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By Ameena Jandali, Content Director.
This speech was delivered at the San Francisco Women’s March on January 21, 2017.
I want to thank the organizers for their great efforts in organizing this rally and march which is being replicated across the Bay, the country, and the world. And thanks to the weather for letting up a bit for today. I want to particularly commend the organization and professionalism of the event, but this is what women do!
I am deeply honored to join this incredible panel of speakers and performers today and to be included in this important event.
While I don’t live in the City I have long ties to the SF community where I have been teaching at City College for the past ten years. I want to take a moment to congratulate City College for winning their long accreditation battle against the ACCJC – a victory over the agency which attempted to shut us down, privatize or sell our properties, and which – while CCSF received full accreditation for the next 7 years the toll of this 5 year battle has not been small, including a significant drop in enrollment. I want to commend all my colleagues who worked tirelessly to keep our college open, and give a special shout-out to the Interdisciplinary Dept. where I teach and where our chairperson Lauren Muller has worked tirelessly to create a Middle Eastern studies certificate and include Muslims and Arabs among the many marginalized communities whose struggles are taught about in the department. This semester we are offering a couple of classes that could still use a few more students to boost enrollment and send a strong message that we value this program and believe that it is critical that we challenge anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments. So here is my shameless plug; one way you can push back against Islamophobia is by taking a class at City College; this semester they include IDST 31: Women in the Middle East and POLS 45: Politics of the Middle East. In the battles between the huge structures of inequality, our greatest asset is our grassroots mobilization.
I want to begin my remarks with a couple of verses from the Qur’an that really speak to this moment. The first is:
“But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And God Knows, while you do not know.” 2:216.
Perhaps if things had gone differently we would not be standing here today, pledging our commitment to fight the good fight and to stand together against bigotry and hate.
While anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric during the 2016 campaign cycle and in the period following the election has left many people weary and even fearful about their future, the very fact that such a diverse array of marginalized groups have been alienated and targeted in recent months has finally led us to the important realization that we are stronger today because of our united stance and shared commitment to fight bigotry and hate against any of the varied groups we represent.
At Islamic Networks Group where I have worked for the last 24 years to counter anti-Muslim stereotyping and bigotry, what has struck us most about this particular moment is the outpouring of support not only for American Muslims, but for all minorities. We are seeing an emergent community that is deeply concerned with humanitarian and civil rights issues, that values its diversity, and that reaches across lines of religious, racial and other difference for the common good. As women, we are particularly suited for this task, as we are the givers and nurturers of life and often those charged with the task of making things right when others mess up. But we are deeply grateful to all male allies, particularly those who understand that the best support is non-verbal and concrete, such as holding a baby, cleaning a plate, or making last minute photo copies. A shout-out to all our great male allies here today!
The second verse I would like to mention is:
“O humankind, We have created you from a male and a female, and We made you races and tribes for you to get to know each other. The most noble of you in the sight of God are those of you who are most conscientious. And God is omniscient, fully aware.” (Qur’an, 49:13).
This verse clearly states that our differences were not meant to divide us but rather are something to celebrate.
Looking back at my childhood and youth I can say that I did not always feel a sense of belonging and often felt a strong sense of exclusion, whether due to my strange name, my darker skin or my religion. As a teenager I suffered from painful episodes during the Iranian Revolution where I felt ostracized, and otherized, and things have not changed much for Muslim students since then. My sons have been called terrorist, my daughters have had their scarves pulled off and in many ways it is harder to be a Muslim youth today with polls here in progressive California showing that more than half of Muslim students have experienced bullying, and nearly a third of girls wearing head scarves have had their scarves pulled or touched.
As an adult I have seen all too clearly the dangerous toll that anti-Muslim bigotry can take on an entire population with a hate crimes, vandalism and even murder rising to unprecedented levels over the last couple of years. But Islamophobia did not begin with this election, or even after 9/11, but has long and deep roots in our culture and country, and an almost obsessive fascination with demonizing Islam and Muslims, whether in our media, Hollywood or other conveyers of a reductionist and often Orientalist view of 1.6 billion people who are often painted by a broad brush as terrorists and a threat to our safety and even our way of life. Most Americans don’t realize that Muslims have been part of American history since before we became a republic, or that most Muslims are not Arabs, or that common aspects of our daily lives such as coffee and algebra trace their roots to Muslims and Arabs.
