By Darakshan Raja
Around every Labor Day weekend, tens of thousands of Muslims across the country attend an annual convention organized by the Islamic Society of North American (ISNA). This year as organizers in the Washington Metro area, my friend Maha and I decided to ask Amnesty International if we could have a booth at ISNA to raise awareness on U.S. national security policies (i.e., drones, indefinite detention, Guantanamo) and how they disproportionally impact the Muslim community, with the goal of increasing the involvement of the community. From our continued participation and activism on these issues, both Maha and I had noticed the invisibility and absence of the Muslim community within circles that purport to be at the forefront of advocating and organizing against national security issues. A few months ago as we organized around the first drone hearing on Capitol Hill in April, Sen. Leahy read the names of the organizations at the close of the hearing and thanked those who had submitted statements. To my disappointment, not a single Muslim organization was named. For us this invisibility was alarming given the use of drones is an extension of the national security policies that have eroded constitutional protections for all Americans, and the group that has been disproportionately targeted by such policies are Muslims abroad and domestically. It was at that point that we spoke with AI’s field organizer and they also agreed that outreach to the Muslim community on these issues was critical. We thought one small step in the grander work that needs to be done is to attend the ISNA conference, which is arguably the largest space for Muslims to come together nationally. It is a good space to engage some in the community.
With our naive hope we set-up an exhibit that included some of the photographs of men who are still being held in Guantanamo. We also highlighted the case of Adnan Latif, who had reportedly committed suicide a few months ago in Guantanamo Bay (see Fault Lines documentary below that covers this case). We also included information on the proliferation of the use of drones for targeted killings across the world. We further included blank postcards so we could gather messages of solidarity and hope for the men who have spent 10 plus years in a maximum security facility without being charged; or, despite being cleared for release are being held because there is no agreeable plan in place for the release of prisoners. We also further assumed that since these issues should in theory be familiar to the community—a huge mistake on our part— that we could include information on the End Racial Profiling Act and perhaps draw the parallels between the domestic criminal justice system and how the national security detention system is an extension of the policies we perfected at home. Maybe petitions, words, duas, and thoughts could send these men and their families some hope; or, at least the validation that in some corner of the world, people understood they were individuals who paid for a system that is premised on the false logic that dehumanization is the preferred method for punishment and prevention of future violence. It is a system that doesn’t care to differentiate between innocent or guilty.
Even if I had prepared myself to face the fact that the crowd at ISNA would be more interested in photo-ops with celebrity Imams, finding potential marriage partners, and networking, I still wasn’t ready to truly witness the level of disconnect that Muslims attending this conference displayed. Eighty percent of Muslims who walked up to our booth, which had a display of the men who are still held in detention in Guantanamo Bay, didn’t know what Guantanamo Bay was—let alone policies on the War on Terror. One gentleman looked at me and inquired whether I was Cuban because to him, that was the only conceivable explanation for my advocacy on the issue. Others followed up with questions related to Guantanamo’s location and the prisoners’ citizenship status, almost as if to reassure themselves that this could not happen to them. I also had some individuals stop by and ask me why the men in the images were smiling. Their internal assumption was if these men are smiling then it must be they aren’t living in horrendous conditions. One even recommended that I need to update these images to show torture. He wasn’t moved by these images that showed men who have been dehumanized by the world as normal individuals.
