We Have Been Here Before

By Deepa Iyer Nov 23, 2016

We have been here before.

For 15 years, Muslim, South Asian and Arab communities have been in the midst of an unprecedented and relentless backlash. Our collective community history since 9/11 includes being subjected to hate violence while praying at a Sikh gurdwara, attending school and  spending time inside our own homes. It includes being spied on while participating in Muslim student association meetings and playing cricket and soccer at public parks in Brooklyn and Queens. It includes being required to register with immigration authorities and inevitably face deportations.

We have been here before.

That is in part because after 9/11, our government, elected leaders, the media and even the general public participated in the normalization of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia in the name of national security and public safety. We routinely tolerated the civil- and human-rights violations of the domestic War on Terror, which included airport profiling, surveillance, immigration enforcement and discrimination. This is why programs like special registration slipped under the radar nearly 14 years ago without drawing the type of public outrage and expressions of solidarity that we see today in response to President-elect Donald Trump’s plans for a Muslim registry.  

Even though our communities have been confronting and surviving backlash and criminalization in the 15 years since 9/11, our lives, identities and futures are at stake like never before. In the two weeks since the electoral college made Trump the president of the United States, college- and community-based organizations documenting hate crime data have been reporting sharp increases in harassment, vandalism and violence. Over 700 racial incidents have been collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center, including one in which a Gwinnett Count, Georgia, high school teacher was left a note in class that read: “Why don’t you tie it around your neck and hang yourself with it…” The “it” refers to the teacher’s hijab. The note was signed, “America.”

Maheen Ahmed, the student director for the national Muslim Students Association, describes how Muslim college students are trying to navigate the tense post-election climate on campuses. “Within a day of the elections results, we saw a spike in hate crimes on college campuses across the nation. Without even a day to process the results, grieve and heal, Muslim student leaders were forced to jump to action and create crisis management strategies and support systems such as healing spaces, buddy systems, and psychological and spiritual assistance.”

For working class, undocumented or LGBT people in Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, the concerns are even more pressing. Urooj Arshad from the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity told me, “LGBT Muslims already suffer from tremendous isolation and the lack of safe spaces within both mainstream Muslim and mainstream LGBT communities. Now, we are in a worse situation. We are scared about our immediate safety and those of our loved ones as we witness the emergence of vigilante justice against Muslims in the wake of the election.”

It can feel even worse in areas without large immigrant and people of color populations. Mana Tahaie, who works at YWCA Tulsa is keenly aware that “[in] Oklahoma, people of color, particularly immigrants and Muslims accustomed to living with constant low-level fear." In Tulsa, she says, local cops enforce federal immigration law. And the vigilante killing of Khalid Jabara and the fatal police shooting of Terence Crutcher have rocked their communities. "In the wake of the election, we are deeply worried about mass deportations, the actions of newly-emboldened, armed bigots, and policies that will create a climate of hostility toward our Black and Brown residents,” Tahaie says.  

As though this hostile environment is not enough, there is more coming down the road. Plans for a Muslim registry, the deportations of undocumented people, and the appointments of people who have been openly connected with White nationalist and anti-Muslim views are not wait-and-see possibilities. They are realities under the coming Trump Administration.

In the wake of the election, activists around the country such as Ahmed, Arshad and Tahaie are focused first on ensuring that people feel safe, understand their rights and have access to lawyers and mental-health providers. But they also know that this moment is part of a long-term struggle. It is one that will require deeper cross-racial, inter-faith, and cross-movement relationships, persistent acts of resistance, and strategies to de-center status quo Beltway-focused advocacy in order to uplift local base-building and organizing efforts. 

As the Trump Administration assembles, our communities too enter a new era, buttressed by the lessons learned and the perspectives gained in the recent past. In the decade and a half since 9/11, Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities have established organizations. We’ve challenged profiling and surveillance in court and documented our experiences in reports, books and films that disrupt misleading media narratives. We have also learned from the wisdom of our own people on the frontlines in the War on Terror, and from the undocumented youth and Black Lives Matter movements.

We are not as vulnerable as we were in the months and years after 9/11. That is why we will not normalize the appointments and viewpoints of peddlers of racism, White nationalism and Islamophobia. We will actively push back the veneer of diversity and multiculturalism to reveal, name and acknowledge the open wounds and scars of racism that permeate the American psyche. We will resist the attempts to criminalize Black and Brown bodies, LGBTQ communities, Muslims, undocumented immigrants and refugees. We will demand safe spaces for all our children in their schools. We will call upon local elected leaders to pass policies that will protect communities, enforce civil-rights laws and advance racial equity. We will move past our segregated silos to build solidarity, and call upon the new groups of “woke” Americans to join us.

Yes, the immediate future looks daunting and many of us are battle-weary. How we pull together now will set the tone for what’s ahead. As this sobering November ends, I have been drawing comfort and strength in the words of Assata Shakur: “I believe in living. I believe in birth. I believe in the sweat of love and in the fire of truth. And I believe that a lost ship, steered by tired, seasick sailors, can still be guided home to port.”

Deepa Iyer is a senior fellow at The Center for Social Inclusion and the author of "We Too Sing America; South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future" (November 2015/The New Press). Iyer serves on the board of directors for Colorlines’ publisher Race Forward