Facing down Islamophobia: interview with Zahra Billoo

Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Photo courtesy of CAIR.

The majority of the estimated 79 million Egyptians identify themselves as Muslim. Here in the U.S., Muslim population estimates vary from 2.5 to 7 million Muslims. American Muslims were just another ingredient in the melting pot ... until 9/11. After that day, suspicions of terrorism and radicalization grew, racial profiling increased, and hate crimes were on the rise. The media even coined a word to describe the trend of anti-Muslim rhetoric and behavior: Islamophobia.

Next month, Congress is scheduled to consider the issue, as republican Representative Peter King from New York has called for hearings on, among other things,"radicalization of the American Muslim community and homegrown terrorism." Here’s Congressman King speaking with Politico’s Dan Riley.

REPRESENTATIVE PETER KING (R-NY): Unfortunately, we have so many mosques in this country. There’s too many people sympathetic to radical Islam. We should be looking at them more carefully. We should be finding out how to infiltrate. We should be much more aggressive in law enforcement. Obviously we have to look out for civil liberties violations, but I think there are cautions and procedures in place, and to me, just using the 2004 Republican convention as an example, the police acted in an exemplary way.

A letter signed by dozens of Muslim organizations and others condemned the planned hearings, saying, “Singling out a group of Americans for government scrutiny based on their faith is divisive and wrong.” One of the signatories was CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. KALW’s Hana Baba visited CAIR’s Bay Area offices in Santa Clara and talked with director Zahra Billoo. Baba asked Billoo if she believes Islamophobia is on the rise.

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ZAHRA BILLOO: I do. It concerns me to have to admit that it’s on the rise, but a lot of people, a lot of my colleagues have expressed concerns that it’s worse now than it was nine years ago, post 9/11 – now ten years ago, almost. And the concern is that there was anti-Islam and anti-Muslim prejudice at that time, but right now it is more mainstream and more widely accepted. And so it is more common to see mainstream politicians and media spokespersons engaging in Islamophobia.

HANA BABA: Like Representative King, for example?

BILLOO: Representative King is a perfect example of someone who is not only engaging in but really utilizing Islamophobia for his own political benefit. These talks that he’s raising now about having hearings on Muslim radicals have concerned many of us and really sound akin to witch hunts and McCarthyism, to me.

BABA: We hear all over the news about Islamophobia in other states, right? Oklahoma with banning Sharia Law, whatever that meant. The Koran-burning pastor in Florida. We like to think of ourselves here in the Bay Area as more inclusive, tolerant and cultured than much of the rest of the country. But even here in the ever-tolerant Bay Area, we’ve had many cases of anti-Muslim sentiment. So, can you give me some recent examples that you’ve been working on?

BILLOO: Absolutely. So these aren’t cases per se, but they are actually incidents that were reported to us this week that might be of interest. There is a mosque in the Bay Area that is looking to expand, and it received some news coverage around that. And immediately following the news coverage of the expansion plans, the local newspaper, the Gilroy Dispatch, received a letter expressing anti-Muslim sentiment and really painting all Muslims with the same brush – raising concerns about terrorism in the Bay Area. So that was one incident, and we were happy there that actually one of the Gilroy Dispatch writers wrote a really great op-ed discounting that letter and saying that we need to learn from our history and that we can’t treat Muslims in this way. So that’s one example.

Another example is this week, the Council on American Islamic Relations’ Bay Area office announced that in conjunction with the Japanese American Citizens League that we’d be hosting a bridging communities program for high school students. And the idea behind this program is to bring Japanese-American and Muslim high school students together to really learned from their shared experiences and struggles, for those that were descendents of individuals that were in the internment camps as well as the Muslim experience, post 9/11. And soon after announcing that we were doing that, we learned that the Japanese American Citizens League office had begun to receive anti-Muslim hate mail because they had chosen to partner with us on this program.

BABA: Guilty by association.

BILLOO: Absolutely.

BABA: Let’s talk about the FBI a little bit. You do trainings on how to deal with the FBI if they come knocking at your door. Muslim advocates in San Francisco have a video in many languages that Muslim community members speak – let’s take a listen to that now.

NARRATOR: Now let’s watch Ali do it right.

ALI: (opens door) Hello.

