Resisting Islamophobia and war

April 5, 2011

National antiwar mobilizations in New York City on April 9 and San Francisco on April 10 will have opposition to Islamophobia and state repression of Muslim and Arab organizations at the center of their demands.

Abdul Malik Mujahid is a leader of Muslim Peace Coalition, a recently formed organization to challenge Islamophobia. Joe Lombardo is co-chair of the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC), the chief sponsor of the April 9 and 10 antiwar protests. They talked to Ashley Smith about building an alliance between Muslims, labor and the antiwar movement for UNAC protests and the struggles ahead.

HOW HAS the "war on terror" impacted the Muslim, Arab and South Asian populations in the U.S.?

Malik: Governments struggle to convince people to go to war because human beings don't really want to kill each other. To get people to kill, you must demonize the enemy and the people associated with that enemy.

So while the U.S. has been in Iraq for 20 years, more recently Afghanistan and now Libya, they have targeted the Muslim community here at home. Anybody who looks like a Muslim has become a suspect. As a result, people targeting Muslims have discriminated against Arab Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, and Indians.

The magnitude of the attack on Muslims in America has not been adequately recognized. People know that there's demonization and Islamophobia, but they don't quite know how strong it is.

There have been more than 700,000 Muslims interviewed since 9/11, and tens of thousands have been detained and deported. The detention regime we are under has stopped and detained close to 100 or 200 people every day for between 3 hours to 12 hours, sometimes even longer. Every day of the week, every years since September 11, there many people have been detained for several hours. Mosques are routinely checked for nuclear bombs across the country.

Marching against war and anti-Arab racism in San Francisco

All of this has had a huge impact on America's Muslim population. It has devastated Muslim charities. Despite President Obama's speech in Cairo and his recognition that charity is a Muslim pillar of faith, he has not taken a single step to help reestablish the charity structure, which has been destroyed in the post-9/11 world. So now when we have the most need for charity establishments within the country we have the least.

Islamophobia also has an impact on people's wages. For example, one study found that wages of Muslim men have gone down by 10 percent. Unfortunately, the study did not include Muslim women. If they had, the decline would actually be worse than 10 percent.

But the worst thing is that Islamophobia has spread from right-wing talk shows to the mainstream. In the last election cycle, politicians spoke against Islam and Muslims. They are now turning Islamophobia into public policy. They have made it almost impossible to establish mosques. The practice of Islam is being criminalized, with proposed laws in 13 states making simple religious practices like praying and washing after prayer a criminal offense. If a proposed law in Tennessee passes, Muslims can be detained, tried and punished for 15 years.

Such public policy is only amplifying the attacks on Muslims. There have been attacks on the mosques. In one case, an imam was burned alive in a house where he was trying to remove anti-Muslim graffiti from the walls, and there was an explosion.

Joe: A number of us in the antiwar movement and those of us in UNAC understood that the justification for this so-called "war on terror" was Islamophobia. We saw that this led directly to attacks on Muslims in this country. So to be an effective antiwar movement we needed to oppose Islamophobia.

Here in Albany, N.Y., I started working with the Muslim Defense Committee. Then we helped form Project Salaam, which helped document these so-called pre-emptive prosecutions. We all remember pre-emptive war, which got us into Iraq. The U.S. justified that war by saying that while Iraq was not attacking the U.S., it someday might attack the U.S.

Pre-emptive prosecution is similar. They now prosecute Muslims not for anything they have done, but for the presumption that someday, they might do something. So agents and provocateurs were sent into mosques, trying to get marginalized people to do something, either by tricking them or bribing them or inventing plots, and hundreds were arrested and put in jail. Project Salaam documented all of this.

As Malik said, Islamophobia has become institutionalized. It's becoming part of law with these bills to outlaw Sharia law. We just saw the congressional hearing led by Rep. Peter King, and before that, we saw the attack on Park51 and other Muslim building projects around the country. We have even seen terrorist attacks against some of these projects. For example, hate mongers blew up construction equipment at a mosque being built in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Those of us who have looked at the history a little bit understand how scapegoating an entire religion can lead to untold horrors. We watched what happened with the Nazis in Germany, and so we're very fearful of Islamophobia being used in the same way here. So it became very clear that the antiwar movement had to take a very strong position against this bigotry, and UNAC basically has.

CAN YOU tell us about collaboration between UNAC and the Muslim Peace Coalition?

