A Call for Unity: Civil rights activist and attorney Zahra Billoo challenges anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States

In America, the term “Muslim feminist” is still relatively unknown. “How can a woman practicing Islam be a feminist?” some may ask, citing popular examples of female suppression within traditionally Muslim countries to support their disbelief. However, despite these common notions, Muslim feminists are more abundant and widespread than most people realize. Zahra Billoo is one such person, and considers it her duty to educate people on the misconceptions associated with her religion.

Quoting Billoo’s words from the Portland Women’s March in January, opening speaker Professor Mehra Shirazi introduced the activist to the audience on Feb. 23 at the OSU LaSells Stewart Center.

“I am an American Muslim woman and daughter of immigrants, a person of color, a community organizer, and a civil rights lawyer,” Shirazi, a representative from the OSU Women’s Studies Department, read. “I and American Muslims like me are committed to putting our faith into action. We live and breathe the understanding that justice cannot be for just us, that our liberation is interconnected, that we cannot be free at each others’ expense, or if any of us remains targeted.”

Cloaked in a neon blue hijab, she continued with increased passion.

“When Muslims are harassed, when our LBGTQ friends are attacked in hate crimes, when our black brothers and sisters are gunned down, when what is left of Native land continues to be stolen, and when undocumented individuals among us are targeted, my heart hurts. We all hurt. But we are also fired up,” said Shirazi.
Executive Director of CAIR’s San Francisco office Billoo spoke to a crowd of around 200 people about Islamophobia, its consequences, and its solutions. Titled “Islamophobia and the Muslim Ban,” her speech also covered the surprising causes of anti-Muslim bigotry and acquainted people with her organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, also known as CAIR. In a call for unity, Billoo also touched briefly on issues facing other minority and marginalized people.

“How are you all doing?” She asked, once everyone was seated. “Okay, that is good. So, it is your job tonight to cheer me up. Because what I am struggling with is that yesterday, the Department of Education withdrew protections for transgender students seeking to use restrooms of their choice. I believe it was the day before that that orders were given to clear out the last protest camps in North Dakota … And of course there is the Muslim Ban.”

She paused to take a deep breath.

“Out of respect for the office, I will not be calling our President any names,” Billoo said. “But I will be focused on what we’re dealing with right now. We live in challenging times, we live dark times. We don’t live in new times. A Muslim Ban explicitly is something new, but the No-Fly List, travel restrictions, FBI surveillance on members of my community is not,” she said.

Billoo highlighted what she believed to be hypocrisy on the U.S government’s behalf. Referencing the famous sonnet etched into the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, the Muslim Ban, she said, conflicted with the original American stance on immigration.

In addition, Billoo denounced the United States’ role in the plight of the seven blacklisted nations. Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen have all endured direct or indirect U.S bombing in the past, she said, and America has also aided Saudi Arabia in its own attacks upon Yemen. “We stood by and didn’t intervene while a genocide happened in Syria,” she said.

According to Billoo, not only does this immigrant restriction waste resources, but it also creates a false sense of security.

“There have not been any terrorist attacks on U.S soil from refugees,” said Billoo. Many of the countries from which convicted terrorists originated, such as Afghanistan or Pakistan, were not included in the Muslim Ban.

Fear-mongering tactics and general ignorance contributed to CAIR’s founding.

Established in 1994, CAIR’s mission statement is to “promote justice, enhance the understanding of Islam, and empower American Muslims.” With Islamophobia reaching an all-time high, the non-profit’s services are more important than ever. CAIR is what Billoo called “the first line of defense.”

CAIR provides free counseling to Muslim victims of discrimination and access to “culturally competent” attorneys. Cases in the past have varied from police harassment to prejudice in the workplace or classroom. Training members on how to talk to the media is also one of its fundamental jobs, as doing so allows Muslims to communicate with ‘Middle America,’ the large group of citizens who remain undecided about Islam.

Billoo said that academics have used the term ‘Islamophobia,’ defined by CAIR as anti-Muslim prejudice or bigotry, prior to 9/11.

“We were already seeing it in action in Iraq. We were seeing it in law enforcement and government targeting and we’re seeing it in the movies. Even in the 80s and 90s, Muslims played one role in Hollywood, and it was someone taking over a plane,” she said.

In order to decide upon a name, they took inspiration from terms such as anti-semitism and homophobia, which have helped illuminate and condemn prejudice in their designated areas.

