3 Muslim and Arab-Americans Explain How to Be a Good Ally

by Kaylen Ralph

illustration by Emma Johnson

In January, the White House issued an executive order that aimed to bar Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and restrict in-bound travel of immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Thousands of U.S. citizens and lawmakers expressed their disproval of what quickly became known as the #MuslimBan by gathering at airports across the country in protest.

The next day, the America Civil Liberties Union successfully requested an injunction that blocked the deportation of those immigrants and refugees implicated and detained in airports during the initial hours of the ban.

Public opinion on these actions remains polarized along party lines. In this divisive climate, how can concerned citizens who are personally unaffected by the order most effectively “show up” for their Muslim and refugee neighbors?

“Be present for these communities, take a back seat while supporting and amplifying their efforts,” said Lana Barkawi, executive and artistic director of Mizna, a St. Paul-based Arab arts organization. “Spend your money at minority-owned business(es). Take in art and culture that is created by and centers brown and black people. And be there for the long term.

“The fact is that the struggles of our communities have existed and they will exist after these issues disappear from the headlines.”

There are approximately 3 million Muslims living in the United States. Barkawi and two Muslim Americans shared their insights on being a good ally.

1. Understand why protests are important

Sahra Sabri, a college student who identifies as a Sunni Muslim and is active with the Anti-War Committee in Minneapolis, said people may “think that protests are a waste of time… but people need to understand that you need to be disruptive when your voice is not being heard.”

“People get upset about airports…, ‘Oh, I couldn’t get home for three hours and I came home from college,’” Sabri said. “Well, OK, you had a bad day today, these people have been suffering since their ancestors have been suffering. Relax. It’s worth it.”

And while appreciating the necessity of protests is important, even more important is showing up.

“When you go out and protest, even as a white person, whatever person, it shows solidarity with whoever it is for, (with) whatever cause it’s for, and that’s really important,” she said.

Qais Munhazim, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, has been a refugee from a young age.

“I know what it feels like to be a refugee, an immigrant, for my entire life,” he said. “I have been forced to leave my country twice.”

He first fled his home country of Afghanistan for Pakistan when the Russians invaded during the Cold War. Then, shortly after he and his family returned home from Pakistan, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the security situation became “insane” and he “left home, family, everything I’ve had, to study and for certain security reasons I couldn’t go back and I haven’t been home for the past five years.”

Munhazim and his friends organized a march, the MN Caravan of Love, to take place Saturday, Feb. 11, in partnership with Mizna.

“The idea for the Minnesota Caravan of Love, a walk of love for refugees and immigrants, came to mind when I just saw this sort of solitude and loneliness and also sadness that has taken over the lives of a lot of Muslims who are being directly or indirectly affected in the past week or so after Trump’s ban on Muslims,” he said.

2. Understand that while this executive order is new, the issue isn’t

When Munhazim first came to the U.S. to attend the University of Minnesota, he did so under the umbrella of a J-1 Visa, an imperfect option for someone whose family is more than just a plane ride away. This type of visa only offers one-time entry—each time you leave the country, to visit family for example, you are required to acquire a new one, which is far from guaranteed.

When Munhazim finished undergraduate school, he went home to Afghanistan before pursuing his Ph.D., but President Barack Obama’s travel restrictions for immigrants and otherwise vulnerable “undocumented” individuals, including the Countering Violent Extremism program, made his return difficult.

“We have to keep in mind… that while these (immigration) struggles are reaching a bewildering reality, they are not new,” Barkawi said. “Arabs and Muslims and immigrant communities, undocumented people—we have been vulnerable for many years, including during the Obama years.”

When Munhazim tried to return to the States for his next degree, he was “very close” to not getting another J-1 Visa.

“At that time, the Obama administration required extended vetting of Muslims, especially from Iraq and Afghanistan, that a lot of people don’t talk about.”

3. Check your preconceptions about Islam and Arabs

“The fact is that the struggles of our communities have existed and they will exist after these issues disappear from the headlines,” Barkawi said. “The constant portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as barbaric, suspicious and violent is deeply set in the cultural imagination.”

Separately, both Munhazim and Sabri said they are rarely approached by non-Muslims who want to ask questions and learn about Islam or Muslims in their immediate communities.

“I have friends, but (I) always find that they want to not put me in an uncomfortable situation to ask me questions, even though I’ve never given them that impression that they can’t question me. You can ask…me how (I) do this or that or how (I) feel,” Munzahim said.