Malik: There is a greater realization on the part of the Muslim community that Islamophobia is one form of hate, probably the most prominent in our society today.

But there are older hates in marginalized communities. There is racism toward African Americans. There is the criminalization of our youth in the inner cities. There's hate toward immigrants, especially Latinos. In fact Muslims are perceived as immigrants, even though one-third of Muslims are African American, who have been here for centuries. More than 50 percent of Muslims are born and raised in America, but the image is that they are an immigrant community.

Labor unions are also being targeted, and women are suffering in other ways. Social services are being cut. Teachers are being laid off, and teaching is a women-led profession. So with 40 percent of households being woman-led, such cuts are devastating for women and children.

In this situation, we felt that there is a common cause for Muslims not only in resisting Islamophobia, but also in uniting with other allies who are suffering discrimination and economic attacks.

We need to understand two key points. First, Islamophobia, war and terrorism are all connected phenomena. So we need to fight against war and Islamophobia, as well as terrorism. Second, hate and poverty are not only problems the Muslim community faces. Other communities face similar problems. We can and must unite with as broad forces as we can to mount a resistance.

This realization resulted in the formation of the Muslim Peace Coalition. Many Muslims have been part of a lot of coalitions, mostly civil rights or human rights. We felt we needed to create the Muslim Peace Coalition that resisted the war abroad and the war at home. We are facing the war at home because all the money is being sucked up by the war abroad.

Understanding the urgency of this situation, 40 different Muslim intellectuals held a conference call, and we realized that something must be done. We started inviting different activists in different cities. Now the Muslim Peace Coalition has chapters in 14 different states.

Joe: UNAC's collaboration with the Muslim Peace Coalition brought us in close contact with the Muslim community and leaders of the Muslim community like Malik. The Muslim community is a very substantial community in this country, and a vital ally with the antiwar movement on the issue of peace. So I think our collaboration will really expand and build the antiwar movement.

Everything that they do with the war abroad and the war at home is geared toward dividing us. In Iraq, it's Shiite divided from Sunni or Arab from Kurd, but they always divide and conquer. And they do the same thing here. The kind of racism that we see directed toward the Latino community, Blacks or Muslims is geared to divide us and have us fearful of one another. Some forces in our society want to exploit the fact that there are some cultural and language differences and so forth.

By us coming together, it bridges that gap. It's like in Tahrir Square, when the Coptic Christians prayed, Muslims stood around them to help protect them. All these divisions in society that are used to keep us apart can be broken down, and we're starting to see a little of that here with this alliance between the Muslims and the fight against Islamophobia and against war.

ONE OF the key initiative that both of you have pursued has been outreach to the labor movement to build for April 9 and 10. How did this come about, and what kinds of initiatives have you pursued?

Malik: At the invitation of Kathy Kelley, I participated in the UNAC conference in Albany, N.Y., that drew about 700 or 800 leading activists in the peace movement. I noticed a few of the groups that were not quite represented--mostly Muslims, labor, Latinos, African Americans and young people.

I took it upon myself to organize a conference call with Muslim peace activists around the world. It drew about 40 intellectuals. We felt that we should take responsibility of creating and enhancing the participation of the Muslim community in the antiwar movement.

But at the same time, it remained in my mind that labor among all these groups would be one of the most important groups to reach out to. They have professional capacities, offices, human resources and financial resources. I thought we should reach out to them.

I started a conversation in Chicago and started looking into labor unions that I have contacts with. One of the main unions that I have contacts with is 1199SEIU, the health care workers union based in New York. I had interviewed George Gresham, the president of 1199, on my radio show, and I invited him for our January 8 peace activist daylong training in New York. This meeting was focused on Muslim constituencies by design. But we also reached out to allies in the antiwar movement and the labor movement.

George came extended his support, and to our delight, he condemned the war in Afghanistan and, in the tradition of Dr. King, connected the antiwar movement with the war at home. He invited Joe and I to address his executive committee. They gave us an extraordinary welcome. They unanimously voted to support and endorse the UNAC demonstration in New York on April 9. They could see the common cause, and they agreed to join the struggle.

Joe: I'm a lifelong member of a trade union. I'm a New York state worker and a member of the labor council, and I've always understood the importance of labor in any social movement.

