The Rights Stuff Forum: Backlash

Backlash and Muslims

Taneeza Islam, Minnesota Civil Rights Director, CAIR-MN (Council on American Islamic Relations)

Taneeza Islam is the Civil Rights Director for CAIR-MN (Council on American Islamic Relations), a national organization with 35 chapters in the U.S. and one in Canada. The Minnesota Chapter advocates for the civil rights and civil liberties of Muslims in Minnesota, presents know-your-rights trainings for the Muslim community, and provides diversity presentations for employers. Islam elaborated on the organization's activities and on discrimination and backlash against Muslims in an interview.

Comments from Taneeza Islam

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Question: Could you tell us a little more about your organization and its activities in Minnesota?

Taneeza IslamTaneeza Islam: The chapter in Minnesota is about three years old now — we're still really young. Over the last couple of years, we've primarily concentrated on employment discrimination. In our role as an advocate, we try to negotiate situations with employers directly, and many times that works. But when it doesn't, then we refer people to the state human rights department, or the civil rights departments in the cities.

Because there is such a large Somali immigrant population here, we also cover a little bit of national origin discrimination, and usually that coincides with the religious discrimination that we are seeing.

What is the most common type of discrimination that Muslims in Minnesota experience?

The overwhelming majority of situations that we deal with in an employment context involve prayer accommodations, or dress accommodations — wearing of the headscarf or the skirt, or for men, the beard and so on. That's primarily what we are seeing. But just recently, we've started seeing more school discrimination issues.

What happens in schools that is discriminatory toward Muslims?

Harassment by students against the Muslim students — racial epithets. Usually the students who contact us feel that the school administration is not doing what they need to do, so we contact the schools directly and try to work it out.

There are also some situations where students are asking to pray during school time. What we do is to educate the Muslim population on what their rights and obligations are, and then do the same with the schools and the employers. So many times we are having difficult conversations with both sides to get them to negotiate, or come to some middle ground.

Is harassment of Muslim students in Minnesota schools increasing?

We are getting more and more of those types of calls, but it seems to be correlated by how much outreach we do, or who in the community knows what we're doing. In our community, in general, word of mouth travels much more quickly than anything else. So we see kind of a skyrocketing of complaints come in once we do a presentation, because people in the audience will say, oh yes, that happens to me, so maybe I should tell them about it.

In the three years that your organization has been around, has hostility toward Muslims increased in Minnesota, or have people become more accepting?

That's a really difficult question. The number of complaints that come in each month don't necessarily reflect public sentiment — for us, it means that more people in the community know that we're a resource for them, so they can call us. Case in point: with the news of the missing Somali men, our role has been to do "know your rights" presentations for the Muslim community on how to interact with federal agents, and what their rights are, when it comes to the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Once one person heard that presentation, we started getting five or six calls a day.

Most of the time, immigrant communities are very fearful of raising any of these issues, whether it be about police officers or government workers or school officials. Once we tell them that they are protected in doing so, that they do have a right to complain, they seem to be talking more. But it's really hard to answer that question, because I think there are thousands and thousands more situations than we know of.

When people in the Muslim community encounter hostility from non-Muslims, what form does that hostility take?

If you just look at the Star Tribune web site when they have that comments section, if you read anything related to Muslims or the Somali community, I think you will see — the insults, being called terrorists, or being told to go back to your country because you are not American — stuff like that. I think that especially with the missing youth stuff, the Somali community specifically feels kind of under the gun in how they are being treated.

We don't really go out into the community and ask the non-Muslim community how they are feeling; we're just hearing the stories from the Muslim community. I think there are two gauges: if you look at the web sites and their comments sections, you can kind of gauge what people's sentiments are about immigrants. The other gauge is the complaints that we are getting, those kind of everyday situations.

How has hostility that you see in blogs, and that Muslims sometimes experience directly, affected the Muslim community?