Sabri said that in high school classmates were quick to compliment her outfit or tell her how pretty she was, but she wasn’t invited to hockey games or parties. The opportunity for meaningful discussion, that kind that breeds authentic friendship, was rarely, if ever, presented.

“Sometimes people feel bad for Muslims, but they don’t even take the time to know a Muslim,” Sabri said.

4. Acknowledge and use white privilege authentically

Historically, white people have struggled to acknowledge the privilege bestowed upon them because of the color of their skin.

“People think that when you tell someone, ‘You have white privilege,’ that means you’re saying, ‘White people have it so much better, they have no problems,’” Sabri said. “No. White privilege is a category.”

In instances of discrimination or aggression toward minorities, the actions of white people make more lasting impressions on other white people. If you have privilege, use it to educate others with privilege.

“We believe that it’s a lot more effective when a white person speaks to another white person about these things, because they listen to each other a lot more than they would listen to me,” Munhazim said. “Because my skin color, my accent, my religion immediately becomes a barrier between me and that white person who is not so willing or welcome to listen to me in the first place.”

This extends beyond real-life encounters to those that play out across social platforms, as well.

“If you share an article on Facebook because (you) know that this will reach a certain group of people…, you have certain people in your family or in your friend group who would be like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe she posted this,’” Sabri said. “But it would expose them to it.”

5. Encourage children to be allies

When she was student at Edina High School in Edina, Minnesota, Sabri started a social justice club, which has since been shut down.

“We would talk about topics, anyone was welcome to come,” she said. “We would choose a topic for the week, a current event, like Black Lives Matter, Palestine, gay rights, anything like that, and we would talk about it and educate people, and all you had to do was show up.”

Sabri said it was always the same students showing up to the meetings each time, however, and she was a self-described loner in high school. Sabri was born to her Palestinian father and Lebanese mother in the States, but she spent the formative years of her life in Jordan. When she moved back around fifth grade, the parents of a friend she made at school spread a rumor about her father being a terrorist.

“No one was allowed ever to come to my house again because we were terrorists and thieves, I guess,” she said. “And I literally didn’t care that much, I was like, ‘OK, I lost a friend.’ I cried a little bit.”

When Munzahim sees allies with young children in tow at rallies he implores the parents to teach their children good behavior at a young age.

“I always tell them that, if they have kids, to tell them to be supportive of other Muslim kids in their schools, because a lot of those kids go through bullying and feelings of isolation,” he said. “(Then) they go home and all their families probably talk about is this ban, or their families being arrested. There is all this tension going on about what is going to happen to them.”

6. Seek out art by Muslims and Arabs year-round

In response to the executive order, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City replaced pieces in its permanent fifth-floor collection with work by artists from the seven countries listed in the ban. The optics of replacing the artwork of big hitters (including Picasso and Matisse) was powerful.

“It’s good that they did it,” Barkawi said. But allies should seek out work by such artists at all times.

“What we have to look out for is, are they continuing to champion these artists after it’s buzzy to do so? Are they showcasing work by such artists even if the subject matter isn’t what you expect an Arab artist, for example, to be creating?”

For allies seeking to expand their knowledge of Islam, Munzahim suggests choosing books that are actually written by Muslims.

“When it’s not written by Muslims, I’m usually suspicious of it, because (the writer) has not gone through that experience of what it means to be a Muslim,” he said.

Publishers can make more of an effort to champion books by Muslim and Arab authors.

“There are not a lot of published books by Muslims, because a lot of publications do not give that chance or platform for Muslim voices,” Munzahim said.

Purchasing books and poetry from independent presses that do prioritize writing by Muslims and other minorities is an easy, effective way for allies to put their money where their mouth is, too.

“If you look, you will find poetry by Muslims, by Palestinians, by Arab men, by Arab women, gay Arab, whatever, Muslim-this, Arab-that,” said Sabri, who is currently enrolled in a poetry video arts class at school. “Reading our poetry, you will feel our feelings.”

In her class, Sabri learned about the Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, whose work inspired Sabri’s own currently-untitled video project.

“She writes in Arabic all over these girls’ bodies (in white), just their whole body, it’s so beautiful,” Sabri said. “It inspired me, because the project was to show something about your identity, and something about my identity, of course, is that I’m Arab, I’m American, I’m Muslim and my name is Sahra, and people don’t know how to say Sahra. Everybody in school called me Sarah and I let them.”

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Kaylen Ralph is The Riveter’s cofounder, editorial development director and brand director. She works as a personal stylist for Anthropologie. Follow her on Instagram @kaylenralph for books, fashion and a lot of content blending those two subjects. You can also find her on Twitter at @kaylenralph.


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