It's not just because of resources, but labor has an extraordinary power. If labor ever worked all together and was organized to collaborate as one, we could stop the running of the country if we decided to do that. So there's extraordinary power in labor, and it's always very important to bring labor into any social movement.

We see the effects of the war on the economy here. And we see all these states, one after the other, not only imposing budget cuts but also trying to do away with collective bargaining rights, which were rights we really fought for. Many lives were lost in that fight.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, they're trying to push us back 100 years and do away with collective bargaining. It's really a blow not only for labor, but also for every working person in the country, because it will affect all of us. We'll all lose from it. We'll all lose benefits, wages and everything we've gained over many, many years of organizing and struggle.

So there seemed to be a very natural connection between the antiwar movement and the labor movement. 1199SEIU has endorsed the rally. There are other significant labor unions that have endorsed in New York City. Teamsters Local 808, which organizes commuter train workers, has endorsed. Transport Workers Union Local 100, which organizes bus and train workers, has endorsed, and we've received other significant labor endorsements.

George Gresham recently spoke at a meeting in Boston. He said they made some mistakes on October 2 at the One Nation Rally that they want to correct now. Specifically, he said that the union movement has to work closer with the Islamic community and the antiwar movement. Perhaps some of our work has helped facilitate that, and I'm hopeful that the demonstration will bring us closer, and that we can work together.

I think what happened in Wisconsin shows the importance of collaboration. Labor mobilized when the governor attacked them. They copied some of the methods they saw in Tahrir Square in Egypt. Just like in Tahrir, workers stayed in the Capitol building. But they didn't do it alone. The entire antiwar and progressive community came out. Students came out with them and for them.

I think it's clear that an alliance between all of us is the way that we're going to go forward. So hopefully, we're starting to build those bridges between the antiwar movement, the Muslim community and the labor movement. If we can foster such collaboration, it will make the antiwar movement stronger, it will make the labor movement stronger, and it will make the fight against Islamophobia stronger.

WHAT ARE you doing to reach out and mobilize Muslims for the demonstrations?

Malik: Joe and I came up with the idea of a speaking tour through mosques in and around New York. We want to mobilize the Muslim community for the April 9 demonstration. Joe and I got in his car for six days and went around meeting key leaders of the community. We addressed many congregations, ranging anywhere from 60 people to over 1,000 people. We were able to talk to all the key leaders in New York, New Jersey and some in Connecticut.

One thing I learned from this tour is that people have been waiting for something like this, and that people are ahead of us in understanding that we are in a common struggle. They were thankful to meet with us. Now we have 100 imams who have issued a call for Muslims in and around New York to mobilize for April 9.

It has been an extraordinary learning process and humbling experience. People think on their own, they have reached the same conclusions, and they were waiting for someone to connect the dots for them. I am hopeful that labor, churches, synagogues and temples will also go around on such a peace tour during the few days left before April 9 to do similar outreach and organizing.

Joe: I think it was an extremely important tour, and I learned a tremendous amount about the Muslim community. I've been in more mosques than I've ever been in my life, and I think it's clear that most Muslims are against the wars.

But Muslims are very much on the defensive because of how this "war on terror" and its Islamophobia targets them. I think it was very important for them to see that there are non-Muslims who stand with them and support them in the antiwar movement. I felt incredibly welcome wherever I went, and they were happy that I was there.

I also learned a lot about mobilizing people just by being with Malik and watching the kinds of things that he did with his community, and also the tremendous respect he has within the Muslim community. So I think this is an incredible asset for the antiwar movement and for UNAC, and I think it will result in a large Muslim turnout for the April 9 demonstration.

Malik: I think America is going through what is essentially a struggle for its future. Some people want to make the people, especially the white majority, scared of a demographic future in which diversity is going to become as American as apple pie. They want people to become scared of that diversity. That's what behind slogans like "Take back our country." More people are buying guns and making death threats against President Obama and things like that.

I happen to believe that diversity is going to be a major strength for America in a world which is daily becoming a more globalized and interdependent world. There is no country on the earth that has more people from all over the world than the United States.

Two things can help America in this situation. Number one, instead of bombing people, we should relate to people like a good customer of a mom and pop store. Second, we must respect people for who they are. All the diverse people in America could actually become true ambassadors in the future economy and the future world order in which there are other nations, which are rising up.

Instead of fear-mongering, we need to consider diversity as a strength for America and a better world.

Transcription by Matt Korn

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