Freedom of color

Concerned about being targeted as a community, a small group of Muslim businessmen is bringing the ACLU to Sacramento

Get ACLU: Tax accountant Mutahir Kazmi told friends that they have a duty to their grandchildren to protect their own rights.

Get ACLU: Tax accountant Mutahir Kazmi told friends that they have a duty to their grandchildren to protect their own rights.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Attorney Dawn Whitney had been in Sacramento for about four years when she decided last fall to revisit her activist past. She checked out the Web site for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), expecting that the Sacramento chapter would offer her a variety of issues to work on: rights for gays and lesbians, First Amendment issues, and the separation of church and state.

“I thought the ACLU would be a good outlet,” said Whitney, who expected to discover a passionate community of vocal, young liberals. She was shocked to find that there wasn’t yet an official Sacramento chapter and that the one forming was not made up of rabble-rousers who devoted their lives to civil action, but a small group of quiet, respectable businessmen, the great majority of whom were Muslim.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” said Whitney, who, as a new board member, recently helped create the group’s bylaws as a step toward formalizing the chapter.

Bob Kearney, associate director of the ACLU of Northern California, said that Sacramento had chapters in the past that faded away but that the federal response to September 11, along with the re-election of George W. Bush, has renewed interest in the ACLU throughout the country. Currently, said Kearney, there are 18 chapters in Northern California, including one in Modesto and one in Monterey. “It’s a very diverse region,” said Kearney.

Since September 11, the ACLU has focused new attention on immigrant-rights issues, partly because of the sweeping powers of the federal government under the Patriot Act. In January 2004, the national office of the ACLU released a report titled “America’s Disappeared: Seeking International Justice for Immigrants Detained after September 11.” The report documents the stories of more than a dozen Muslim men held or deported by the federal government: “Hundreds of immigrants were arbitrarily snared in this dragnet, marked for arrest and thrown (literally, at times) in jail. The exact number is unknown, because the government refuses to release that information. They had one thing in common: Almost all were Arab or South Asian men, and almost all were Muslim.”

Locally, in the months after September 11, stories of detentions and investigations spread throughout Muslim communities. A sense of unease grew as businessmen were visited by FBI agents, both at home and at work. Members of Muslim mosques and community centers feared they were under surveillance and worried that the charities they supported might someday be connected to terrorism. Local Japanese-Americans warned that even the U.S. Constitution hadn’t stopped the government from interning them during World War II.

While local Muslim groups began reaching out to politicians and journalists, a local tax accountant, Mutahir Kazmi, quietly began researching the organizations most likely to protect the rights of Muslims in America.

“The ACLU is the prime civil libertarian in the whole world,” said Kazmi, from his office. He, like Whitney, had been surprised to find that the state capital had no local chapter of the ACLU. When he contacted the Northern California office, he was encouraged by Kearney to start one. The two men agreed that a local chapter would form a bridge between a “targeted community” and an organization that could watch out for it. As Kearney explained it, “They stand up for us; we stand up for them.”

Kazmi remembered calling people he knew—engineers and businessmen—and reminding them that they had an obligation to protect their rights. “You have a duty to your grandchildren,” he told them. Of the 25 people originally contacted, said Kazmi, 11 agreed to participate.

Although the chapter is still forming, in the fall of 2003, Kazmi was one of many Sacramentans who addressed the Sacramento City Council, publicly criticizing the Patriot Act on behalf of the ACLU and asking the council to adopt a resolution opposing it. Of the hundreds of attending community members, Kazmi was one of the few Muslims who spoke out. “I was pleased that all those people who were not Muslim were standing up for other Americans’ rights,” he said.

When speaking about his activism, Kazmi explained that some of his first teachers were the American civil-rights leaders he heard about while living in Pakistan during the 1960s.

Born in India, Kazmi grew up during an era of bloody conflict between Hindus and Muslims. As Pakistan and India both struggled to establish independence, the two neighboring countries split along religious lines. “I saw bigotry, ethnic hatred,” said Kazmi. “I was, by my nature, against that.”

As a Muslim, Kazmi was sent, for safety’s sake, to Pakistan as a boy. While in college, he studied Martin Luther King Jr., developed a fondness for former Attorney General Robert Kennedy and discovered Malcolm X. He came to believe that the American civil-rights movement could inspire youths worldwide.

Kazmi came to the United States, through a network of family and business connections, believing that “the giants” of the Senate and Congress would protect American democracy. But, like many members of the Sacramento chapter, he had seen both bad laws and the abuse of good laws lead to oppression and violence.

As the local contact for the ACLU, Kazmi has helped Muslim families seeking legal support, but he’s also concerned about other traditional ACLU issues, including religion in the schools and three-strikes reform.

“Our task is very simple,” said Kazmi, “to follow the ACLU of Northern California.”

Although Kearney credits the nascent Sacramento chapter with helping pass the city council’s largely symbolic ordinance against the Patriot Act, he believes that “their best days are ahead of them.” The Sacramento board of directors currently meets monthly over lunch, but to become an official chapter, it soon will organize a meeting inviting all ACLU members in Sacramento to discuss the new bylaws.

Attorney Natalie Wormley, who sits on both the Davis and Northern California ACLU boards, said that when she first met Sacramento members, they didn’t even want to be publicly identified. They wanted to work for the ACLU very quietly, afraid of being investigated or “disappeared” because of their political activism. But Kazmi, as the president of the developing Sacramento chapter, seems to relish his role as a public representative.

“I can say things out loud,” he explained, “because I’m a member of the ACLU.”