Victor Begg left his homeland of India in 1968 with a goal of achieving the American Dream.
He did that and more, while never losing who he is at his core. He has chronicled his journey from young immigrant with a dream to entrepreneur to political player to “accidental activist” — a role he took on shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 as a defender of Islam — in a memoir titled “Our Muslim Neighbors.”
“People have said to me over the years ‘You should write about your life,’” he said. “I came to America as a young man, I raised money to build a mosque in Michigan, I created a successful business, I was the first Muslim elected to the school board in Bloomfield Hills, I am a Republican, which raises some questions among Muslims.”
And, perhaps writing is in his blood. He is descended from an 18th Century poet whose pen name was Ghalib. By mere coincidence, Begg’s first name was chosen by his grandfather, who opened a Quran and placed his finger randomly on the page and it landed on “ghalib,” the word for “victorious.”
“My great-grandfather wrote his memoirs and perhaps, in part, I wrote this book for my great-grandchildren,” he said.
But he also has another, broader reason: He wants to educate people about Islam. A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed that only one third of Americans have had meaningful contacts with Muslims, Begg writes. That same study also found that one quarter of all American Muslim families have been living here for at least three generations and that 82% of all Muslims living in the United States are American citizens.
Begg finds the juxtaposition of these facts telling, especially when viewed through the current political lens in the United States and he hopes the nearly two-thirds of Americans without meaningful contact with Muslims will discover how much they share with their non-Muslim brothers.
“I appeared in a 1994 cover story in U.S. News & World Report about how much all Americans share in their deepest spiritual desires. In that story, seven years before 9/11, I told the magazine’s millions of readers: ‘It’s very easy to be a Muslim in the United States.’”
He is working to reclaim that optimism and has put his retirement plans on hold “because of the renewed prejudice stoked by the toxic attitudes so publicly proclaimed these days toward people perceived as foreigners. … I am sharing this story with readers in the hope that one day we all will see our grandchildren living in peace, free from any guilt by association.”
He first saw America in 1968. When he left India, he went to work in construction in Saudi Arabia. A friend who attended University of Detroit suggested Begg come along, so he helped fill out Begg’s application and before long, he was in the United States, studying business at McNichols and Livernois.
“I’m glad I came,” Begg said from his home in Florida. “I cherish those memories at University of Detroit.”
He writes, “I began to realize the true potential of my new homeland. I became convinced that the Motor City—in the industrial heart of America—was my kismet. The University of Detroit Mercy would equip me with an MBA. I would meet my wife here. The metro Detroit community would help me to build a home and a prosperous life as a successful entrepreneur. Not far from the bus stop where I first set foot in Detroit was the spot where I would eventually take the oath of U.S. citizenship in a public ceremony.”
Begg had a goal of becoming a millionaire by the age of 40, and he achieved that through purchasing and expanding a Naked Furniture franchise in metro Detroit into an organization that included substantial real estate holdings and other investments. His wife Shahina was by his side the whole journey and in 2014 the two closed their final shop after 33 years in business.
During this time, he was also becoming a more observant Muslim and leader in the community, and he helped found the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan to “participate in civic, interfaith, media and other forums to represent a ‘singular’ community voice.” The organization became a source to local and national media and created great excitement throughout the local Muslim community.
He also helped create the Muslim Unity Center Mosque in Bloomfield Hills and a board member of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, often serving as the public and friendly face of the Muslim community in Michigan. In 2009 he was recognized by the Detroit News as a Michiganian of the Year.
Since his retirement, he and his wife settled in Florida, but he keeps busy discussing issues affecting Muslims worldwide and is often seen and heard and published in television, radio and print news outlets across the country.
Begg relates all this in a breezy manner that is both engaging and informative. He is currently traveling the country promoting the book, hoping to educate his neighbors and others one at a time.
He ends the book with a sort of prayer: “Thank you for walking along these shores with me. I pray that I have sought understanding in the paths I have walked in this life. I pray that my story has opened your eyes a little wider as you move along your own pathway. And, as my grandfather would tell me: I pray that, as this story comes to an end, you depart with greater understanding.”
“Our Muslim Neighbors: Achieving the American Dream, An Immigrant’s Memoir” is published by Read the Spirit Books and is available on Amazon. For more information on Begg, visit victorbegg.com.