Organising against closed doors

12 07 19

Deepa Iyer is a leading activist, writer of We too sing America and a racial justice lawyer. She moved from Kerala, India to Kentucky in America when she was 12, and turned to issues facing South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities during college. She served as the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade. While Islamophobia has evolved differently between the US and the UK, Deepa describes the ways it has manifested on both sides of the Atlantic. 

You recently gave a talk in the UK Parliament on the ways Islamophobia manifests in the UK and the US – what led to that talk?

I have spent around 20 years working on issues related to national security; hate violence and the surveillance that has emerged. I’m also interested in issues of racial equity, justice and power for all communities of colour in the US. To that end, I’ve been exploring what it means to work together in communities and across organisations and movements using a solidarity lens. 

I was on my way to Ireland and decided to stop off in London to connect with activists who are doing similar work. With the help of several people, including MPs Afzal Khan and Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, we organised an event in Parliament to deepen our racial understanding of how Islamophobia continues to manifest in the UK and in the US. Our panel included Zubaida Haque from the Runnymede Trust and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. We also had people representing different communities and organisations so it was a really interesting conversation.

We discussed the consequences, especially on the lives of people, both those impacted directly as Muslims as well as those who are adjacent to Muslim communities and are affected by Islamophobia. It was also an opportunity to talk about how Islamophobia is a form of racism and how it connects to other forms of racism – I came at it from a US perspective so I shared how we were organising to confront Islamophobia through networks and solidarity. 

Does the US have a formal accepted definition of Islamophobia?

We don’t have a legal definition of Islamophobia, but in our civil rights laws and our anti-discrimination laws, faith is a protected category. So for the purposes of bringing a legal complaint, you can say for example, “I’m a Muslim person who at the workplace was not given the ability to pray”. That’s a complaint a Muslim person can bring against the workplace, saying they were discriminated against because of their faith. 

Islamophobia in the US is more a way we talk about all the types of discriminations that Muslims as well as those who are perceived as Muslims face. We don’t feel we need a government-based definition of it because it’s what people feel and experience. It’s in the public sphere, it doesn’t come to the level that is has come to in the UK, where the government has been asked to adopt a definition. 

In terms of combatting Islamophobia, how do you feel the US and the UK are doing?

I don’t want to compare because I don’t know enough about the UK context, but my hunch from what I’ve learnt over the past year is that in the US, we are more networked, we have more civil society representing those communities, and we also have networks that are connected to each other as well as to other organisations in the racial or immigrant justice spheres. My understanding is that in the UK there aren’t as many national organisations that represent South Asian communities or black Muslims.

It doesn’t mean we have fully ended Islamophobia because we have these groups but I think it means that there is a sense of connectedness, that I’m not alone, that I can go to an organisation if I’m a victim of a hate crime, that I can report to law enforcement if I’ve been victim. Certainly the US government knows that if they are going to implement a policy that affects our community they are going to hear from us, that they can’t just do it in the stealth of the night and expect no response. So for the Muslim ban, we were ready, and we were organised and we showed up and protested. 

Being networked allows us to create safe havens, and made it clear to government that there would be a response. In previous times, certain government agencies have even reached out asking how they can help, or what we think of a policy. There had been consultations and they allowed us to give recommendations. 

I’m assuming you mean pre-2016 elections?

Yes, at least with Obama’s administration we were able to make some demands, offer policy recommendations that were not met with closed doors. There was some level of openness even if our policy recommendations were not implemented. Having some people in government who understood and cared about our communities made a huge difference. 

What are the challenges now?

In the last two years, our main orientation has been a defensive, rapid response position because of the Trump administration’s tactics that have targeted Muslims and refugees. Our main tactics are, first, to defend our communities and protect them. Second, to challenge some of the policies as much as possible in the legal arena or in the congressional space. Third, to raise awareness about the on-going impact of policies in our communities. Fourth, to identify how we can fix some of the issues that we are seeing. 

It’s been more defensive. We had to deal with the ‘Muslim ban’ – it’s in effect right now and activists are looking at whether we can get some traction around it in Congress, there’s now legislation that’s being introduced to eliminate the Muslim ban. There is also an on-going effort to raise awareness and document what’s happening in communities where people are not able to be reunited with their loved ones, so a lot of that work continues. 

We are also dealing with immigration issues, such as the uptick in immigration enforcement affecting our communities. For example sick asylum seekers at the border of our country are being turned away or are falling under the family separation no tolerance policy. Recently a young six-year-old girl died in the Arizona desert as she and her mother tried to cross the border. 

