NO RETURN TO NORMALCY

How 9/11 Prepared Muslims for Trump

The mass mobilization of lawyers and protesters after the travel ban appeared spontaneous, but it was the result of long-term coalition building and interfaith organizing.

02.12.17 5:15 AM ET

In the days and weeks after 9/11, Debbie Almontaser was escorted to work by a neighbor, as were many Muslim-Americans who feared for their safety.

In those early days, some Muslim women feared wearing the hijab when they went outside. A Sikh man was killed in Mesa, Arizona, days after 9/11 by a man who thought he was Muslim. Others felt they were constantly suspect, viewed with suspicion by friends and neighbors they had known for years.

Almontaser, an organizer and educator of Yemeni descent, combated the fear by going to churches and synagogues, sharing information about Islam and Muslims and rallying interfaith groups to support her community. To help Muslims who feared attacks if they walked their children to school or went shopping at the local grocery story, she coordinated an escort system of Jewish and Christian neighbors who would walk with them. She and other Muslim leaders created the Muslim Community Network to share resources between themselves.

The allies she made then, and in the subsequent 15 years as Islamophobia gripped the country, were ready to pounce when President Donald Trump signed an executive order limiting travel that they simply call the “Muslim ban.”

While the protests and support networks that sprang up almost instantaneously after the order’s announcement may have seemed spontaneous, organizers, activists, and community groups in New York say they’re the direct result of preparation and community building done over a decade in response to smaller-scale attacks on Muslim and Arab civil rights.

On the night the executive order was announced, for instance, the New York Immigration Coalition’s attorneys and volunteer lawyers began a 24-hour vigil in the terminals at John F. Kennedy International Airport. They provided legal advice and translators, filed petitions, and kept a tally of those detained and those not allowed to board U.S.-bound flights at their points of origin. They coordinated with organizers like Almontaser to help get the word out and rally volunteers, and organizations like the ACLU to share resources.

“We’ve always [brought people out to protest],” Almontaser said. “It’s just never gotten so much coverage.”

It was women like Almontaser who did much of the organizing in the last 15 years. Now, they still make up the bulk of the effort, wrangling many of the organizations, pulling together permits, and organizing legal advice to where it’s most needed. At rallies, women are, without exception, manning the microphones, calling for an end to an assault on their civil rights. While critics point to their absence from some of the most iconic images of the resistance, they often don’t see that the protests would not come to fruition without their work.

The first organized protests after 9/11 came when hundreds of immigrants disappeared into federal custody. They began to hear stories from families about husbands or sons disappearing, and Almontaser said, “they didn’t know what happened to them.”

“We actually held rallies at the Brooklyn detention center every Saturday for six months,” Almontaser said. “No matter what the weather was like.”

Community organizations back then were only able to get information on those detained directly from families, just like what happened to travelers affected by Trump’s executive order.

After the detentions and deportations came what activists call a real-life version of Trump’s proposed “Muslim registry.” Launched in 2002 and since disbanded, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System registered more than 100,000 immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.

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And the NYIC “actually did a lot of work around the NSEERS program, around making sure that the Muslim community had the resources it needed and wasn’t being discriminated against,” Murad Awawdeh, the director of political engagement at the group, told The Daily Beast.

That early sense of urgency was reignited once again when these coalitions resurfaced in response to revelations about the NYPD’s 2007 report on radicalization and Muslim surveillance programs. The police sent informants to mosques and mapped New York’s Muslim communities. In response, the groups formed a commission on civil liberties that brought varying organizations together to critique an NYPD report on radicalization in 2008, which they said unfairly profiled Islam and Muslims. Investigative reports by the AP in 2011 further highlighted the depth of surveillance.

The interfaith effort that had sprung up around 9/11 stood with the Muslim community in response to those revelations. They urged the mayor to investigate why the seemed to target Muslim religious communities.

This last wave of activism, then, was retracing familiar steps, with a familiar feeling of unease.

