How to be an ally: advice from Muslim and Arab American community leaders

June 14, 2017

Anti-Muslim hate groups have erupted nationwide. Hate speech is shouted in Portland’s public square. People of Arab and Latino-American heritage are told to “Go Home.” Muslim women are pelted with eggs as they walk down the street, harassed as they wait for public transit.

People risk their lives — and give their lives — to protect them.

As people who are Muslim weigh their personal safety against their very identity, we’ve asked them how friends and neighbors in Multnomah County can better support them. The intense pressure has led some Muslims to consider taking off the hijab, avoiding the mosque even during Ramadan, staying home, leaving the house only in groups, even changing their names.

We spoke with Arab-American and Muslim faith leaders about how to best express support. Their advice on how to be an ally: acknowledge us, stand up for us, and join us.

Rania Ayoub is director of public relations at the Muslim Educational Trust.

Rania Ayoub, director of public relations, the Muslim Educational Trust

Acknowledge Us -- “It makes people feel welcome and safe when they see strangers smile at them. It’s encouraged in our faith anyway, to smile at anyone. Any smile you give is a good deed, so definitely it hits home when someone does this, because it’s expected of us anyway.”

Stand Up for Us -- “I have to say that for the few times I’ve been verbally attacked in public, nobody intervened. When someone yells at you, “go back home,” the first reaction is my heart beats faster and I feel scared. If someone just spoke to me nicely, kindly afterwards, that’s one thing I feel would be very effective.”

If the conflict is ongoing, “divert the attention from the attacker. Ignore them as if they don’t exist. Focus on the victim and how you can help them. Ask for example, “can I walk with you?” If the person being victimized is a woman, and the person coming to her aid is male, avoid offering physical contact such as extending a hand or offering a hug. The same goes for women intervening for a man.

“Don’t be offended if that Muslim person is not being open to close interaction. If a man doesn’t make eye contact, it’s one of those things we learn, that men should lower their gaze. Some people think those men are being disrespectful. It’s just something we grew up with, men and women equally.”

Speak Up for Us -- “This happens a lot in colleges. In a classroom there will be a Muslim student, and the teacher or the students make remarks, and it’s always the responsibility of that one Muslim student to speak up. Other people I have heard don’t speak up because they don’t feel educated enough. I think people should speak up anyway. You don’t have to get into the laws of Islam. You don’t have to respond with a counter-argument. You just need to remind people to be kind and not criminalize a whole group. So speaking up is very important.”

Join Us -- “Faith-based communities reach out to us and ask us to speak at their churches, synagogues, and temples so they are a better voice for us. We also have a list of books and resources with very basic information. Getting to know someone who is Muslim, that’s the best way to be more educated. Maybe you have a neighbor or coworker, or someone at your children’s school who is Muslim. Maybe go and visit a mosque or attend an event. It’s easier to understand people when you interact with them. Muslims are very welcoming. I feel that’s a very powerful way of being an advocate.”

Mohammad Bader, director, Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Services Division, Multnomah County Department of Human Services

Acknowledge Us -- “What I have been doing is saying, ‘salaam alaikum’ [the Arabic greeting that means [Peace be with you’]. People know you’re an ally that way.’’

“Last week I was at a Timbers game, standing in line at the concession stand. This guy, out of the blue, without saying, ‘Hi, good morning’ asked, ‘Where are you from?’ Initially my antenna went up. I asked, ‘What do you mean? Originally I come from Jerusalem.’ I realized he was trying to be an ally, but didn’t know how. He made an assumption about my religion, and asked if I go visit. I said, ‘It’s hard for me because I’m Muslim.’ This was a long line. We stood there for 15 minutes. I went to pay for my drinks but he said, ‘It’s on me.’ It took, on my part, not to get defensive. I think he took a risk. I wouldn’t recommend the first question being, ‘Where are you from?’ especially when people are so paranoid. A lot of the time we try to fit in. We try to blend in. I’ve lived here for 30 years. I forget what I look like. I think I fit in. This guy was saying, ‘You don’t fit in.’ Then he started to readjust his thinking.

