad champions people and causes that don’t always make him popular. He received death threats at Wichita State for seeking equity for Muslim students.

by Polly Basore Wenzl

Taben Azad plays basketball weekly at Metropolitan Baptist Church, where some of his friends attend. As a Kansas-born, eldest son of an Asian Muslim family, his upbringing was sharply focused on academics, and sports were not allowed. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Sometimes you love a place that doesn’t love you back. Taben Azad loves his family, his faith and his hometown. But as a Kansas-born Muslim it’s hard for him to find a sense of belonging.

“I’m too Muslim to be American, and I’m too American to be Muslim,” Azad says. “I don’t feel like I have a community right now, to be quite honest.”

Haunted by his own feeling of being “other,” Azad has spent his life championing people with whom he has little in common beyond their marginalization and their humanity – African Americans, LGBTQ, Asians, and women.

He’s received multiple honors for his leadership and advocacy, prompting some to suggest he run for office. But leadership does not always mean popularity, and Azad is unsure he could win.

“It’s always been the goal, what I thought about doing,” he says. “But the realist in me says no one in Kansas is going to ever elect a Muslim.”

As he describes it, his activism has already caused him to be exiled from a faith community he’s received death threats for defending, and to be disciplined by the university that named him its Man of the Year. He accepts the tradeoffs. “I think everything you do as a leader becomes subject to public scrutiny.”

The making of an activist

You might think this started a dozen years ago in high school when he was a leader of a group called Students Against Prejudice.

The group at Wichita’s East High was initially created to affirm sexual-identity diversity but also embraced ethnic and religious diversity. “We had people from all walks of life. … That was one of the parts of high school that I felt really happy about,” Azad says.

But his drive to help people feel included actually goes back to the third grade at Gammon Elementary School and the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001. His parents initially shielded him from the news.

“I had no idea what was going on until eventually, on my bus ride home, another older student had stopped me and told me to apologize for bombing the country,” Azad recalls. “And that’s always stuck with me… I think at a young age I knew that my life would be different because of how I look and the religion I follow.”

He felt that sting of prejudice again during a family trip to Arizona in the fourth grade. “My mom had just begun wearing the hijab,” the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women.

“I very distinctly remember us being at the mall and someone being very hostile toward her. I was quiet and didn’t say anything, but I knew I never wanted to be that person to not speak up for my mom. It was one of those small moments that really define the person I am today.”

Taben Azad attended this mosque in Wichita for most of his life until he says, his advocacy caused him to be ostracized. Azad still observes his faith privately. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Growing up Muslim

Azad and his older sister and younger brother were born in Wichita, after his parents emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1980s when his father was chosen in an immigration lottery.

The family initially lived in an apartment complex in a mostly Muslim neighborhood near the mosque northeast of Woodlawn Boulevard and K-96. They later moved to a house in Bel Aire.

Azad’s father owned and ran the Asia Bazaar grocery store near 21st Street and Woodlawn Boulevard. He was the Muslim community’s key source of halal meats and other ethnic foods sought on the holidays of Ramadan and Eid. “I guess that was his proud accomplishment, to be able to be of service to this community, in a small way but in a very important way,” Azad recalls.

Growing up the eldest son of an Asian Muslim family brought expectations that Azad continues to take seriously but worries that he fails to meet. “I joke that my parents expect me to have a full-time job, make a good salary, take care of them, take care of the family, and possibly even cure cancer — at the same time.”

As a child, Azad felt the weight to excel academically. He thinks he embarrassed his parents when he failed to get accepted into Robinson Middle School’s pre-International Baccalaureate program. “I’ll be honest, in middle school, even in high school, I wasn’t the smartest kid. I wasn’t,” he says. “But I know I’m the hardest working, because I grew up working at my dad’s grocery store in middle school and high school, some days after school and on the weekends.”

He attended middle school at Allison Traditional Magnet, where he competed on the National Academic League team. He wanted to join the cross-country team, but his mom felt sports were a waste of time.