“Right before the election we had developed a ‘What if Hillary Clinton won the election’ strategy plan going forward, and a ‘What if Donald Trump won’ action plan, just to have our bases covered,” Awawdeh said. “We had already planned for what we do when he announced these executive orders that he promised during the campaign.”

Some called the activists and organizers naive, saying that Trump would never carry through on his threats.

“And we were like, we’re gonna take him at his word,’ Awawdeh said.

The activists, after all, remembered all too well what happened in a similar climate of fear about radical Islam.

Right after the election, NYIC started rolling out trainings on dealing with law enforcement for various communities, and they launched a campaign about “Our New York,” or the values that New Yorkers hold dear. When they started thinking about planning their first rally, two days before the so-called Muslim ban was announced, they heard that an old partner, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, already had one in the works. NYIC threw their weight behind that.

“As an organization, we do enjoy certain capabilities that we’ve been able to build on throughout the years,” CAIR-NY’s executive director, Afaf Nasher, told The Daily Beast.

Nasher put out a call for help on a list of organizational leaders, and groups including NYIC responded. As the size of the event ballooned, she sent someone down to get a permit for a sound system, and the speaker’s list was being finalized on her way over to the event, Nasher said.

“There have been a number of people [coming out] who have never in their life been engaged in this way,” Nasher said. “We’ve been approached by people who have never done this, and say, I can’t not do something at this juncture.”

NYIC, meanwhile, was organizing a busy schedule of its own while collaborating with other organizations.

By Awadeh’s count, NYIC as organized more than a dozen events since the executive order was announced, including a student strike at Foley Square and the weekly Muslim communal prayer, Jummah, at JFK. On the day of the “bodega strike,” in which convenience store owners shut down their stores and gathered for a rally, Awawdeh’s staff was stretched particularly thin. NYIC had long-standing partnerships with both the Yemeni and Muslim strike organizers, and with DRUM, a South Asian advocacy group, which was organizing a simultaneous rally of Uber drivers in Queens. They had to split their staff between the two events.

“We weren’t born yesterday,” Awawdeh said. “We know how this all works out, and we know that our issues are all interconnected.”

Almontaser said her nearly two decades of interfaith work helped turn out many long-term partners to the rally in support of the bodega strike.

“[Faith leaders] saw this as a compelling story, or compelling initiative, to support these people,” she said.

And in some ways, engaging allies was an easier and more familiar task than mobilizing Yemeni-Americans. The tangible cost of the travel restrictions, however, turned out business owners in numbers she’d never seen before.

“One of the bodega owners basically said, ‘We can’t let this happen,’” Almontaser said. “[He said], ‘I just want to shut down my store and just protest.’”

Almontaser persuaded the men that a strike and public rally, rather than a closed town hall meeting in a banquet hall somewhere, would attract more attention. Other organizers helped spread the word on social media, and allies at borough hall arranged for the sound system. (Almontaser told The Daily Beast she doesn’t know of any female bodega owners, but says that may be because going into the family business is a common path for men in the community who choose not to go to college. Many of the women, in contrast, pursue higher education and even advanced degrees.)

“This was their shining moment of, ‘We’re on this travel ban, this Muslim ban, and we have to let people know that this is devastating our families,’” Almontaser said. “It’s been like pulling teeth to get them engaged in any political organizing. And this was their defining moment.”

At one point, Almontaser got a frenzied call from Borough Hall, telling her that a crowd of hundreds had already gathered in the cold, hours before the scheduled time. She rushed over, hoping that her new partners wouldn’t leave before the rally even began.

“We know, and we decided to come early,” the new activists told her. “And we’re going to stay the whole day.”

That early sense of urgency was reignited once again when these coalitions resurfaced in response to revelations about the NYPD’s 2007 report on radicalization and Muslim surveillance programs. The police sent informants to mosques and mapped New York’s Muslim communities. In response, the groups formed a commission on civil liberties that brought varying organizations together to critique an NYPD report on radicalization in 2008, which they said unfairly profiled Islam and Muslims. Investigative reports by the AP in 2011 further highlighted the depth of surveillance.