‘Being an American means standing up for justice’

We must join together to stop a rising tide of hate

Basim Elkarra is director of the Sacramento Valley/Central California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Basim Elkarra is director of the Sacramento Valley/Central California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In 2019—the era of Donald Trump—the United States is a country divided. Americans stand on a precipice: Will we succumb to the dangerous pull of white nationalism, or stand and defend justice for all?

As executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacramento Valley/Central California chapter, I firmly believe that being an American means standing up for justice and equality for all.

Amid the increasing turmoil, hatred and violence we are witnessing today, it brings me solace to see so many fellow Americans of all backgrounds coming together to fight for these values. Time and again, America has proven that unity in the face of oppression is its strongest and most enduring quality.

There is no denying the increase in hatred and violence in the U.S. In 2019, there have been an average of two mass shootings a month, with a total of 51 fatalities. An FBI report showed a 17% increase nationwide in bias incidents from 2016 to 2017. The top two factors motivating perpetrators were a person’s ethnicity and religion. There was also a 17% spike in California hate crimes from 2016 to 2017, according to a report by the attorney general. Hate crimes involving religious bias increased by 21%.

As members of an organization dedicated to empowering American Muslims and protecting justice for all, my team and I have seen this increase in hate incidents first-hand. CAIR-California recorded an 8% increase of anti-Muslim bias incidents in the state in 2017 compared to 2016. The Sacramento Valley chapter received 147 civil rights complaints from Muslim community members in 2018, a significant increase from 118 the previous year, and the highest number in the past seven years.

These statistics correlate with the growth in anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric and policies nationwide (and even worldwide), which fuel hate crimes.

There have been dangerous, hateful campaigns and death threats against the nation’s first two Muslim congresswomen, with the president, himself, fanning the flames; attacks at houses of worship both here and abroad; and the dehumanizing policies of the travel ban on Muslim-majority nations and the separation of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, which left families traumatized and torn apart.

Last December, our team faced one of its most high-profile cases to date. We represented the family of Ali Hassan, a U.S. citizen and father of 2-year-old Abdullah Hassan, who was suffering from a brain disorder. The family moved to Egypt from Yemen in 2017 amid the ongoing civil war, and Hassan was forced to bring Abdullah to the U.S. in October 2018 without his Yemeni mother, Shaima Swileh, as their son’s condition deteriorated.

Prior to our involvement, the couple had attempted to contact the U.S. embassy in Cairo nearly 30 times to grant Swileh an emergency waiver so she could travel here to get medical treatment for Abdullah. In a final desperate attempt to reunite Swileh with her son, a hospital worker contacted us in December 2018. We filed an emergency lawsuit in federal district court on the family’s behalf. The lawsuit, alongside a powerful effort to lobby elected officials and a massive media and social media campaign, led to Swileh finally receiving a waiver. She was able to be with Abdullah in his final days, allowing the family to mourn the loss of their young son with dignity.

The case highlighted how the travel ban’s waiver process is a sham. After the family spent a year pleading for a waiver, our team was able to secure one in mere days due to legal, public and media pressure.

The case was heart-wrenching and bittersweet, but it also highlighted the best of what it is to be American. As soon as we publicized the family’s plight, our allies of different faiths and backgrounds joined us to ensure this family would see justice. We received calls, emails and handwritten notes from across the country expressing support for the family and decrying the inhumanity of the travel ban.

It proved that the combination of perseverance, solidarity and compassion can overcome any obstacle—no matter how insurmountable it seems.

If that’s not American, what is?