“I can count probably on one hand the number of friends I had at Allison just because I didn’t get to hang out with them and do stuff,” Azad says. It was the same in high school — he did get accepted to East High’s prestigious International Baccalaureate program. No sports, but he joined a long list of academic clubs like debate and forensics, as well as the Students Against Prejudice club.

Azad graduated from East High in 2011 and aspired to go to college somewhere on the East Coast or Michigan. Wichita State University was his last choice.

“I wanted to get out of Kansas, but my family is the reason why I stayed,” he says. At Wichita State he majored in mechanical engineering, which he didn’t care for either. (He minored in political science and math.)

“The only two (career) options that made sense for me were medicine or engineering because I knew I needed to get a good salary to take care of my family after graduating. It sucks because I never liked engineering,” he says. “But it paved the way for me to get to where I am right now.”

On the surface, Azad appeared to thrive at Wichita State. He became a leader in countless organizations: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Muslim Student Association, Bangladeshi Student Association, Student Government Association, WSU Debate and Model UN, among others. He spent a semester abroad, studying in Beijing.

In the fall semester of 2015, his Model UN chapter won an Outstanding Delegation Award at an international conference held in the Czech Republic. Azad also won an individual award for his demonstrated ability to speak and build consensus. And he was named Wichita State Man of the Year, an award given annually to one male student for leadership and service to others.

But that semester would also bring him into a national political maelstrom around his faith.

A national controversy and death threats

“At that time, I was the vice president of the Muslim Student Association, and at some point older alumni and donors to the university had just caught wind of what happened to the chapel… six months after the renovation had happened and six months after the pews were removed,” Azad recalls.

Situated in the middle of campus, Grace Memorial Chapel was established in 1963 by donors who directed it to serve as an all-faith chapel. A dedication plaque reads: “This chapel is to be open to all creeds and all races of people.”

After considerable deliberation involving students, area faith leaders and university administrators, the decision had been made the previous year to remove pews from the chapel to make it a more flexible space to accommodate all faiths, including Muslims who require floor space to pray. Wichita State typically enrolls about 1,000 Muslim students, who had difficulty finding prayer space on campus; some were praying inside the book stack aisles in the campus library.

“They (donors and alumni) started posting (on social media) and I saw a few of those posts and that’s when I posted my own, and that’s where it really took off from there,” recalls Azad.

Alumni began complaining to administrators that Muslims were taking over the chapel and Christians were being marginalized. They contacted Fox News and Breitbart News, who made the controversy national news. The Wichita Eagle and the WSU student newspaper, The Sunflower, also wrote about it.

Azad at first enjoyed the spotlight, but he soon felt the weight of being the public face of his faith community. That role made him a target for hate-filled messages and death threats, “from people who are like, ‘You shouldn’t exist, you shouldn’t be here.’”

How does a 22-year-old decide to accept the risks associated with defending a faith that conjures fear, anger and resentment in others? “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” he says.

The experience caused trauma, but he feels the worst came when a university administrator responded to the Muslim students’ request for a foot-washing station by suggesting they use a drain in a janitor’s closet. No Christian or Catholic would ever be told to practice some part of their religion in a janitor’s closet, Azad says.

He keeps an audio recording and a transcript of the exchange from March 2017 on his cellphone. “I have looked at this conversation over the last eight years and I think this was the defining moment for me at Wichita State,” Azad explains. In the recording, the administrator remarks on how conservative Kansas is and says, “All I know is right now, in this political climate… wash stations just won’t happen.”

Later the same administrator called Azad in for disciplinary action for his role in a protest where the student government held a vote of no-confidence in the university president. Azad was removed – then reinstated – from his student government position. A few months later, foot-washing stations were installed in the Rhatigan Student Center, with Azad being credited.

Azad admits he’s not over it — a gross feeling of his faith being disrespected and marginalized by people he feels should have protected him. “I’ve had an awful experience post-WSU with the trauma associated with the chapel … and everything else related.” He describes difficulty sleeping and night terrors, awaking in the belief that someone is holding a gun to his head, threatening him and his entire family. 

