Activist Deepa Iyer calls for change in the face of discrimination


Iyer emphasized the importance of being well informed about the Muslim community to avoid stereotyping. Photo by Yamilet Torres. 

On Sept. 10, 2001 American Muslims, by and large, were a part of the national fabric. On Sept. 11 that all changed.

Civil Rights activist Deepa Iyer said Islamophobia has taken root in the United States over the past 15 years. Iyer is the author of “We Too Sing America” and a professor at Maryland University. She spoke at SWC to advocate for a “courageous conversation” about the current political atmosphere and describe what it means to be brown in post-9/11 America.

“The conflation of Islam with terror is something that has found its way into the American DNA,” she said.

Iyer was working as a civil rights activist lawyer when, on Sept. 11, she realized her life had profoundly changed.

“ Those of us who come from South Asian backgrounds, who were Sikh or Arab, started to go through a process of double grieving,” she said. “We were in tremendous grief about what had happened in our country and the individuals who lost their lives, but also because we knew that we knew that we would become scapegoats.”

Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became a “badge for a security threat,” she said. Iyer had certain privileges as a lawyer and a naturalized citizen that allowed her to fight back, she said, so she created South Asian Americans Leading Together (SALT), an organization to address the injustices in the post 9/11 era.

“What we see today is a cycle,” she said. “It has been going on for 15 years.”

Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh-American, was the first reported hate crime victim following 9/11. Sodhi was watering flowers outside of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona on Sept. 15 when aircraft mechanic Frank Silve Roque shot him. Roque told friends he “was going to shoot some towel heads.”

Iyer said hate crimes became commonplace and affected people that were often confused for Muslim or Middle Eastern.

“He was basically seen as an Al-Qaeda member,” said Iyer. “We continue to see these types of violence.”

Sunando Sen, a 46-year-old Hindu man, was pushed onto the upcoming subway train in Queens, New York on Dec. 27, 2012 by Erika Mendez. She told arresting police officers, “I hate Muslims and Hindus.”

“These sorts of incidents, although they might not be reported, are consistently happening in our communities,” said Iyer. “If it’s not hate violence, it’s vandalism to our most sacred sites of worship.”

Mosques have become a symbol of fear for many Americans, she said.

“All around the nation we are seeing construction blocked when Muslims try to build mosques,” she said. “ People say publicly, ‘we don’t want jihadist camps in our neighborhoods.’”

Iyer said this brand of discrimination targets Muslims.

“These legal challenges never come up if it’s a synagogue or a church,” she said. “Actual massacres take place in our places of worship.”

Iyer showed visual examples of Islamophobia running rampant in the U.S. A swastika was painted along the wall of a Hindu temple along with the words “Get Out” in Spokane, Washington. A nearby middle school was tagged with the message “Muslims get out” in red paint accompanied by another swastika.

On Aug. 5, 2015, a white supremacist entered a Sikh Temple and shot 11 people, killing seven. All 10 male victims were wearing turbans.

Iyer said she fights discriminatory programs like Special Registration designed to target people from certain countries. These types of programs often lead to profiling, she said.

“They weren’t asked about their immigration status,” she said. “They were asked what mosques they prayed at, why they visited Bangladesh so often or if they knew Mohammed, who also visited Bangladesh. Thousands of these men were deported and families were separated.”

Iyer said people will not trust immigrants if the government provides reasons not to.

“It is all connected to xenophobia, how we treat Mexicans, Asian-Americans and how we decide who gets to come in and who gets to be here,” she said. “We live in a time where there are tremendous challenges facing communities of color and people who want to engage.”

Event coordinator Janelle Williams said it is important to understand different people’s experiences and advocate for each other’s success.

“Sometime we get caught up with what’s happening in front of our faces and forget about the folks who are sitting in the room with us,” she said. “We think that because of where we are and who we are, we are accepting, but we don’t know a lot and we wanted to make sure that we continue to have these conversations.”

ASO President Mona Dibas attended the presentation and said it is vital for students to take part in events that expose xenophobia and discrimination in order to preserve a more diverse and peaceful society.

“We were raised with racism and sexism,” she said. “So many people on campus know that racism is an issue in America, but it’s a reminder that it’s not enough to know, we must stand up.”

Dibas said it is important to remind students about equality, fairness and justice so that when they move on they take what tolerance they have learned and pay it forward. Dibas, a Muslim, said she often has felt the backlash of her activism from people who would censor her views.

“If I censor myself because someone doesn’t want to hear what I have to say, I’m not doing my job as president and I’m not doing my job as a person. (We should) say something and not be silent. I hope that we never hesitate to speak up.”


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