How to Support Muslims in Trump's America

No, you can't trick the feds and help Muslims by falsely registering yourself as one. But you can get active in a bunch of other important ways. Here's how.

by Beenish Ahmed
Dec 19 2016, 11:30pm

People march against a possible registration of Muslims in the US by the administration of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on December 12, 2016. Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Since election day, solidarity-minded Americans from the head of the Anti-Defamation League to the president of the NAACP have promised to sign themselves up if President-elect Donald Trump goes ahead with a pledge to place Muslims in some kind of national database. Others have taken to donning yellow crescents on their coats as a symbolic gesture of support for the country's most embattled religious group.

But is this kind of ostentatious activism actually helpful to a minority group whose basic rights have been called into question? To Fahd Ahmed of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a New York City-based advocacy group for South Asian immigrants, while "very well intentioned," these efforts are "not really what's needed."

The "register me first" movement sprang up almost as soon as Hillary Clinton supporters' tears dried, and seems to ride on the assumption that Trump will ask Muslims to essentially sign themselves up for second-class citizenship. But that eerie (and unlikely) specter distracts from more tangible political fights, like, for instance, how Trump's transition team appears to be considering a resurrection of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS). That policy, dormant since 2011, has been criticized not only for being discriminatory, but because it's a proven failure: The George W. Bush-era program forced men from select countries—24 of 25 were Muslim-majority, the 25th being North Korea—to undergo "special registrations" at set intervals after arriving in the US. Despite more than a decade in effect and 93,000 people registered, it did not result in a single terrorism conviction.

Ahmed, who has offered support to New York-area Muslims screened by NSEERS, imagines a "register me first" movement wouldn't get very far based on what he saw in the early 2000s. "You line up outside of Federal Plaza. They look at your passport, based on that, they let you in," he told me. "If you're carrying an American passport, [they'd be like], 'What are you doing here? You don't need to be here. Please go home.'"

"'I will register' sounds really good and sounds like the right thing," he added. "But in many ways, [saying that means] ceding a lot of ground if that's our starting point."

After all, those who "registered" with NSEERS did so after being required by government decree—not because they took it upon themselves to sign up.

"Our liberty exists only to the extent that we're willing to fight for it." —Fahd Ahmed

For Ahmed, trying to block that policy from rearing its ugly head again is a top priority. DRUM has already collected more than 135,000 signatures on a petition asking President Obama to dismantle the framework for NSEERS, since his administration only indefinitely suspended the policy by removing countries from the list five years ago.

If you want to lend a hand or offer a show of support to America's Muslim communities as Donald Trump takes office in the coming weeks, here's some practical advice from advocates and activists who have been on the front-lines of this fight long before Trump left the reality TV scene.

Step up, Step Back

If you've spent some time in activist circles, you might have heard someone say (or, yes, chant), "Step up, step back." It refers to the fact that well-intentioned efforts at advocacy can get derailed by the privileging of some voices over others.

"Our liberty exists only to the extent that we're willing to fight for it," Ahmed told me, before cautioning against joining that fight without guidance, especially from those whose rights are most likely to be compromised. "The primary thing I would say is for folks who are not already involved in this work to listen to and take leadership from organizations that have solidly been doing this work [and] who know the details."

Turning to organizations led by the communities whose rights are at stake can help ensure that the efforts are in line with actual needs. Darakshan Raja, co-director of the Washington Peace Center, an an activist group in DC, compiled this list of organizations that fit that mould. Her group also held a teach-in about the Muslim registry this past weekend.

"I believe all forms of symbolic solidarity must be tied in with supporting directly impacted communities to have a tangible impact," she wrote me in an email. "Too often, such efforts end up centering [on] the ally and their guilt, rather than the impacted community. It ends up being a feel-good effort."

Build hate-free communities

On a recent Saturday, DRUM launched an effort to create what it's calling a "hate-free zone" in Jackson Heights, Queens, by getting 20 local businesses and faith institutions to take a pledge against bias and violence. It's a sort of moral commitment, Ahmed explained, that will follow with actual trainings on how to safely intervene to prevent bias and violence on their premises.

