By Hena Ashraf
A piece written by Ayesha Kazmi, aka AmericanPaki, called “Why I am Not Protesting at Occupy”, has been making the rounds amongst my circle of friends and with people involved and curious about the Occupy movement. In her blog post Ayesha explains why she is not protesting at Occupy because she is at risk of being targeted by law enforcement agencies, because she is Muslim.
I want to first acknowledge that I genuinely appreciate what Ayesha wrote and that she made her concerns public, because stories like Ayesha’s need to be told and heard. She has experienced questioning by the FBI, discrimination in her personal and professional life post 9/11, and raises very real points about how Muslims are targeted in this country at the hands of federal and local law enforcement.
As for me, I am a visible Muslim woman of color. By visible, I mean that I wear hijab. I’ve been politically engaged and involved with various causes and groups since I was a teenager, around issues such as militarization, Islamophobia, and Palestine solidarity. Growing up during the Bush administration, I felt that my faith community was under attack by the mainstream media and the government, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the passage and practice of oppressive domestic policies. There is war abroad and at home. Attacking and occupying Muslim countries had a boomerang effect of defaming and targeting Muslims here domestically, and these practices are still in place today. Under Obama’s watch, the United States is militarily aggressive in six Muslim countries (and Iran might be next, making it seven) and now openly assassinates American Muslims, and has just passed the terrifying National Defense Authorization Act.
So, I understand where Ayesha is coming from. Though my own personal experiences of Islamophobia do not mirror hers, I understand the sentiment of a need to be careful because there are real risks for Muslims who are politically involved – or honestly, in just being Muslim, as we have seen with the NYPD infiltrating mosques, Muslim student associations, and even local restaurants. Muslims are monitored, followed, screened, tracked, defamed, entrapped, incarcerated, abused. These horrible realities are facing Muslims, and have affected many oppressed communities before us.
My family is not politically active; I am probably the only person in my immediate and external family that is present in leftist/progressive/activist spaces. It has been isolating to be seen as the political radical (not that kind of radical), but also a good challenge for me, for my family asks me questions about current events as I’m the only connection they have with things like Occupy Wall Street. I’m challenged in a good way, to hear and discuss with people close to me about their political viewpoints and we can note our differences and convergences, and educate one another. However, my parents have always warned me to stay away from being politically engaged, because they are afraid that I will be targeted and questioned because I am Muslim. I have been hearing these warnings since I was 14, and my mother has been lecturing me to stay away from Occupy Wall Street, because of the real threat that Muslims face in the name of so-called counter-terrorism.
The numerous warnings from my mother have entered my subconscious and are in the back of my mind when I find myself at Occupy Wall Street and I see dozens of riot cops around me, or the NYPD white shirts, and its painfully clear that Bloomberg’s “private army” is about to act out, and beat up and arrest protestors. I know in these situations that I, as a protestor, might also bear the brunt of an attack by the NYPD, but also that I, as a Muslim, might get singled out and taken aside and treated in a different or worse manner than those around me. When I find myself in these instances, I know to have friends around me and we guard each other. This spontaneous and mutual protection has happened numerous times, mostly in and around Zuccotti Park when the park was occupied. And also, when I find myself at Occupy and its clear that its a high-risk situation, I do not put myself out in front and directly resist the police. I assess the situation and before things get violent, I exit and go elsewhere, because I do not want to get arrested and cause my family dire grief. I do have the privilege of not having to face deportation if I get arrested, but nevertheless it is not safe for me to be arrested, since I am a Muslim.
So when I’m at Occupy, I make sure to take care of myself and not get arrested, because I understand the risks of what can happen, which Ayesha made mention of. However, this doesn’t stop me from being involved; from going to meetings, or to rallies, or marches. I show up to Occupy because I know I need to be there. Like so many, I am thrilled that people in the United States have finally taken the streets and are making dissenting views heard, and I want to be a part of it. I also know that someone like me needs to be present, to ensure that more of the 99% is represented.
“As tempted as many white Occupy protesters are to proclaim “we are all one and the same!”, you cannot expect minorities, whose communities have been subjected to intimidation and abuse, to suddenly throw away the race card and jump on the bandwagon. These are critical times, and as such, it is important for Occupy to get it right. We are all part of the 99% – and the concerns of some should fast transform into the concern for all.”
Ayesha is right. But in order to ensure that concerns of the oppressed are taken into account at Occupy, we have to show up. We have to claim the space, and change the space. That is why me and my friends on September 29th did a blocking intervention during the General Assembly, to ensure that the “Declaration of the Occupation of NYC” didn’t dismiss or erase divisions that are present in our society, such as racism, sexism, classism and more, but instead that Occupy Wall Street acknowledge these divisions still exist but despite them, we’re joining forces and working together. My friends and I are engaged with Occupy because we are in solidarity with the movement, but we also are critical of it at the same time. Solidarity and criticism can go together, as Edward Said taught us. We need to encourage engagement and also work to make the space anti-oppressive, simultaneously.
And so, I understand why Ayesha is not involved at Occupy. I understand that I as a fellow Muslim, should also perhaps not be involved, because of the associated risks. But I am involved, because I need to be, because the 99% needs to represent, and that includes Muslims. Our concerns around safety will be only heard if we raise them and continue to raise them – because in order to change the space, we have to claim it.