It’s really about the push back. With the next US election a year and a half away, we’re going to see more of these examples since this is a way for the administration and for the President to really rile up his base and that’s what we’re getting ready for. 

In the UK, the Conservative party elections led to all candidates agreeing on a televised debate to an independent Islamophobia investigation. Can the US elections not create positive opportunities?

That’s really interesting but I would say that with the US elections, one aspect is the defensive posture we are going to have to be in, because they will roll out policies that will affect us. One example is the raids they have started to deport people. But we are looking at how we can push candidates, on the democratic side anyways, to take clear positions around Islamophobia and racism. So different organisations will be putting forth platforms and demands of the candidates as election season continues. What usually happens is that we get candidates to respond to questionnaires so we have them on the record on certain issues such as acknowledging Islamophobia and other forms of racism. 

In your book, ‘We too sing America’ you mention your immigration to the US when you were 12. Was there an event or moment in that period that led to the work you are doing today?

I think my experiences of immigrating from India to the US did affect me quite a bit in terms of the work I’m doing now. I don’t think I would have been able to say that then, but I was very cognisant of the fact that my family was treated as though we were outsiders and that we didn’t belong and that there was something wrong with us. That feeling was really embedded in my psyche. I also thought at the time that it was completely unfair, and it took away from everything that I believed about myself and my family and my heritage. So part of what propelled me to get involved are those dual feelings. When I went to college I began organising with Indian American students so we had a voice on campus, and I was propelled to law school where I really developed an interest in immigration law and constitutional law and it went from there. It really stemmed from experiences of dislocation and discrimination in the American self and led me to really push forward my own belief that we can do better and that other immigrants shouldn’t have to face those kinds of circumstance – that is what continues to propel me today. 

‘We too sing America’ book cover

You wrote your book before Trump’s election. Is there any chance of a sequel?

I think there will be some sort of sequel, I’m not sure if it will be similar or not but it is something I am thinking about. Over the last few years I have been really wrapped up in the rapid response efforts to deal with what is happening in the community so I’ve been more in a fight posture than a reflective posture. But I think when that cycle comes back around, I am pretty confident I will be able to put something out that continues the story of what immigrants who are Muslim, Arab and Sikh are facing, and how we are writing the history of the Trump administration era through our standpoint. That’s kind of why I wrote the first book, I knew there was a historical account of the post-9/11 era through a few particular narratives, but I asked myself what would that history look like through our communities narrative and standpoint, and how would it be different from the prevailing history that we hear? I think there will be another moment in time where I feel that about what has happened in the Trump era as well. 

Do you think the focus on rapid responses has negatively impacted long term planning against hate?

I think that rapid response cycles don’t really allow us to envision for the future because they are specifically focused on responding to what is happening in the moment. Having said that, I think we need to have the rapid response infrastructure in place because there are real life consequences to ignoring what is happening and the awful policies that are affecting people’s lives. I think we should be able to do both. I often talk about this book, called The Moral Imagination, by John Paul Lederach, who is a peace builder. He talks about the concept of working from a days to decades approach. We have to be focused on what is happening day to day, because it’s about the real life consequences of communities but we also have to be able to take a decade-long view of what we want and what the future should be. But part of that is the recognition that one entity or one person can’t hold both of that. So building a stronger ecosystem in our movement spaces, where people can play multiple roles, where we have frontline responders but we also have visionaries and people who are thinking about the future is really important. 

Are there any recent successes that come to mind within your workspace?

Some of the transatlantic dialogues that have been happening, that many of us have been involved with are really positive because they allow us to understand different models and different strategies that we could all be using, as well as creating collaborations and friendships. 

I also think that in the US context, we’ve seen a lot of younger folks that are moving to positions of leadership in their communities, particularly young Muslim women, and this shows what can happen when you have people that are really motivated by what’s happening and are ready to take leadership. I’ve been so inspired by them, it’s terrific. 

We’ve also seen collaboration and solidarity across communities. I work on a project on multi-racial solidarity and I do a podcast called Solidarity Exists. What I’ve learnt from that work is that people are engaging in solidarity in many ways around the US. From a university president that puts out a statement saying undocumented immigrants are welcome on campus, to Muslim faith leaders going to the southern border and linking arms with Latino leaders there to talk about how borders and bans affect all of us, to people impacted by hate violence at a black church reaching out to people impacted by violence at a gudwara or a mosque or a temple. Those kinds of acts of solidarity really inspire me and make me have faith in the human fabric of connections.


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