“I think when people ask, ‘Do you feel okay?’ and “How can we support you?’ Those are very good allies. What I need is some sort of validation that I belong here. That I’m valued as a member of the community. Sometimes people recognize that there are holidays. Like we’re in Ramadan. And just asking, ‘hey, are you fasting? How are you doing?’

Stand Up for Us -- “Rather than fighting or arguing with the person who is acting nasty, show respect and friendship to the person who is the victim. Talk with the person and reduce the isolation. Maybe have people surround the person who is being aggressed, and begin asking question, chit-chat, conversation. Just offering support, like, ‘I’m here for you if there’s anything I can do,’ ‘Can I take you somewhere?’  

“I’m wondering maybe different people can huddle and coordinate a response. One person call 9-1-1. Another person talk to the victim, another person record. One thing I learned from our Office of Emergency Management a lot of times everyone is sitting watching and you should ask, ‘did anyone call 9-1-1?’

“I have the advantage of getting acculturated by a white family who adopted me when I was 22. They taught me how to kind of act White. But my mom, my white American mom, she told me, ‘You don’t owe anyone anything. Even though she’s given me a lot, she tells me, ‘You don’t owe me anything.’ For immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Arabs, there’s a great deal of compromise that already happens when we come to the United States. For me to live in this county, I had to accept a lot of things, a lot of compromise. I chose the path that would be easiest for my kids so they aren’t really targeted. I’m finding out that regardless, people can still hurt them. Even though they’re not wearing the hijab or fasting or praying. People can still associate their heritage and culture, and be hurtful.

“Any time there’s a terrorist attack, there’s always a Mohammad, or some combination of my name or my father’s name. After 9/11, I remember wanting to change my name to ‘Leo.’ There are a lot of Arabs who try to blend in; they will use more American names. They will try not to say where they are from. You get tired of having to justify that you are a good person. The reality is, that I can’t change my looks. I am always reminded that, after 30 years, people don’t think of me as American.”

Speak Up for Us -- “Muslims bear a big responsibility for people doing bad things in our name. We’re not responsible, but it still weighs on us. It would be nice to feel that support.

“For example when other kids called my kids ‘terrorists.’ I went to school and educated the principal and teachers on Islam and the problem helped the school handle issues like this by being accepting. Another example was around taking days off after end of Ramadan. Since it's a lunar calendar, managers and colleagues were confused as to why Muslims don't know exactly when is the Eid starts. I had to explain that lunar calendar and then evening of Eid is based on visual sighting of the moon. So it not really on a calendar. So when a Muslim employee needs time off managers and colleagues need to be flexible because the start of the holiday could be off by one day.

Join Us -- “That’s the piece I worry about, the kids. That’s the piece the community needs to be aware about, reaching out to Arabs and Muslims, kids from immigrant and refugee families. All of this negativity is affecting them. When my kids wanted to be proud about how Muslims were pioneers in math and science, the response they got was, ‘We hate you because you blew up the Twin Towers.’

Ronault LS Catalani (Polo), immigrant integration policy advisor, New Portlander Policy Commission, City of Portland

Acknowledge Us -- “I’m old now. We’ve lived in Oregon since I was a teenager, but I’m still hurt when people I work with don’t look up when we pass each other. Of course in America everyone works hard, everyone’s stressed, but in traditional cultures not acknowledging others is what we do to people who’s behavior we disapprove of. In our homelands and in Portland’s ethnic streams, you never don’t say, ‘Good morning,’ or ‘See you tomorrow.’ Traditional people expect inclusion. Or else we feel excluded, especially within the context of the segregated ruts America is so troubled by.. On our streets, in our workplaces, everyone’s quality of life would be immediately improved by good manners. For an especially warm effect on our city’s Muslims, you  can always say ‘Salaam, sir,’ ‘Salaam, madam.’"

