After finishing my #RocOut series, interviewing LGBTQ individuals and couples in the Rochester community, I wanted to start a new series. And so, here is the first, of hopefully four interviews, on how to be an ally.
I first met Iman Abid, when she came to the first Pulse Nightclub memorial that I and some of the staff at The Out Alliance organized a day after it happened. I reached out to her, and asked her to represent the Muslim community and speak at the rally. Since then, we’ve spoken at several rallies together, and do our best to catch up over coffee every few months.
Welcome to the first interview.
SG: I’m here with Iman Abid, for the first of four interviews on How To Be An Ally. It’s always been important, but with what is happening at the federal level, that we learn how to be better allies.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background?
IA: I am a 25 year old Muslim American, that was born here in Rochester, NY. My family is from the Middle East- from a country called Palestine, I’m sure a lot of you have heard about it. This is a very warm and welcoming community. Having always gone to the Islamic Center of Rochester to worship and to pray and to be part of the Muslim community, we have an incredibly diverse community. I think a lot of people, when they think of us as Muslims, they don’t realize where we are all coming from. Places like Malaysia, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East- we don’t all come from the Middle East. We are of so many different colors and sects, and practice our religion in so many different ways. I think it’s the divisions that make our faith so beautiful.
It’s not all sprinkles and candles. Talking with people on how to be allies is incredibly important. Helping to educate people on what the community is all about. Rather than listening to breaking news, it’s much better to learn from your neighbors and community members what the Muslim community is all about.
SG: Did you attend college here?
IA: I did. I attended RIT for Public Policy and Political Science.
SG: And what is it that you do currently?
IA: I am the Chapter Director for the Genesee Valley Region of the NY Civil Liberties Union. We are the ACLU of NY.
SG: Do you find that, as a practicing Muslim, being liberally-minded is a challenge in a perceived conservative religion?
IA: I think it has a been a challenge. I think it has a lot to do with how you interpret the faith, what does it mean to you. Getting involved with a lot of sensitive cases at work for example- thinking about abortion, I’m very pro-choice, and people will tell you that it goes against our religion. But there is a whole conversation about what Islam says about the topic. It’s all up for interpretation! Like Jihad. It translates, in the most respectful manner, to “Just War”, but to a lot of people, it means bloodshed, killing people to get your way. There are a lot of people that don’t feel that way. You are talking about a religion that can be taken very sensitively in a wildly political environment. It’s hard to say sometimes that I am a practicing Muslim, but I’m here for social justice, and I’m socially progressive. Islam to me is an incredibly peaceful religion, and some people disagree. But I want to ask them, why are there 1.8 billion Muslims who have no part in the violence.
SG: Looking at the world, pre-2001, and looking at the world now, what to you has been the biggest change in how society, in general, reacts to Muslims?
IA: I think it is fear. After 9/11, the Muslim community was targeted. It was explicitly targeted as the group you should fear the most. It wasn’t about skin color, it was this if you weren’t a Muslim, you should fear Muslims. Muslims were taken in general, as the ones who should be held accountable for what happened on 9/11. And I think that the amount of hate, and fear that has built up over these years, has led to this extreme Islamophobia. Over the years, society has legitimized the rhetoric, and has allowed language not to be truly defined, like the words “Islam” and “radicalism”, which has been very detrimental to our faith, a faith that is growing and growing. You ask why it is growing, when it is perceived to be this radical faith, and again I remind people, that most people don’t practice violently. I want you to go ask a Muslim, what Islam means to them, and I’m sure many of them would agree with me in the way I believe the faith actually is.
But again, we’ve seen this explicit target on the Muslim community. This fear has caused all of this Islamophobia, and xenophobia. Which is why we are at this point with the President, who has repeatedly built memos that completely target Muslims. It is fear that drives people.
The level of surveillance on the community has changed. A lot of rights have been compromised. A lot of the work I do is to try and make sure communities aren’t targeted and their rights aren’t being compromised just because of who they are and what they believe.
SG: You mentioned a few things- there are 1.8 billion Muslims, and that people, after 9/11 felt that all Muslims should be held accountable. So often, we hear the rhetoric, from people like Bill Maher for example, that if there are 1.8 billion Muslims, and the majority don’t believe or support the actions of the radical few, then why don’t we hear much from the majority rising against the few. What would your answer be to that?
IA: Most of the Muslims who exist in the world aren’t living these happy lives and these comfortable lives; in fact, a lot of them are trying to seek asylum in different countries. A lot of them are living in war-torn countries, and they are in no place to come out against an incident that happens in the Middle East or in the West. In no way do they have the mindset that they have to come out against these actions. I don’t believe I should be held accountable, and neither do all Muslims.
It also comes down to the media, and the rhetoric used. If you don’t use the term “terrorist” to describe Muslims and white guys, that commit massacres, then you aren’t doing the right thing for society. You have the guy from Pakistan who ran through NYC, and he was called a terrorist. But before that, you had the guy in Las Vegas, who killed so many people, for what? But he was never labeled a terrorist. Why do we label people of color or of different faiths as terrorists, but we can’t label people who look like us as terrorists? If you don’t legitimize the rhetoric, then perhaps you can advance society.
SG: Being a Muslim woman, and being active in social justice you have an influence here in Rochester, and a large presence. Have you felt personally attacked?
IA: I want to address my own personal privilege- I am a white-passing woman. A lot of people don’t know that I am a Muslim. I don’t wear a hijab, and I don’t have darker skin. When there is an attack on the Muslim community, it is an attack on me. But I don’t want to say that I’ve seen the worse of things. For those who do look like they are foreign- those are the people getting harassed, discriminated against, held up in the vetting process.
My mom and dad were both born in the Middle East, and one of the things I am always thankful for, is that they were able to come here without any sort of issue. Of course, post 9/11, they may have received some sort of harassment. But they’ve had the opportunity to live as they want, they’ve raised 5 girls here. A lot of people are being denied that opportunity. And that’s the American dream. Why are we denying people the American dream? We are denying people that opportunity.
SG: Looking at what is happening at the national level, and what could happen at the state or local level, how can your neighbors, the people who aren’t Muslim, who live and work around you, be a better ally? What can they do, say, act and behave?
IA: I think the first thing is to start at home. Around the kitchen table, we are having the most intimate conversations with loved ones and neighbors, and if you hear something said that isn’t true, stop someone and confront them about it, and ask them why they feel that way. Break down that conversation in a way that makes people confront their feelings. If anything, it could help them start to see things in a different way.
The second thing is, if you live nearby an Islamic center or a mosque, step inside. There are 8 mosques in Monroe county, and all of them welcome anyone to step in. And I would highly encourage you, if you know any Muslims, ask them to take you to a prayer service. You don’t have to believe in the faith, but at least you get the opportunity to see what they are talking about. Prayer service is very short, about 20 minutes. You get the chance to see what prayer is about, why we pray 5 times a day.
The third thing is to ask a Muslim what Islam means to them. Ask them why they pray 5 times a day, or why they do or don’t wear a hijab. Some might not want to answer, but I think it is ok to ask. I think it’s important to learn from someone versus getting information from tv.
I think the fourth thing is if you see, and this is a more political one, but if you see a candidate out there legitimizing hateful rhetoric, or someone who could be voting on a bill to deny people entry to the US, step out and call them out. Don’t reelect them. Get educated on what is going on in NY, with the bills being worked on, or at the federal level. Get involved.