Some of Taben Azad’s dearest friends are high school friends he plays basketball with each week. Some are Vietnamese Christians who attend the church where they play. Though Azad is president of the Wichita Asian Association, he said many Vietnamese and other East Asians don’t see him as Asian. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Finding a community among Asians

Azad went on to complete a master’s degree in public administration and a certification in public finance at Wichita State. He began his career with two years as a budget analyst for Sedgwick County and another year as budget manager for the city of Andover before landing in his current position as director of finance and administration for the Wichita Foundation. (The Wichita Foundation is a funder of The Wichita Beacon.)

But nothing about these roles has provided a true sense of belonging, he says. Azad now feels ostracized from the Wichita Muslim community.  Though he still observes his faith privately, he no longer attends the mosque he grew up in. A number of things drove the wedge. 

Azad says he was put off by the mosque when one day at Friday prayers he heard a leader criticizing “Sesame Street” for teaching children to be homosexual. (In June 2021, the children’s show introduced a character with two dads.) When the Wichita Muslim community did little to support Azad during the controversies at Wichita State, “the community that I received the most support from was the LGBTQ community …  That’s something that I will say until the day I die.” 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Azad says he publicly called out the Islamic Society of Wichita for failing to take a position in support of Black Lives Matter. Twenty percent of American Muslims are Black, he notes. ISW currently has a statement of support on its website. Azad believes he further irked the society by publicly accusing them of not doing enough to support women. “There are people from the mosque who said, ‘You aren’t allowed here any more, don’t even think about coming.’” The ISW did not respond to a request for comment.

Azad began to look in another direction for opportunities to belong and lead: Embracing his Central Asian heritage as a Bangladeshi, he joined the Wichita Asian Association. He currently serves as its president. “It’s definitely an interesting chapter in my life because I have grown to appreciate my culture outside of my religion,” he says.

WAA represents more than 40 different ethnicities within the continent of Asia, and when Asians became a target during the pandemic — due to suggestions China was responsible for COVID-19 — Azad took a protective stance for his people again. 

“We came out with a community guide that we published on our website with how to respond to hate crimes,” he says. “In years past when things like this happened, I think the association just brushed it under the rug. But I really wanted to make a point that, if someone whispers something to you at a grocery store – which during COVID happened in Wichita plenty of times – that was not OK.”

For his work with the Wichitan Asian Association, Azad was recognized by the Wichita Business Journal in August 2022 as a Diversity and Inclusion Awards honoree. While he’s enjoyed the WAA experience – and enjoys advocating for Asians –  he is aware that even here, he does not entirely belong. 

“I know plenty of Vietnamese people and other East Asians who don’t see me as Asian,” he says. Vietnamese are largely Buddhist or Christian. (Azad and his Vietnamese friends from high school play a weekly game of basketball at a Baptist church gym.) The dominant religion in Asia is Hinduism, with just slightly more adherents than Islam.

There is cultural animosity between Muslim and Hindu Asians, so much so that Azad kept it secret from his parents for three years that his girlfriend is Hindu. They have now been together six years, and while Azad’s father is accepting he says his mother prefers he marry a Muslim.

“We joke around that we don’t know what would be worse for me: if I was gay or if I was dating a Hindu girl. Because those are seen as opposite religions. And we honestly don’t know,” he says.

Wondering what the future holds

Azad will turn 30 this month, and thinks a lot about what the future holds. He is not expecting to cure cancer, but he does want to lead and serve in some way. He hopes to marry and move into a house with his partner, but not bring his parents with him, though they expect that.

“I know I’m going to blink, and I’m going to be 40, then 50, then 60. I’m scared,” he says. “I think that’s the one thing I am most fearful of: Life kind of passing by and not feeling like I did anything meaningful.”

He’s considered running for political office, but he doesn’t want to run if he can’t win and he cannot imagine he can win. “Maybe I could move to Michigan and have a much better chance, but I grew up in Kansas. I want to support this state.” He’s unsure politics could ever work for him, but he’s not giving up on leading, and certainly not giving up on advocating for the marginalized.

“At the end of the day, I want to touch someone’s life in a meaningful way.”

This story was suggested by members of The Wichita Beacon’s community advisory and community engagement boards.