It has been a difficult few months with the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino and the recent threat against L.A. public schools. How have these incidents kicked up the issues that you deal with regarding the public’s perception of Muslim Americans?
This is worse than we’ve seen in a long time. I remember when the Fort Hood shooting happened. That was a turning point because it was someone who was perceived as being homegrown and who turned on the country. But this is another turning point because it’s literally in our backyard and during a political season that is already highly charged. It has the potential to light a fuse. I think really carefully about the words that I choose to describe these things, but it does feel like it’s potentially a dangerous climate, where people are supercharged and angry. That’s leaving Muslims looking over their shoulder to a certain extent. People are afraid of Muslim lunatics; so too are Muslims afraid of other lunatics.
What went through your mind when you heard the news about the San Bernardino shooting?
I first heard about it from a text message from a friend from out of town saying, “Are you okay?” because they didn’t know the geography. That night, while I was at a Muslim-Jewish women’s text study group, I got another text from somebody saying the guy’s name, and my stomach just dropped all over again. Unfortunately it’s become an all-too-familiar feeling, specifically for someone like me, who has worked on behalf of the Muslim American community for almost 15 years now. It’s extremely tough. My sense of what was about to take place and what this event potentially means—it rushed in. It’s kind of been like that ever since, and unfortunately, knowing the history, the presidential election season makes things worse.
I was reading the New York Times article you shared on Twitter about the rise of hate speech, especially toward Muslim Americans, and it seems like a very complex subject to try to tackle. What strategies are most effective?
That’s really tough. One thing that works are the stories of regular, average American Muslims, where people see who we are. That’s the silver lining that I see in the post-San Bernardino climate: there are more Muslim faces on cable news and media outlets commenting. I think what separates this incident from past instances, from an advocacy standpoint, is that in the past, we got talked about, but not talked to. Unfortunately, we’re still in the lens of responding to bad news rather than telling our stories in a proactive way, but I think that’s part of what can work to combat Islamophobia—tell interesting stories for those who are curious.
On the political scale, I’m unsure what works, frankly. I think that the closest thing to “effective” is social media amplification campaigns. I do have to say that I feel like media professionals have been much better than in the past about having diverse voices—not just Muslims talking about Muslims or the opposite, but a more sophisticated eye and voice. Maybe I’ve become a pessimist, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see so much public outrage against Donald Trump, calling him out for being the fascist that he is. It was not a guarantee that that was the way it was going to go.
Have you experienced any particular moments of compassion and understanding?
Absolutely. One of my critiques of media portrayals right now is that there’s a lot of space for us to be perpetuators or victims, but very little for us to be protagonists. But the overwhelming response our office has gotten via emails and calls and Facebook messages from all kinds of random, anonymous, everyday people has been support. I think that’s the majority of what the average Muslim is getting on a daily basis, but certainly the fear factor that’s happening on all sides makes us fixate on the other area. So those acts of compassion are so huge.
In fact, at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Koreatown, interfaith friends gathered one of those Fridays right after San Bernardino to stand in support of Muslims in front of the mosque during Friday congregational prayers. In times like these, I’m particularly grateful to live in Los Angeles. We’re really blessed to live in one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s a lot worse in many other places. I did a town hall in Redlands a couple weeks after San Bernardino, and yesterday I was in Chino Valley. Those communities are experiencing things differently. In other places, like the Coachella Valley, there was a mosque that somebody threw a Molotov cocktail into, and in Texas there was another arson attack on a mosque. There have been attacks against individuals, unfortunately, and some of them are Sikh Americans who are not even Muslim. They’re bearing the brunt of it. That says to me that hateful people are usually pretty ignorant, too. Not always, but often.
What is something you’d like non-Muslim Americans to know right now?
There are so many things. Your average American Muslim like me—speaking for myself—I’m agonizing about the very same questions that everybody else around me is: my family’s safety and security, health, and politics. I think our interests and our emotions during times like these are all bound up together, and we’re stronger when we’re together. I know that 70 percent of Americans report that they don’t know a Muslim firsthand, and I think the first step forward is to find a way to know a Muslim through some sort of interfaith dialogue or community service or reaching out, even online. That’s a big ask, but that’s my ask. And I ask the same thing of Muslims in every community setting I’ve been in, but especially these past few months. The number one thing we can do is step out, talk to more people, be more willing to be vulnerable—not necessarily physically vulnerable—but be emotionally vulnerable, because we do know that the single greatest predictor of people’s perceptions of Islam and Muslims is whether they know a Muslim.
What are your hopes for Muslim Americans in 2016?
I hope a lot of things, but I hope that positive voices prevail. I hope that throughout the rest of this presidential season we continue to call out hate for what it is and to have a zero tolerance policy on compromising core American values of equality and respect, regardless of race, faith, and so many other factors. That’s the main thing I hope for, because I know it will have a ripple effect into what’s going on overseas, what’s going on domestically, what’s going on within my community, and what will continue to be in so many of our hearts.