Stand Up for Us -- “I’ve never had an American mainstreamer stand up for me during a racialized incident. Ever. And I’ve been at the bad end of many. I’ve been handcuffed, face down on wet asphalt, in front of my son and his best school friend, and that boy’s mom. Portland Police probably thought I was stealing my car, I don’t know. After a year of asking and asking, I gave up. Our elderly  neighbors stood and watched, including the building superintendent who was helping work on my car. All this, mind you, after giving hundreds of my hours and integrating thousands of immigrant community elders and activists hours, into improving Portland policing.

“In answer to your question about what responsible bystanders should do, I suggest turning to the bad guy’s victim and asking ‘Are you okay?’ That's better than facing down someone mean or angry or unhealthy. This we learn from traditional women in my culture. They don’t jump in and get into a fight. They go to the hurt person, they ask others to form a kind crowd. Back home, bad people and bad dogs should not be given our attention.”

Join Us -- “Americans need to enter communities or families or events that are outside their own ethnic stream. It’s not hard. Traditional people are familial. We have a smaller sense of self, but a bigger communal or familial sense of relationships. You enter that family or community holding hands with someone already in that community. You’re then taken in as another sister or brother, daughter or son, auntie or uncle. Easy, right? We have so many parties in Portland’s ethnic streams, and we love having mainstreamers party with us.”

Laila Hajoo, president, Islamic Social Services of Oregon

Laila Hajoo is president of the Islamic Social Services of Oregon.

Acknowledge Us -- “Right now people are so afraid of being who they are, that if someone comes to them with eye contact and a smile, that determines whether this is a friend or foe. If you say, ‘Salaam,’ you made their day. Here a person gave them a greeting of peace, but in their language. If anything that would reassure them the community has people who are very much aware of their situation. Eye contact with a smile, you know their reaction is most likely a smile back. Even if you say ‘Salaam,’ or ‘I’m thinking of you,’ They will carry that in their hearts... Be sensitive when walking, especially with women. They might not want to make eye contact to avoid someone who could be antagonistic.”

Stand Up for Us -- “There is a big question about how people will intervene given what has happened (the May attack at the Portland Max station). Safety first. If you see someone in danger, make sure the other person knows that you’re there and Dial 9-1-1.

“What we tell people, especially women, is, ‘Never go out by yourself.’ Right now, especially with college students and young women in the evenings, but even during the day. Treat us as if you asked, ‘How would I act if it was my own sister in danger going out there?’”

Speak Up for Us -- “You are our advocates. It’s not as effective for us to say, ‘You don’t understand. Your hatred is not founded. For us to say that, it falls on deaf ears. But for people who are not Muslim, the advocacy is far far more effective.”

Join Us -- “There are huge interfaith groups and that’s been very effective and popular. The MET does a lot of outreach to interfaith groups, politicians for that very reason. It’s an opportunity to know each other, to learn there’s a lot more commonality than people realize. Make friends. Visit a mosque.”

Djimet Dogo, director, Africa House at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization

Acknowledge Us -- “Especially for a Muslim, it’s really important. To any human being, you say, ‘hello. Salaam.’ Even if you don’t know them. Even if you walk into an empty room you can say, ‘Salaam alaikum.’ When someone says this to me, I feel like the person is acknowledging me, understanding my culture and background. Making me feel that I exist.”

Djimet Dogo runs Africa House at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Stand Up for Us -- “During the first executive order I was in a Springfield Taco Bell with my kids. After I was done eating this guy in his 70s came over. He said, ‘The only thing I like about black people is their teeth when they smile.’ The people who worked there ran over and said, ‘That’s not nice, sir.’ They asked if I was okay. I said, ‘I’m fine. I’m used to that.’ The kids, they don’t understand.

