America's Muslims share Martin Luther King's dream

The struggle of African Americans provides both lessons and inspiration for American Muslims' own struggle for civil rights and against growing hostility. Taimur Khan reports from New York

Ayisha Irfan, 25, a former board member of the Brooklyn College Muslim student group, was spied on by the NYPD.

NEW YORK // Barack Obama this week will deliver a speech from the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial where civil rights leader Reverend Martin Luther King Jr gave his historic call for racial and economic justice 50 years ago.

In one of the defining moments of American history, King proclaimed, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed … that all men are created equal."

Since then legal segregation in the US has ended, African Americans in the south are no longer barred from voting and the gap between mainstream American life and its second-largest minority has narrowed.

For the country's Muslim communities, the struggle of African Americans provides both lessons and inspiration for their own struggle for civil rights and against growing hostility. They have their dream, too.

In New York, where wholesale spying on Muslims by the New York police department (NYPD) was uncovered in 2011, Muslim activists say King's vision is as relevant today as it was in 1963.

"The ideas are inherently the same. Being treated differently from every other citizen is a problem," said William Fahed Hattar, director of operations for the Arab American Association of New York.

Americans of Arab descent make up a small minority in this vast country, despite differences over their number. According to government figures, about 1.5 million of America's 316 million people are of Arab descent, with most hailing from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine.

Zogby International, a polling organisation, instead puts the number at 3.6 million. The Arab American Institute, a non-profit organisation that encourages Arab participation in US civic life, said the discrepancy is because of the US government's outdated definition of Arab ancestry. Whatever the case, Arab Americans since September 11, 2001, have drawn the scrutiny of authorities and the wider public to a degree far beyond their numbers.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge neighbourhood, home to New York City's largest Arab community. Its main thoroughfare is a visual map of its residents' origins as well as their regular American lives. Restaurants serve Yemeni-style fish and Palestinian sweets, while Arabic-language driving institutes sit near laundromats and discount fashion outlets.

In the heart of it is the Arab American Association of New York, which is housed in a former medical clinic. The non-profit organisation provides immigration services as well as medical advice and counselling, among its many roles in the community.

It also campaigns against discriminatory practices such as the NYPD programme that continues to spy on Bay Ridge and other Muslim areas, and is involved in the first lawsuit against the NYPD over the programme.

Hanging on the wall of its lobby, next to flags of various Arab countries, is a poster made by a youth group displaying handwritten quotes from King's famous speech.

In an adjoining room where the association provides civics lessons to citizenship applicants, Mr Hattar spoke about the relevance of King's words and the 1960s civil rights movement for New York's Arabs and Muslims.

"When we have a police force that openly flaunts constitutional protections and creates a spying division that seeks out nothing but Muslim and Arab communities there's a problem with that and that's not the dream that Martin Luther King had," he said.

The revelations of the spy programme, first disclosed by a series of reports by the Associated Press in 2011, have had the unintended effect of politicising many young Muslim New Yorkers who saw their community's relative political apathy as a major impediment to ending such policies.

A coalition of groups hopes to organise the estimated 70,000 registered Muslim voters in the city into a single bloc that can force politicians to address their concerns.

Ayisha Irfan, 25, is a Pakistani-American Brooklyn native involved in the initiative. While she was a student at Brooklyn College in 2010, she was a board member of the Muslim student group that was infiltrated by the NYPD even though they were not suspected of any criminal wrongdoing.

"We had friends who later turned out to be informants," she said as she sipped coffee at a cafe in downtown Brooklyn.

Learning about the extent of the spying on her and her friends helped push her away from a conventional career in law towards community organising.

"Part of [King's] speech was about the urgency of now, and definitely in the Muslim community in these past two years it's got urgent," Mr Irfan said. "People finally realised you cannot afford not to be politicised because you're going to be targeted either way."

"As American Muslims we're going to have kids here, our generations are going to flourish here, so what are you doing to make this world a more just place for them?"

She added that Muslims have much to learn from the tactics of King's civil rights movement, especially its insistence on not becoming a "one issue" community.

"The time of MLK was the time of a huge social movement that appealed to many people and it wasn't just one small group of people getting involved," she said.

As an example, she pointed to the Arab American Association of New York being at the forefront of a campaign to end the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy, where officers would stop mainly black and Latino young men for questioning. More than four million New Yorkers were stopped and interrogated under the programme since 2002, according to police data.

Last week, after a federal judge ruled the police programme unconstitutional, the city council overrode a mayoral veto on a law that will install an independent monitor of the NYPD to ensure the practice ends.

The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers still support the NYPD's surveillance of innocent Muslims, which has not ended, and Ms Irfan said that while this frustrates her, the victory over stop and frisk has given her hope that other groups will begin to support the campaign against the programme.

American Muslims are the most ethnically diverse religious group in the country, and King's speech also has something to teach them about their own prejudices, said Ibrahim Abdul Matin, a business consultant and organiser with the Muslim Democratic Club who is the son of African-American Muslim converts.

"Islam means Muslims aren't racist?" he said. "That's a great idea but in application Muslims are some of the worst when it comes to racial dynamics."

The anniversary of King's speech also reverberates beyond the American context for many Arab American New Yorkers. The Arab American Association has seen an increase in people seeking immigration help for relatives trying to escape the carnage of the war in Syria.

Sarab Al Jijakli, an advertising executive who is involved with the Syrian opposition in the US, said that King's message "transcends borders, transcends geography".

"There is a small village called Kafranbel in Syria famous for holding up protest banners every week, all in English, as a message to the outside world," he said. "Once the village gained liberation last August, their sign for that Friday protest was 'I have a dream…', basically paying homage to Martin Luther King."

He added: "When you talk about civil rights, when you look at struggles across the world, the things that unites us are these values - and that's no different in Syria today or what MLK was talking about fifty years ago."


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