An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo

Last year, while I was the political cartoonist for the Tri-City Voice, a controversy erupted in New York City over a proposed mosque that was to be built near the sight of the former World Trade Centers. The wave of Islamophobia led me to do research on the subject of prejudice against Muslim Americans. My research led me to contact Zahra Billoo, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR for short. CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization that strives to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding. I learned a lot from Zahra about many issues that the Muslim American community are facing and it inspired a few of my cartoons last year.

Thank you, Zahra, for taking part in this interview. Tell me a little about the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Does it focus on street protest, or more on lobbying legislators to pass anti-discrimination laws? What are some recent activities that this group is doing right now?

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is the nation’s largest American Muslim civil rights advocacy organization. Simply put, our mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, empower American Muslims and promote justice. Two core components of our work are providing direct legal services to help victims of discrimination, harassment and targeting and employing civic engagement as a tool to amplify the community’s voice.

I’m writing today from Sacramento where we are hosting the first-ever California Muslim Day at the Capitol. Several dozen American Muslims from across the state have converged here to speak with their local elected officials.

How did you become active in CAIR? Were there any heroes or books that had an influence on you?

I first got involved with CAIR when I interned at the Los Angeles office in 2004. Civil rights violations were on the rise in the early years post-9/11 and I was attracted to the cutting edge work CAIR was doing to protect liberties and defend the Constitution.

One of the five pillars of Islam is Zakat, which is charitable giving to the needy. So a strong sense of social justice is built into the Islamic faith. Would you explain to the readers of Everyday Citizen about Zakat? What are some ways in which Muslim Americans are fighting for social and economic justice?

Zakat is often translated to alms giving, or charity. Muslims are required to give 2.5% of their annual savings to charity. This money is used to help those who are less fortunate. Muslims believe that by doing this they cleanse their own wealth and fulfill their obligation of care for each other, as such bettering society.

Just as Christians often struggle with stereotypes due to fundamentalists groups like the Westboro Baptist Church, Muslims in America have to overcome the stereotypes brought on by the actions of radical Muslims that we hear on television. What are some ways that the Muslim American community have fought against radical elements and against terrorism?

9/11 was a turning point for the American Muslim community, one that really shook many into civic engagement. People started to realize that they needed to do education around who they were and what they believed, very quickly. Many began to host open house events both in their own homes and mosques, to open their doors and answer any questions their fellow Americans may have. Additionally, American Muslims are looking inward to ensure there are no violent elements within the community and that people are not misinterpreting the faith.

A few months ago, a controversy erupted when Lowe’s was pressured by conservative groups to withdraw its ads from the television show “All American Muslim”. This show attempted to show the diversity of the Muslim American community. How did CAIR react to the controversy? What effect do you think “All-American Muslim” had in showing a different view of American Muslims to the wider American public?

CAIR reacted to the controversy by urging people to exercise their First Amendment rights. Just as anti-Muslim activists have the right to rally opposition to shows like “All-American Muslim”, so then do social justice activists have the right to support the show and challenge the companies that caved to hate and pulled their advertisements.

I imagine the show overall had a positive impact on the view of American Muslims by the wider American public. Over 50% of Americans have never met a Muslim, television shows have the capacity to reach communities and homes that we may never make it to. Simply demonstrating, through the show, that American Muslims are ordinary people with ordinary lives and ordinary problems goes a long way. I visited a small town in Arkansas earlier this year and was amazed at the number of people who wanted to talk about the show. It was really telling about the way people can connect over very human, non-political issues.

In the CAIR website, I read about CAIR’s efforts to repeal sections 1021 and 1022 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. Would you tell us about sections 1021 and 1022 and what the Everyday readers can do to help repeal these sections of the NDAA?

Sections 1021 and 1022 essentially authorize the government to indefinitely detain anybody suspected of terrorism or being connected to terrorism. This is incredibly frightening because it essentially codifies the authority to do what the government did in WWII when it detained thousands of Japanese Americans. Additionally, the terminology is so vague and sweeping. Consider that this applies to both citizens and non-citizens. Further, suspected indicates a pre-conviction detention. Lastly, terrorism is an incredibly political word. Some days it’s Japanese Americans, other days it’s Communists. It throws out entirely any hope for due process and puts into law some of the very frightening civil rights abuses we have already seen carried out by the Bush and Obama administrations.

To help repeal these sections of NDAA, we’re urging people to email their elected officials. They can do so in just a minute, at this website: http://capwiz.com/cair/issues/alert/?alertid=61132291

CAIR is involved in efforts to pressure the government to reform our current immigration laws. They are especially focused on changing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement practices so they focus more on dangerous criminals and not on law abiding immigrants. How does this affect the American Muslim community?

The American Muslim community, like many others, is incredibly diverse even as it relates to immigration status. Some American Muslims are descendants of the slaves, others have been here for decades and are citizens, some were born here and others are undocumented. Immigration laws that marginalize undocumented individuals impact everybody. They are both a waste of tax dollars and undermine the capacity of community members to trust that law enforcement will help them when needed.

What advice would you give to a person who wants to learn more about their Muslim American neighbors?

I would advise them to reach out to their neighbors, invite them over for dinner or tea.

Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen

An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me

A youtube video of the CAIR Weekly News Update June 15, 2012

A youtube video of Zahra Billoo, CAIR-Northern California Executive Director, talking about the erosion of civil liberties due to the war on terror

A youtube video of the 1st annual “Muslim Day at the Capitol” in Sacramento, sponsored by CAIR

A youtube video of Affad Shaikh from CAIR-Greater Los Angeles Area and Kathy Masaoka, the co-chair of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, discussing the Community Bridging Program (CBP) with Tony Valdez on Fox11

A youtube video of Rabbi Arthur Waskow being interviewed at the Annual CAIR-PA banquet, where he was a recipient of a Human Rights Award

A youtube video of CAIR Tampa director Ahmed Bedier speaking at the Tampa Dr. Martin Luther King, JR Interfaith Memorial Service

A youtube video of the The CAIR-Chicago Internship Program to train activists

A youtube video of the CAIR-Chicago in 2012

A youtube video of CAIR and civil rights

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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