While recent polls show that Islam and Muslims are viewed more negatively than any other religious group, they also show that 60 percent of Americans do not know a Muslim and that over 80 percent of Americans don’t know much about Islam. This means that those who have the worst views of Muslims actually have never met a Muslim and that their fear and hate is based greatly on ignorance and campaigns of misinformation.
At ING, where our vision is a world in which people of diverse backgrounds are understood and respected and their contributions valued, and in which American Muslim communities play a vital role in promoting values of inclusion and coexistence, we believe that the most powerful tool in dispelling bias is face to face interaction with a person you know little about. I invite you to take the opportunity to meet a Muslim, at work, at school, in your neighborhood. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions because only when hard questions are asked does real learning and connecting take place. I invite you to take a class – you know where – read a book, or go to our website where we include answers to over 100 FAQs about Islam and Muslims.
It is important to remember that xenophobia is not new in this country, but has a long and broad history of targets, including native Americans and blacks who continue to be vilified and oppressed with institutional racism, the Irish and Italians who were once regarded as non-whites; Jews and Catholics, whose religion and practices have been demonized; Chinese and Japanese here on the West coast, with discriminatory policies and the shameful episode of internment, and last and hopefully truly last, Hispanics and Muslims. The kind of demonization and fear-mongering around Islam and Muslims is reminiscent of some of these previous dark episodes in our history.
Our current context is also a potent reminder that one cannot ask for justice for some without also asking for justice for all. At Standing Rock people of all backgrounds came together to work for something that is beyond our own individual identities or interests. That is standing for universal justice.
As the famous lines of Pastor Martin Niemöller, remind us:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me-and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Martin Niemöller, German Lutheran pastor, concentration camp survivor
Today let us renew our commitment to stand together stronger than ever, more determined than ever to work for justice, equal rights and inclusion of all communities. For the intersectionality of our different struggles have clearly shown that they are all different iterations of the same.
Key to our success is our commitment to unity and solidarity. Let us take this opportunity where for once we are all in this together to take the time and effort to get beyond feel good events and actions and get to know each other first and foremost as human beings, as women, as Americans, as fellow social justice activists, sharing what we have in common while discovering what makes us different. We don’t have to be the same; we don’t even have to agree; we just need to respect and love each other enough to work through sometimes difficult but meaningful conversations and come out with something that is real.
Being an upstander rather than a bystander is never easy. Whether it is defending a child being bullied or standing up for a co-worker, it takes courage and conviction to intervene and say that is not appropriate or acceptable because the person being bullied should not be expected to defend herself.
I admit to feeling fear, unease not sure of what tomorrow will bring. But I will sleep a bit easier knowing – and I do know – that you have my back, just as I hope you know that I have your back. Take this opportunity to reach out to your neighbor, the one you never talk to; your co-worker, the one who doesn’t talk much; the mom at the PTA meeting who is shy to ask a question, the person next to you on the Bart, on the bus, in the grocery, in the park, anywhere and everywhere that you can make a new human connection, particularly with someone who belongs to a marginalized group or just seems to need a little love, make a point to engage with them to show ourselves and the world that what makes America great is not how many weapons we possess or how much we produce in consumer goods, but the content of our character, the welcome we provide to the stranger, and how we treat those who are the most downtrodden marginalized.
And lastly, do not forget to be kind to yourself as you take the time to be kind to others, to smell a flower; to breathe the air on a sunny day. The sun will still rise and set; the ocean waves will continue to ebb and flow and at the end of this, we will emerge, if not victorious, stronger and more determined than ever to fight the good fight not for ourselves or for our children, but for all Americans, all people and for the very planet we live on. Together we shall overcome.