“In places where I come from, like San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles, people understand that that kind of bigotry is not welcome in a workplace, it’s not welcome in a school environment–that’s not how we talk about each other,” she said.

Despite an increase in support, CAIR reported a rise in Islamophobia and other minority hate crimes between 2015 and 2016. The U.S government, she said, “is doing little to condemn these acts and denying any knowledge.” According to Billoo, the Republican presidential debates revolved around radical and anti-constitutional Muslim reforms, such as monitoring Muslim neighborhoods, which she claims do not actually exist.

Religious, sexual orientation, and racial divides transcend political parties, however. In fact, Billoo condemned both Democrats, Republicans, and outliers for their harmful rhetoric and weak track record in promoting universal tolerance.

To the surprise of many, she even commended former President George W. Bush and criticized his liberal successor, President Barack Obama. Bush “was a war criminal … he illegally invaded Afghanistan and Iraq with his administration,” Billoo said, but he also emphasized early on in his presidency that Muslims themselves were not the enemy–terrorism was.

“Republicans and the right-wing of this country were kept at bay for a long time because he said the correct words,” she said.

Championed for his humanitarian efforts, in reality Obama failed to accomplish much of what he promised the American people, according to Billoo. She questioned his purported progressivism, citing his anti-undocumented immigration policies, continued surveillance of mosques, and his reluctance to close or reform Guantanamo as reasons for concern. His stance on gay marriage was less than satisfactory, in her eyes. While the LGBTQ community and allies fought decades for equality, Billoo argued that Obama merely took the credit.

Seeking to change this political trend, CAIR focuses some of their limited resources on empowering the underrepresented, including “young people, people of color, poor people, people from the Middle East and South America, central America.” It’s imperative, Billoo believes, that these groups are given the support and help needed to find their voices in the election process.

“Let’s make sure we’re holding our elected officials accountable,” Billoo said. “We’re going to the townhalls, we’re voting for them, we’re giving them money, and we’re withholding those things from them when we don’t like what they do.”

Garnering support from government officials is more important than many people realize. Ten out of 50 states in America have passed anti-Muslim laws, Billoo said, instigated by representatives who have warped ideas pertaining to Islam. A “small, vocal minority” of Americans have managed to influence more than just their local legislators, however, and have expanded their influence to public schools, businesses, cities with large transit systems, and police forces. These individuals comprise what Billoo calls an “Islamophobia Industry,” or a series of around twelve dozen alleged non-profits whose “full-time job” is to spread anti-Muslim bias and hatred.

For children and adults who have never met another Muslim, Billoo said, these instances of propaganda can further stoke the flames of fear.

The First Amendment that allows anti-Muslim activists to voices their opinions, however, also protects Billoo and her allies right to speak out against them. Thus, while support from local and national officials is necessary, there is great power to be found in average citizens and organizations like CAIR. Billoo encourages allies to combine forces with all other targeted minority groups.

“We’re more powerful together,” said Billoo.“All these agencies that are targeting our groups are cooperating. If we’re going to out organize them, we better be talking to each other.”

The protests staged at airports in late January serve as examples of effective teamwork.

“One of the most heartening things we heard from people who were detained was ‘we could hear the chanting on the outside, and we knew that we weren’t going to be abandoned,'” said Billoo.

Lawsuits and court involvements are also key to success, the latter of which was directly responsible for postponing the travel ban.

“Those of you who know me, know that this isn’t the first fight,” said Billoo. “And to those of you who are younger than me, let me assure you that it won’t be the last fight. The way we sustain is by being with each other, by taking care of our bodies and our spirits, by being positive … In the end, if we’re relying on each other, then let’s make sure that we’re taking care of each other, so we can continue to show our [unity]. Let’s celebrate the wins, because as human beings we need wins.”

At the end of Billoo’s monologue, the audience rose from their seats in a thunderous standing ovation.

Mohammed Shakibnia, Shirazi’s son and an OSU pre-law student, spoke positively about the event as well.

“A point that resonated with me throughout Zahra’s speech was when she explained all the issues people are facing/have been facing are interconnected, whether it being Black Lives Matter, protests like The Women’s March, protecting undocumented immigrants, or fighting against Islamophobia. The notion that when ‘one group’s rights are on the line, all of our’s are’ emboldens the effort and makes the resistance stronger.”

Story by Megan Stewart

Photo by Elliot Pond