Jennifer Williams doesn’t fit your idea of the “average” online Muslim.
Currently the Deputy Foreign Editor at Vox, Williams has a penchant for politics, the Middle East, terrorism. Two years ago, a single tweet tagged #MuslimApologies catapulted her to internet stardom, and her life hasn’t been the same since. She’s amassed a global following of users of all ages and backgrounds – all drawn to her punchy, unapologetic voice.
All of the internet buzz surrounding Williams left us itching to know more about her story. We sat down to chat about her unconventional journalism route, her experiences dealing with community backlash, and her relationship with the Twittersphere.
The Tempest: Tell us about yourself, and one thing people have assumed about you that isn’t true.
I am a blonde, tattooed, Texas Muslim convert who studies terrorism and the Middle East and speaks Arabic. You know the type.
One thing people have assumed about me that isn’t true? Oh man, I don’t even know where to start on that one. Just about everyone assumes something about me that isn’t true–that I’m a dumb blonde is probably the most common one, at least on Twitter. Until I start making jokes about Islamic jurisprudence.
Your pathway to journalism hasn’t been a conventional one. What led you to where you are now?
I was raised in a family of journalists and practically grew up in the newsroom, but around the time I was in college, print journalism in general was going through a major identity crisis, and it really no longer seemed like a viable career path. So I went the academic/think tank route, doing research and analysis on terrorism and the Middle East. That’s still what I do now, I just write for a more general audience.
I don’t really think of myself as a journalist, because I’m not objectively presenting facts and information and letting the reader come to their own conclusions. I’m presenting opinion and analysis, which to me isn’t journalism. But I guess today, that sort of thing is considered journalism. I don’t necessarily agree with that.
Last year, your tweet about being Muslim blew up with, let’s just say, some unsavory folks. How was that experience? Do you still have to deal with people tweeting about it?
That was … quite an experience, yes. Some very angry right-wing “Christians” and “patriots” apparently decided I was a traitor to my race and my country for becoming Muslim — despite the fact that Islam has nothing to do with race or nationality. But, you know … thinking is hard for some people. I started receiving rape threats and death threats and it just got really, really ugly and scary and awful. Most of those people have gone away now, thank God. But anytime I write about Islam – especially when I wrote an article right before Christmas last year titled, “Muslims love Jesus, too: 6 things you didn’t know about Jesus in Islam” – the crazies show up again. I got emails in response to that article from “Christians” calling me a whore and telling me to kill myself. Because I wrote an article about loving Jesus. Good times.
— Jenny from the Vox (@jenn_ruth) September 24, 2014
You spend a lot of time on Twitter, and have developed a community of your own. Did you ever think that that would happen? How has that affected your life outside of Twitter?
I never expected anything like this to happen. I went from having around 60 followers to having almost 18,000 in about 6 months. So it’s been a really interesting experience. When you have 60 followers, you can basically say whatever you want on Twitter and no one cares because no one’s going to see it. When you have 18,000 — including large contingents in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — it’s very different. People pay attention to what you say, even if what you’re saying is silly nonsense. I mean, I’ll tweet about having bad allergies one day and a week later a box of Claritin will arrive in the mail from one of my awesome Twitter followers. That’s just incredible.
I’ve made a lot of amazing friends, some of whom have become “in real life” friends that I actually hang out with in person — including you! — but also many friends I’ve never met in person and probably never will, but who nevertheless are very dear friends. And the Muslim community on Twitter is so awesome — I’ve gotten Iftar and Eid invitations from people around the world, from London to Indonesia to right here in the DC area. I wish more people saw that side of our community, how we’re all one big family and take care of each other, rather than all the ugly sectarian hatred we always hear about.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Allahu A’lam! I really don’t know, honestly. I’m kind of just taking life as it comes. So many amazing things have happened in the past two years that I never would’ve thought would happen in a million years, and yet they did. I’m just going to keep my eyes and ears open and go where life takes me. Sorry if that sounds like a cop-out answer, but it’s the truth.
What’s your advice to young women looking to get into media?
Remember your value. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you’re not smart enough, not capable enough, not whatever enough. Because there will be people who try to do that in this business, whether because of your age or your gender or just because they feel threatened by you.
And it’s really easy to start believing them. It’s frighteningly easy to start believing them. So surround yourself with people who support you and who will remind you that you have worth and that your voice and your work matter.
This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.