December 7, 2015
Dear Non-Muslim Allies,
I am writing to you because it has gotten just that bad. I have found myself telling too many people about the advice given to me years ago by the late composer Herbert Brun, a German Jew who fled Germany at the age of 15: “be sure that your passport is in order.” It’s not enough to laugh at Donald Trump anymore. The rhetoric about Muslims has gotten so nasty, and is everywhere, on every channel, every newsfeed. It is clearly fueling daily events of targeted violence, vandalism, vigilante harassment, discrimination. I want you to know that it has gotten bad enough that my family and I talk about what to keep on hand if we need to leave quickly, and where we should go, maybe if the election goes the wrong way, or if folks get stirred up enough to be dangerous before the election. When things seem less scary, we talk about a five or a ten year plan to go somewhere where cops don’t carry guns and hate speech isn’t allowed on network television. And if you don’t already know this about me, I want you to know that I was born in this country. I have lived my whole life in this country. I have spent my entire adult life working to help the poor, the disabled and the dispossessed access the legal system in this country. And I want you to know that I am devoutly and proudly Muslim.
I am writing this in response to a non Muslim friend’s question about what she can do. Because there is much that can be done in solidarity:
-If you see a Muslim or someone who might be identified as Muslim being harassed, stop, say something, intervene, call for help.
-If you ride public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’). Don’t worry about mispronouncing it; she won’t care. Just say “peace” if you like. She’ll smile; smile back. If you feel like it, start a conversation. If you don’t, sit there and make sure no one harasses her.
-If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.
-If you have neighbors who are Muslim, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.
-Talk to your kids. They’re picking up on the anti-Muslim message. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.
-Call out hate speech when you hear it—if it incites hatred or violence against a specified group, call it out: in your living room, at work, with friends, in public. It is most important that you do this among folks who may not know a Muslim.
-Set up a “learn about Islam” forum at your book club, school, congregation, dinner club. Call your state CAIR organization, interfaith group or local mosque and see if there is someone who has speaking experience and could come and answer questions about Islam and American Muslims for your group. They won’t be offended. They will want the opportunity to do something to dispel the nastiness.
-Write Op Eds and articles saying how deplorable the anti-Muslim rhetoric has gotten and voice your support for Muslim Americans in whatever way you can.
-Call your state and local representatives, let them know that you are concerned about hate speech against your Muslim friends and neighbors in politics and the media, that it is unacceptable and you want them to call it out whenever they hear it, on your behalf.
-Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia, or will stand with Muslims—there is an awful lot of hate filling the airways, and there are an awful lot of people with access to the media and/or authority stirring the pot about Muslims. Please help fill that space with support instead. Post, write, use your profile picture or blog to voice your support.
Ask me anything. Really. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.
I can tell you that in addition to the very real threat to their civil and human rights that Muslims are facing, we are dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety. While we, many of us, rely on our faith to stay strong, we are human. This is not an easy time. What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you.
Thank you for reading and bless you in your efforts. Please share freely.
December 18, 2016
Dear Non-Muslim Allies (2),
I am writing to say thank you. A lot of amazing things have happened since I wrote to you last. You probably know by now that the first letter I wrote to a couple of hundred of you while sitting at my dining room table went viral. Many of you have started saying asalam ‘alaykum and making the hearts of the Muslims in your path soar. Some of you have written to tell me the stories that emerged from those first simple greetings of peace. Those of you who own or manage shops have begun to put signs of welcome in your windows, and many of you have participated in activism to end hate speech and discrimination.
There are a couple of stories in particular I want to share. One is the story of a woman who said asalam ‘alaykum to her cashier, who then asked where she was from. She replied, “right here!” to the great surprise and pleasure of the cashier. The other is the story of one of my dearest friends on the planet, who hesitated to share the letter until many days after it had gone viral, out of concern that it would raise the ire of her rural, Southern community. And then when she did, she found that the voices that responded were ones of support.
Words of wisdom from my mentors have come tumbling back to me in this past week, and as I learned of both of these stories, I thought of this: Suzanne Pharr, a lifelong civil rights and LGBTQ activist from the South, once told me that the most important thing a straight person could do for LGBTQ rights is to not be afraid to be mistaken for gay or lesbian. That is, no LGBTQ person could feel safe in this country until a good many of their allies were willing to be seen with them, to be ridiculed, to be, sometimes, unsafe. She suggested that by standing with a target of hatred, we might be mistaken for the target ourselves, but that if we do it in large numbers and often enough, the original target becomes hard, and then impossible to recognize and separate. By saying asalam ‘alaykum and by sharing the letter, you have made yourselves lightning rods, and are slowing the momentum of hatred in this country.
Just as a long-time friend inspired the first letter, another long-time friend inspires this one. Sheila asked me to write something about the place of Islam in my life. It’s a big task; one that I’ll take on at more length elsewhere. But I will say this: Islam gives me the story of Moses leading a people to safety in spite of his deep personal anxiety, it gives me the story of Sarah birthing a baby when she was more than twice my age, it gives me the story of Hagar’s faith and persistence with Ishmael in the desert, the story of Jesus’ paired humility and wonders, and Mary’s exchanges with angels. Islam gives me a story about Muhammad who, when given revelation, ran to his wife for comfort and security, and shared a relatively egalitarian marriage with that wife, who was both older and wealthier than himself. Peace be upon them all. Islam gives me a lineage beyond mere generations and then expresses how short even that lineage is in the eyes of God. The Qur’an lays out for me the qualities of my maker that I might set aside my ego and pursue instead compassion, mercy, forgiveness, patience, and justice in humility. It gives me a practice of prayer and fasting that cleans my heart and body. It repeats ‘alhamdulillah,’–all that’s in the heavens and earth sing God’s praises–over and over again, and I am comforted that, no matter the struggle before me, I am already singing.
