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How North Carolinians united against Islamophobia

News & Commentary  |  By Fatema Ahmad, Jul 10, 2017
Towqir Aziz

Organizer Fatema Ahmad explains how community members took action when a known hate group announced an anti-Muslim march in Raleigh.

When I first heard that ACT for America—the largest Islamophobic group in the country—had planned “anti-Shariah” marches in multiple cities across the U.S., I wondered how it would all play out.

Designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACT scheduled these rallies for June 10, purportedly in the name of defending women’s rights. This messaging was a cover for their anti-Muslim agenda, as evidenced by statements from their founder, Bridgitte Gabriel, who has said that “every practicing Muslim is a radical Muslim” and that Muslims are “a natural threat to the civilized people of the world.” The rallies were even scheduled in the middle of Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims.

Immediately after ACT publicized its plans, communities in every one of those cities began planning counter-protests to stand against Islamophobia and their messages of hate and fear. Here in North Carolina, community organizations and individuals began discussing plans for a counter-protest to the anti-Muslim rally that was scheduled to take place at the State Capitol in Raleigh.

From my experience as a Muslim organizer, I expected that any organized response to these anti-Muslim rallies to fall into one of two patterns:

  1. A rally that focuses on unity and showing love and support for Muslims but would likely not include the voices of experienced Muslim organizers. Without centering those most impacted by anti-Muslim racism, the event would lack valuable analysis on how to effectively fight Islamophobia outside of these rallies.
  2.  A direct confrontation organized by groups and individuals who are experienced in this type of action—but that might also miss the same Muslim voices.

Indeed, by the time some local organizations—like Muslims for Social Justice (MSJ) and Movement to End Racism and Islamophobia (MERI)—could convene, there were already three unity rallies being promoted on Facebook, and other groups were discussing a direct action to counter the ACT event. As organizers, we had been faced several times with this issue: How do you organize a powerful collective response when others have started responding without you?

I worked with MSJ and MERI to reach out to the various rally organizers to see if we could come together and help shape the messaging of these events. We also started collaborating with groups like Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Redneck Revolt, which had reached out to Muslim organizers about planning a direct action to confront ACT participants.

We found that most groups we talked to were very supportive of our leadership, especially when it came to planning a collaborative effort across organizations and groups. We also worked with North Carolina Asian Americans Together on the rally, and had additional groups express support, including UE150, Black Workers for Justice, Comite de Accion Popular, Workers World Party, and Triangle People’s Assembly.

We decided to hold our rally, “United Against Racism and Islamophobia,” at Halifax Mall, an outdoor space a few blocks away from the ACT event at the capitol. The rally would lead into the direct action so we could encourage attendees to join those who were committed to disrupting ACT, and to ensure everyone showed a unified front at the rally first.

Photo: Isaac Villegas

The goals of our rally were to communicate the same message to all—that community members and organizations needed to work together outside of reactive events; and to encourage some rally attendees to join the action to counter-protest ACT’s presence at the capitol. As we scrambled to put together programming and logistics in just one week, the second goal was what worried me the most. I didn’t even know if I would feel comfortable being near the ACT rally, especially in the wake of the recent Portland incident when two men were fatally stabbed and another injured while defending two young women from a man harassing them with anti-Muslim insults.  

There was one thing that eased much of my anxiety. After some phone meetings and email exchanges with groups involved, we held an in-person meeting to discuss the action. I was surprised when someone I knew through a mutual friend appeared. During our phone calls, I had not recognized his voice or last name, but it turned out he was charged with leading a lot of the security and strategy around the action, and it made a tremendous difference for me that I already knew this person. It’s much easier to believe that we are going to protect each other if we actually know each other.

Our group also decided to do an atypical action—we would hand out cheap colorful instruments and noise makers to encourage people from our rally and to join the action and march around the capitol to drown out the anti-Muslim speakers.

On the day of our “United Against Islamophobia” rally, June 10, we had a diverse crowd, both ethnically and politically, of about 300 people.

I helped to start off our event by reminding people that this rally was just one piece of all the work we needed to do together. I told them:

“Next month, when hopefully we don't have to have a protest and things might seem a little bit quiet, what are you going to be doing? Are you going to come to the people's assembly, are you going to have a book discussion, are you going to come to a bystander training, are you going to come to a workshop?

“Even though I’m not glad we had to organize this today, I'm so glad to be able to see you all again, next week, and next month. I can’t wait to build community with you all and to one day see the justice and freedom that we all need.”  

Our rally was woman-led with all women speakers—in and of itself a response to ACT’s claims that they were standing up for the rights of Muslim women. Our emcees, speakers, and drummers in the crowd were effective in hyping up attendees and emphasizing our messages.

A young Pakistani Muslim American shared her personal story of growing up in North Carolina after 9/11 and the discrimination she faced. She talked about how after the election, she avoided leaving her apartment for fear of being targeted for who she was. She told the crowd:

“I realized that … if I allow my fear to control me, then that means I am defeated. Looking back, I now understand the discrimination I faced when I was younger made me resilient and allowed me to get prepared for battle ahead. They might be spreading hate across America today, but we must use their vicious ammo as a driving force to unite together our community. Intrinsically, love is much larger than hate.”

At the end of the rally, I got back up on the stage to close the event and announce the direct action at the Capitol, inviting anyone interested to join us. I told the crowd:

“We have a group of people committed to walking over there, not get into physical fight, but to make a whole lot of noise and drown out the hateful trash they're saying. Everyone is welcome but not required to join in. If you are ready, you understand what that means, that there is a level of risk, if you want to participate, we have a group ready to head over there.”

I thought we’d have a trickle of maybe 20 to 30 people walking out for the noise protest. But as I explained to people what was about to happen, the drummers started playing and, suddenly almost the entire rally—over 200 people—was pouring out onto the stairs behind me.

I panicked initially, wondering if I was not clear enough about the additional risk entailed in the protest. But as I ran to catch up with the group, it dawned on me that the sense of community was so strong throughout the rally that everyone felt moved to join. They felt the same sense of trust that I had when I saw my friend at the planning meeting. 

I ran into a Muslim man on the way who heard about it at the late-night Ramadan prayers, and he told me he was there because of his son. His 14-year-old son was too scared to come because of potential violence, so his father said he would go for him. This is what struck me most about the noise protest—there were parents with babies in strollers next to experienced anarchists. We were effective in drowning out ACT’s speakers and shutting down their event, but the most important thing was that we were effective in building an unusual sense of cooperative spirit between a wide range of people that day—which I’m hoping we can build on in the months and years ahead.

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About the Author

Fatema Ahmad is deputy director at the Muslim Justice League in Boston. She is a former biomedical engineer turned community organizer who is passionate about fighting the criminalization of marginalized communities. As deputy director, she spearheads much of our local organizing and advocacy work as well as leading the national StopCVE coalition calls. Fatema is also heavily involved in the #BosCops collective, where we work with other organizations and individuals on fighting abusive policing in and around Boston.