“I was teaching a Congolese man how to use the MAX. A white guy walked up and said, ‘Where are your from?’ I said, ‘I’m from Chad. My friend here is from Congo.’ He said, ‘Do you know this is a white county?’ I said, ‘Yes, I know that. But we have white people and Americans in Africa too. We never say these kinds of things to them.’ It’s shameful. I come from Chad where we all live together. We love foreigners. We protect them more than our own nationals. I wonder, ‘Why am I here? I’m not welcome.’

“For us, this is nothing new. Since 2015, we have seen this kind of hatred, especially within the Muslim community, especially with women who wear the hijab. People insulting, yelling profanities, telling us to ‘go back to your country.’ One of our staff had eggs thrown at her.

“After this [ attack at the Portland Max station] I think people will think twice before they intervene. Unless they want to give their lives defending something they see as unjust.”

Join Us -- “The best way is to get to know a Muslim family. During Ramadan it’s very important. Learn about the religion. Go to a mosque and see what’s happening. Listen to the preaching, listen to how they’re talking about peace. You see it’s completely different from what you see in the media, what you see in the world.’

“Even though you are not responsible for what’s happening, apologize. Tell us, ‘these are not our values. The real American value is welcoming. We are a country of immigrants.’ Make sure you ask, ‘how are you doing? How can I help?’”

Dr. Baher Butti, president, Iraqi Society of Oregon

Acknowledge Us -- “Just act normal. In Oregon, people smile. And that’s what we do. You don’t need to go out of your way to do something extra. In our culture, in a work environment, we like a greeting. It’s not a ‘like.’ It’s a ‘must.’ Greeting is important. That will indicate that you respect them.”

Stand Up for Us -- “Our neighbor gave us his contact details and said, ‘if you need anything, just call me.’ I felt like those people cared. That’s a nice gesture. If there’s an aggression, you shouldn’t escalate the situation. If someone is armed, you should call the police. People aren’t equipped to meet that situation. Start taking a video just to document it.”

Speak Up for Us -- “People don’t know our cultures. They just lump all Arabs as Muslims. I’m Christian, for example. They talk about how Iraqis and Arabs are terrorists, but we’re the target of terrorism. It’s our people who are victimized. Don’t lump everyone together. It’s about semantics. When we call what happened on the Max, ‘terrorism,’ an act that shouldn’t be a way to judge a whole community, it can reduce the judgment of Muslims as terrorists.”

Jamal Dar, founder, African Youth and Community Organization

Acknowledge Us -- “I’m always looking over my shoulder. I don’t wear a scarf, so you can imagine our mothers are in fear. If you just give a, ‘hi, how are you?’ or “we support you,’ that’s assuring them that not everyone is bad. It’s good to give a passing greeting. Smile. Americans are the greatest when it comes to smiling.”

Stand Up for Us -- Our sisters and mother who wear the hijab, they’re scared to take public transportation or walk in the street. There are people who want to go without the scarf. A 13-year-old girl came to me. She wanted to know if she could talk to her parents and tell them, ‘it’s not a good time to wear my scarf.’ When those questions come to you, they break your heart. I want to say, ‘No. Stand up for yourself. Protect your faith, protect who you are. Everyone is going to protect you.’ But I don’t know if that’s true.”

Join Us -- “Come and get to know us. We’re not terrorists. We’re not bad people. Come to our community centers. Talk to community members. Visit the mosque and get to know us. Get to know us, please. We’ve been isolated for many years.”


A Book List: The the Muslim Educational Trust keeps a list of books and other resources for those who want to learn more about Islam. 

ACLU mobile App: Download this app from the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. If you see something going wrong, record a video, which is immediately sent to the Portland office.

An A to Z Guide: Check out this post from MuslimGirl’s Zoha Qamar about how to be an ally, including taking a risk, making mistakes and reading the news.

Myths & Facts: There are plenty of good resources from the Anti-Defamation League about how to support Muslim friends and neighbors. It starts by deciphering fact from fiction.