Hearing these comments I had to catch myself, and be even more patient than I have ever been. Little did these individuals know that I have had an Uncle who disappeared for a year, was taken to black sites, and was sent back to Pakistan in a military prison where he was tortured and killed under the War on Terror policies. However I remained silent because this level of apathy, disbelief, and denial comes from a false sense of security that they would never themselves ever be in a situation where they would experience injustice. There was a clear framework of “us” versus “them” and if you tried to breakthrough to that false sense of security some became outwardly hostile and argumentative. One gentleman stopped by and sought to school me on how pointless and ineffective our work was in creating social change. He insisted that we provide him with research that demonstrated that activism achieved anything. He had a point but failed to realize that research is expensive, and the type of data needed to truly prove anything is housed within military and government databases where access is restricted. Even with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the government only hands you redacted documents. He also failed to acknowledge that those seeking to shine a light on government abuses have faced heavy retaliation from the government. Think of men such as Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and many other whistleblowers who have faced federal punitive charges. Hence unless you aren’t asking for government support on researching the radicalization in the Muslim community—you are rarely going to attain federal funding for empirical research that gives you hard data to scientifically prove how these policies are failing. Sadly at this point activism is, perhaps, the only vehicle for some to bring any level of change without trending into areas of work where the retaliation is heavy, dark, and swift.
This level of disengagement continued as my fellow activists, Maha and Ramah, wore orange jumpsuits with tape over their mouth. The videos in the next blog authored by Maha will show the responses. I filmed this because people don’t understand the level of apathy activists and organizers face unless you show them through videos how people respond. In this entire interaction, most individuals responded by either making faces, or by pulling out their phones to take pictures, but stopped short of signing any petitions or taking any information because it was too much of a burden. Throughout the conference, those who engaged us the most, where the children; the children, more than the adults, seemed keenly aware of the issues we were presenting and much to our sadness the knowledge that they too could become victims. In one case I was floored when a youth aged 13, asserted that “these men are being held for their beards.” He made a clear connection that it was their Muslim identity, which in the face of no evidence for years, without any charges, was holding them in that facility. That was followed by his other friends who wanted to sign the petition but said “I am not going to get put on a blacklist am I.” I took the petition away because when a thirteen year old tells you that statement, he has already internalized the fear of detention and arrest. He was clear that even as a child he could face the same consequences the men in Gitmo faced. He had internalized the consequences and understood as a child that if he spoke up he may end up just like those men in a prison for the rest of his life.
In sum one of the things I will take away from our ISNA conference is people don’t have 30 seconds to spare about injustices. They can wait in line to meet celebrities, take photo-ops, make lofty speeches and claims about working to end injustice, but to ask people to actually demonstrate through action that they will reflect, act, and do something is too much of an ask. One clear example was when Imam Suhaib Webb spoke in a main session on the need for using creative methods by the MSA to bring attention to injustice, and signaled out Guantanamo Bay and the use of drones. However he stopped short of recognizing that there were two hijabi women standing in front of him who respected every speakers right to speak but silently stood and protested with orange jumpsuits to remind the hundreds attending the conference that injustice is real and palpable for many in our community. Maybe he was just blinded by the lights, or couldn’t see amidst the crowds of hundreds, or perhaps we should have expected the invisibility that women organizers face in the Muslim community. Perhaps next time we should have men wear orange jumpsuits so the community is more comfortable.
Overall the conference was truly a humbling experience for me to know where most people really stand. The week before I had advocated in a national South Asian Women’s organization conference that engaging the faith-based community of Imams and masjids is key in order to address domestic violence, and that we couldn’t just ignore them. However after looking at how those with privilege, who could attend a venue such as ISNA, and their disconnect with issues that impact everyone, it truly humbled me on where we are and where we would like to be. Disengagement and denial are difficult barriers to overcome for any organizer, and this was a wake-up call for us. For anyone reading this please see below for more links to sign a petition, share a video, and maybe just raise awareness. If our small level actions pick up enough steam, they can as a collective serve to counter-balance the policies that erode fundamental rights for everyone. If we remain disengaged, apathetic, and removed, we are through our silence taking the side of oppression, because the call of oppressors is always inaction by the majority.
Petitions and Links:
- Learn more about the Security with Human Rights Campaign
- Close Guantanamo Bay Petition
- Prevent Extrajudicial Killings with Drones and Other Weapons Petition
- ACLU’s National Security Project
- Reprieve’s Website