I am not interested in making other people Muslim. I believe that we each make our covenants with the Divine in billions of ways all over the globe. The Qur’an says as much, and implies that we are not aware of all of the Prophets. It both tells me radically different stories of Prophets in the Abrahamic lineage and then tells me that God makes no distinction among any of them—that these differences which we make enormous are irrelevant to God. Tells me clearly that no human being owns salvation, tells Prophet Muhammad to tell us that he did not know his own fate, much less that of anyone else. It demands that I stand up to injustice and do good work.
I love the incredible diversity of this country. I love that I meet some of you in faith, some of you in the pursuit of justice, and some of you in simple humanity. I love that we are here together.
Peace to you, and love,
Dear American Muslims and Non-Muslim Allies (3),
It is hard to believe that three months ago I thought Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric was a threat, but not his actual candidacy. That has changed. I want to tell you a bit about what led me to write that first letter in December. That evening, appalled by the media’s willingness to cover, and the Republican establishment’s willingness to enable Trump’s racist policy proposals, I did some research. I wanted to understand more about the unique position of Muslims in America. I learned that American Muslims make up nearly 1% of the adult population in this country. I also learned that this was the approximate proportion of Jews in Germany in 1933. I don’t now if that is sociologically significant. But I do know that it scared me.
I also learned that American Muslims are mostly concentrated in a handful of large urban areas and in ten of the fifty states. It occurred to me that at a heavily concentrated 1% of the adult American population, we are, in fact, quite vulnerable. There is no way that we could, alone, fight off an earnest attempt to persecute, marginalize, intern, or eliminate us. I realized that to fight fascism, some much larger proportion of the population has to recognize the early stages of scapegoating (identification, isolation) and resist them in order to ensure freedom from the endgame (concentration, elimination). And that is why I wrote to my non-Muslim friends. I don’t see this as a one-way street, by the way. Muslims must be (and many have been) civically engaged, both willing to ask others to stand with us and to commit ourselves to stand against injustice wherever it appears.
As an activist committed to social justice for my entire adult life, I accept that the project of democratic politics is an imperfectly negotiated system of self-governance. But Trump’s candidacy is a threat to the fabric of that process, not another position on the spectrum. He has effectively and explicitly gathered white nationalism, vigilante violence, torture, and the suppression of a free media and religious freedom into the platform of the Republican Party. And for some reason, it has taken this long for any significant voice of dissent to rise within the Republican establishment. (What the hell is wrong with you, Republican Party?)
What I mean to say here is that Trump represents a change, not in degree of conservatism, but in kind of politics. And neither Trump’s fellow candidates nor the Republican establishment appear to have a problem with that. It is not yet clear whether there is enough anxiety and hatred in some segments of the American public to put Trump at the top of the ruins of the Republican Party. My hope is that the Republican Party will do the honorable thing: recognize that what once was a viable conservative platform has degenerated into thin cover for greed, misogyny and racism. And then create something better.
The alternative, regardless of what happens in this election cycle, is frightening. What we have learned is that America is not immune to authoritarianism and that white nationalism is far from dead. Left unchecked, these factors may define the future of the Republican Party.
Because this remains a real possibility, my family and I are still having conversations about how to make sure we don’t sit still while the water boils around us. And again, I found myself wondering what this conversation must have looked like in 1933 or 1935, or even 1938, when the logical conclusion of Nazi fascism was still unimaginable. Because when Hitler came to power, 37,000 people fled, but another nearly 500,000 stayed. And more than half were still in Germany by the time all legal exits were sealed in 1941. People stayed for a great many reasons. Among the early reasons were mixed messages from the Nazi regime (including, for example, suggesting that segregation was the goal), patriotism, instances of solidarity or support from non-Jewish people, and unwillingness to leave behind property or livelihood. Later barriers to escape included increasing inability to pay to get out (as more and more property was confiscated by the Nazis and exit ‘taxes’ were dramatically increased) and inability to find a country that would allow them to enter.
When does one assess the ridiculous level of gun violence and police brutality in this country, paired with the deep racism and xenophobia espoused by almost all of the Republican Presidential candidates, and get out? Our answer is:not yet. The water is not boiling yet, and there is a chance to make this society viable, and maybe even very good, for the next generation. There is work to be done and it is our obligation to do it.
I am writing to ask you to consider that this is a critical time in our society’s evolution. Our leadership will have the unenviable task of steering us through some of the most confounding crises that human beings have ever faced: climate change, social conflict driven by environmental crises, persistent racism, and massive shifts in the post-colonial world order—including a dramatically different political and technological context for war. We would not be the first society to suffer under fascism. But given the stakes, I honestly believe that we could be the last.
All of this is to ask you—actually, to beg you. Please VOTE. Vote against hate. If you haven’t yet had enough of my opinion, I like Bernie. I like his unwavering integrity. I think he is the best possible steward for American in the next four years. But I’d take Hillary in a heartbeat over the alternatives. Just please, please VOTE.
If you are registered, vote in your state’s primary: https://www.fvap.gov/vao/vag/appendix/state-elections and help choose your Party’s nominee, who will run in the general election in the fall.
If you haven’t already registered, please do so here: https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote#item-212126. If you haven’t made arrangements to get to the polls, organized child care, gotten time off, you’ve got until the general election on November 8th. Be sure to vote again in 2018, because a Democratic president can only do so much with a Republican Congress. It will make all the difference.
Peace to you and bless you in your efforts,
View the fourth letter in this series, Dear Fellow Americans(4) at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sofia-alikhan/dear-fellow-americans_b_9549116.html