“Please don’t let it be a Muslim, please don’t let it be a Muslim, please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
This was the only full sentence formed and repeated by the adults in my house the morning of September 11, 2001. The faint memories of calls coming in from my khalas (aunties) and nani (grandmother) in Pakistan, the conversations coming from my grandparents room at home, the words exchanged by my uncle and father at dinner — all repeating the same sentence.
It feels odd to reflect on that moment, hear the echo of the words, and realize the gravity that sentence and date would have on my experiences.
Growing up as a South Asian Muslim American for me meant learning how to read, write, and speak Arabic without ever fully understanding it. It also meant having to explain over and over again that, “Yes, I can’t even drink water while fasting!” — and dealing with the same look of shock from the same people every year. It meant spending summers in Pakistan where the air fills with calls to prayer five times a day, only to return to the quiet winters in America.
But as I grew older, I began to encounter the moments that taught me the nuances of Islamophobia.
Moments like walking back to the car late night with my mom after Taraweeh prayers and having strangers spit on us and call us racialized profanities I had never heard before. Later, I listened to my mother as she formulated a game plan to avoid another incident, in which we were to remove our hijabs after leaving the mosque but before proceeding further toward the car. ‘
We did what we had to do to feel safe.
Then came September of 2011. That year, the first day of our Sunday school landed on the tenth anniversary of the attacks.
Our small mosque in San Jose, California received threats of violence from local white supremacists. The Islamic school board made a decision to not involve the local law enforcement specifically for the safety of our Black and undocumented families. Instead, hordes of uncles stood at both the front and back entrances of the mosque as students bustled in for their first day.
I was 14 at the time, and just starting to fully form my understanding of how Islamophobia would continue to follow me and my loved ones. Concepts began clicking for me: I began to connect prejudice against Muslims or those perceived as Muslim in the U.S. with the stories my family in Pakistan would tell me about the U.S.’s relationship with Muslim countries more broadly.
My personal experiences of Islamophobia, and the way I began to understand Islamophobia as a global power structure, showed me that there are more than a few ways to be harmed — but there are also more than a few ways that we take care of, support, and fight for each other. I saw first-hand how my loved ones understood how to care for and protect each other and developed strategies to fight against injustice.
Today, I’d still rather have a group of uncles posted up protecting me than some cops.
Over time, I began stepping into more roles in the community, such as volunteering as a Sunday school teacher and helping out with local Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) campaigns. It soon became clear that movements to protect and liberate our people are inherently multi-racial. The group of uncles from my childhood came from diverse backgrounds and their strength was in recognizing, respecting, and incorporating differences. If we want to shift or destroy the power structures that oppress us, we are going to need many people behind us and beside us. I learned that what made people want to join movements against Islamophobia was seeing how it impacted themselves or their loved ones — like I did.
There have been many successful campaigns against Islamophobia led out right here in the Bay Area. One example is the Stop Urban Shield coalition.
Stop Urban Shield is a coalition of over 20 member organizations fighting against the use of Urban Shield services in Alameda County. Urban Shield is a SWAT team training and weapons expo that brings together local, regional, and international police-military units — including those from the apartheid State of Israel — to collaborate on new forms of surveillance, state repression, and state violence.
For four years, the coalition worked to inform the Alameda Board of Supervisors about Urban Shield’s inherent Islamophobia and grow their coalition connections without diminishing their demands of defunding Urban Shield. Initially, the coalition formed to represent Arab and Muslim community members impacted by Islamophobia and militarization — but soon, it began to align and include Black and Brown communities more broadly, because all experienced police violence.
In 2019, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors voted to end their contract with Urban Shield. We had won!
Just as the uncles at my Sunday school were able to successfully organize to protect us on our first day, the Stop Urban Shield coalition also saw success that came with multiracial organizing against Islamophobia. While the echoes of “Please don’t let it be a Muslim” still rattle around in my mind, I remain grounded in the values I saw to counter similar sentiments: values of taking care and supporting one another, from the Bay to the other side of the world. The fight against Islamophobia is and will continue to be international, multiracial, and strategic.