"Part of our thinking was that these places will not only be hit by the policies directly, but as a result of these policies they [could] lose workers, customers, and community members, so they have to be involved in the efforts," he said.

The next step will be to offer "bystander intervention" guidance for people who might not know how to intervene in cases when Muslims or other minority groups are harassed or attacked and to create community-led security patrols of potentially vulnerable sites.

The NYPD reported a 400 percent increase in bias incidents in New York in the two weeks following the election, and the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of nearly 900 in the ten days after Trump's racially-charged campaign achieved victory.

Ahmed noted he and his colleagues at DRUM are working on developing toolkits for those who wish to create "hate-free zones" in their own communities.

Stand by local institutions

"My kid's middle school had an incident where a swastika was painted in the bathroom," the Arab American Institute's executive director Maya Berry told me in a recent phone interview. "Before that happened, the conversation was basically like, 'How do you explain the election to these kids?' and then that happens and the conversation shifts completely to, 'Who are we as a society? How do we respond to this?'"

The school hosted a town hall meeting for its students, but Berry said there need to be more discussions to address a potential surge in hate-related incidents in schools.

The federal government has developed manuals and guidance on how to prevent hate-related incidents in those settings, she noted. "[Find out if] your school district has made those available [to staff], and if not, [ask if] there can be a specific period sectioned off before an incident takes place."

Berry also suggested the same sort of community oversight for local police departments: "[Find out] what the training that your local police department has received. There are a lot of opportunities for better training for law enforcement so they can detect these cases earlier and engage in better community policing."

For those interested in supporting Muslims in their communities, Berry encouraged people to visit a mosque and ask how to help. "The majority of mosques in this country all sponsor programs that give back to their local communities," she explained, and some of them have unmet needs for security.

"There are ways of coming together on the local level to say that whether this is happening federally or not, we're going to stand together in this way," she said. "It's Civic Engagement 101 and it's so badly needed at this time. But the most important thing is that we're doing it across communities—we have to be able to do that for each other."

Support Syrian refugees

The US re-settled at least 10,000 Syrian refugees across the country this year, despite protests from more than 30 governors. The proposition by some politicians like Ted Cruz that only refugees who pass a religious test be allowed into the country strongly suggested anti-Islamic sentiment was driving much of the opposition.

"Once people get to know each other, they usually realize that they have values in common: family, faith, freedom, safety and opportunity." —Jan Reeves

Jan Reeves, who heads the Idaho Office for Refugees in Boise, has been trying to convey the importance—and legality—of the program to Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter over the last two years. Otter initially said he would block the federal resettlement program in his state and denounced Syrian refugee resettlement as a way to "allow people into our country who have the avowed desire to harm our communities."

Today, with the rebellion in Aleppo on the verge of total collapse, Boise has taken in to more Syrian refugees than LA and New York City combined.

Supporting refugees means advocating for the continuation of the resettlement program and pointing out the facts about refugees to local, state, and federal lawmakers. It can also mean taking time to connect with those who have already been resettled in the country.

"Mostly, refugees need to have opportunities for meaningful contact with members of their host community and to develop friendships across cultures," Reeves said in an email. "Once people get to know each other, they usually realize that they have values in common: family, faith, freedom, safety and opportunity."

There are about 350 organizations that help resettle refugees across the United States. Find one near you and ask about volunteer opportunities. Those who wish to make financial contributions can donate to the International Rescue Committee's programs serving refugees and asylees.

Don't forget about regular politics

Generally speaking, "This is the time to double down on [political] engagement," according to Berry, of the Arab American Institute. "Your Member of Congress has a constituent services director. They have that in their district office and they have people who do outreach in their Washington, DC, offices. They have to be part of the effort to work with you, to protect you, so it's absolutely critical that we stay engaged."

Write emails and letters to local, state, and federal officials. Call and visit. Tell them how you want them to vote on upcoming legislation and what issues you think they need to prioritize.

As Berry put it, "It's your right as a constituent to demand better representation."

Follow Beenish Ahmed on Twitter.

Donald Trump
hate crimes
Vice Blog
Muslim registry