ACTOR (as an FBI agent): Hello Ali. Can we come inside? Just ask you a few routine questions.

ALI: What sort of questions?

ACTOR: It’s no big deal. We can talk out here in front of your neighbors if you like, but you might be more comfortable if we come inside.

ALI: I have nothing to hide, sir. Please just give me your business cards and I’ll have my attorney contact you.

BILLOO: We saw a lot of FBI complaints in 2010. There was a period of about six months where we were averaging nearly one complaint a week. We tell people that the only thing that you’re legally required to provide are your name and ID. And after that, you really should assert that right to remain silent, and say that your attorney will call them. And then call groups like CAIR, like the ACLU, like the Asian Law Caucus, that provide free legal service specifically for this. It’s our belief that by asserting your rights and protecting yourself that you in fact protect the community.

BABA: Someone might say, “If I had nothing to hide, I should cooperate.” What’s the problem with that?

BILLOO: Well, a couple of things. Just to start from the top, we tell people that these days, most Muslims are not getting arrested for terrorism. A lot of them are getting arrested for lying to the FBI. And the reaction to that is, “Well, I have nothing to hide and so, why would I lie?” The thing about that is, the FBI can lie to an individual in the process of an investigation. So they can lie to us, but we cannot lie to them. And quite often, making a mistake of material fact can be taken for lying. And so, a simple mistake as to when I last visited Pakistan or India could be construed as lying to the FBI. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, you go into a meeting with the FBI by yourself, and they know where you live, they know your travel history, they probably know what mosque you attend and where you’ve donated money, as well as possibly where you’ve worked. You don't know anything about them besides what’s on their business card – if you knew to ask for a business card. And that’s a really concerning balance of power, is that they know so much about you and you know nothing about them.

And then the last concern is that everything you say is on the record. This idea that every conversation that you ever have with law enforcement can and will be used against you quite often, and so you want to be very careful in terms of what you say to them.

And so, all of these things taken together should incline a person to assert their constitutional right to an attorney, and that right is there for a reason – to protect an individual.

BABA: Do you find that people are apprehensive to actually implement what you’re saying? It can be scary when the FBI comes knocking on your door.

BILLOO: One of the thing we actually saw post-9/11 was yes, people were scared, and so they were blurting out everything they were saying. But there was also a challenge that a lot of Muslims and immigrants face in that we have cultures of hospitality, so we were seeing people inviting them inside for tea. And we thought, this needs to be nipped in the bud. And it’s absolutely frightening – I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have your children in your home and receive sort of a knock on the door as a surprise, which is why we do the trainings, which is why we provide moral support around these issues. And we actually quite often urge people that it’s important to just practice saying, “I will have my attorney call you.” Simply saying that phrase and being comfortable with the fact that this is a right that you have simply by being physically present in the United States makes you more likely to actually assert it.

BABA: Attorney General Eric Holder visited the Bay Area last month to speak at a Muslim advocates’ gathering…

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: Since becoming attorney general last February, I’ve heard from Arab-Americans and Muslims who say they feel uneasy about their relationship with the United States government. Some feel that they have not been afforded the full rights of citizenship. Others are worried about the safety of their families, communities in places of worship. And too often, Muslims and Arab-Americans have told me that they feel as though they are defeated by their fellow citizens, by their government, and by those of us, especially in law enforcement, as though they were dealing with us versus them. Let me be clear. Let me be very clear. That is unacceptable.

BABA: Do you feel that his department is serious in dealing with complaints coming from the Muslim community?

BILLOO: Unfortunately, I don’t. I feel as though, or I am concerned that the Department of Justice is paying a lot of lip service to the question of American Muslim civil rights.

BABA: Was CAIR expecting things to become better once President Obama came into office? And are you kind of saddened that, for example, this administration isn’t doing enough to live up to the promises of changes and inclusion?

BILLOO: I can’t speak for CAIR on that question because I was a student at that time, but I will tell you that I’m not personally surprised at some of the letdowns of the Obama Administration. Recent reports have shown that the Obama Administration is worse on certain civil rights questions than the Bush Administration. This administration has continued the previous administration’s pattern of further eroding civil rights. And so, am I surprised? No. Am I continually disappointed? Yes.

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