I think it depends on who the actor is. The unique thing about Minnesota is that over 80 percent of the Muslim population here is Somali. But nationwide, the African Muslim population is only about three or four percent, so nowhere else do we see the dynamics that we see here in Minnesota. It's really difficult when you have an actor who is wearing a uniform, and acts a certain way against certain people — rumors fly around in the community pretty quickly. So then there is a distrust of that particular agency, or of those particular officials. When it's individuals, I think people can take that a little easier actually. Maybe part of us expects that to happen. But when that individual is a government worker, a school teacher, or a person of authority, that's a lot harder to swallow.

Are employers now more willing to make accommodations for Muslims' religious needs, than they were two or three years ago?

I think, maybe. The Gold'n Plump decision (a federally mediated settlement that requires Gold'n Plump to make accommodations for Muslim religious practices) was huge, especially here in Minnesota with the factory jobs. I think people are now more aware that Muslims have special accommodations. But interestingly, I'm not sure how much employers really understand how religious accommodation works. It's not like the once a year accommodation; it's a daily accommodation. And so I think employers may get kind of scared by that, and not really know how to accommodate.

As a Muslim, have you ever been personally confronted by someone who was not sympathetic with the idea of Muslims being in this country?

Of course. It happens all the time. I personally do not wear a head covering, so people don't necessarily know I am Muslim, or attack me verbally or what not right away. But my last name is Islam — that's pretty hard to cover up. I have been told to go back to my country. But the joke is always, I was born and raised here — I could go back to Michigan, but that's not very far away. When I was going to school, I went to a Lutheran high school, and I was told that my religion was wrong and theirs was right, and that I was going to go to hell, and they were going to go to heaven — from teachers.

I think all of us have had those experiences at the airport, coming back in from overseas travel — you have the feeling that it's racial profiling, but it's difficult to really pinpoint. My husband is Muslim as well, and when we came back from our honeymoon, I was in secondary and he was not. They asked me if I was a Muslim, then they said where is your husband, and I pointed — he was waiting for me outside. They kind of did a double take — "well is he Islam to?" And I said yes, he is Muslim. That for me was finally a tangible moment, when I could see this was some sort of racial or religious profiling. Because I am clearly not white, and he's clearly white — all signs point to me being Muslim, and all signs point to him not being Muslim. When you have a tangible moment like that, things becomes a lot more clear.

But most of the stuff that we experience is so intangible. It's a general sentiment, a feeling, a way someone is treated — you go to the restaurant and everyone is given a seat at a table except you and your family, who wait for half an hour. Or you're seated at the booth but not served for 45 minutes, while everyone else is. Or you've ordered a meal and they keep messing it up by providing you with bacon or ham — the general population knows that Muslims don't eat pork or drink alcohol, at the very least.

How has the recent news about Somali youth going overseas, and the reaction to it, affected the Muslim community here?

I think the way it's going to impact our community the most is at the airports. We've already had people on our board who have recently traveled, and then been asked questions that are against the first amendment. So those are the trainings that we've started to do more now — what are your rights at the airport and when interacting with federal agents.

What questions are members of your community being asked?

"Are you Muslim?" That's just completely inappropriate. We've had several meetings with local customs and border patrol here in Minneapolis, and they have clearly stated to us that their job is to see that you have legal status when coming back in to the U.S., and that you're not carrying anything hazardous — agricultural products, or whatever. They have no business knowing what religion you practice. But people are asked what mosque they go to — that has no relevance to assuring that you are a legal citizen, or to determining what agricultural products you are bringing in. They are asked, how many times a day do you pray? These are some of the questions our board members have gotten, as well as complaints that we get.

Is there anything that you'd like people to know out there, that perhaps they might not know?

I think it's interesting that when Obama was running for President, there was the question, is he a Muslim? And then Colin Powell came out and said, what if he was? Would that mean he's a bad person — is Muslim something so evil that the leader of this country could not be Muslim? So all these questions came up. I think it sparked a really interesting debate within the community. but it's unfortunate that whether Obama was Muslim was used as something demonic. It took someone like Colin Powell to say look, you guys are asking the wrong question — so what if he was? There are always those underlying sentiments, but once in a while they really come out, and come out in a way that people have to talk about them.

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