Voices of the Square: Q&A with Zahra Billoo, civil rights lawyer and Muslim activist

It’s not every day that you get to talk to one of America’s strongest defenders of the Constitution and frequent CNN contributor (fangirl screams!!!).

Zahra Billoo is the executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in San Francisco, California. In her job overseeing CAIR’s operations, she often draws on her background as a lawyer.

I interviewed Billoo about issues facing our nation, including President Trump’s moves to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S., a program that’s targeting Muslim high school students in Maryland as potential community informants, and what she prefers to a really nutritious dinner.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Hannah Shraim, GSS Libre Talks columnist

Q. It looks like we’re back to discussing President Trump’s proposed Muslim travel bans. Federal judges for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments Monday in Seattle on the second ban proposed March 16, a rewrite of the first ban on Jan. 27. This issue could go all the way up to the Supreme Court. In your view, what are the key differences between these bans and is either one constitutional?

The first (difference) is that in the initial ban, all refugees were barred from coming into the United States for 120 days, but Syrian refugees were barred indefinitely. In the second version of the ban, Syrian refugees are treated like other refugees such that they’re barred for 120 days but could presumably start to come back to the United States after that 120(th)  day.

The second key difference is … the list of countries that are Muslim-majority countries which have been targeted. In the first version, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen were targeted. Anyone who wants to come to America from one of these countries can’t do so for the first 90 days after the ban is signed. In the second version, Iraq comes off the list. So, it goes from seven countries to six countries.

And then the third key difference is that the first ban was effected immediately … there were literally people who had gone onto airplanes before it was signed, and who landed after it was signed, and who were trapped at airports as a result. But the second ban gave a 10-day buffer period so it was signed on March 6 but not actually going into effect until March 16.  

It’s our position at CAIR that both bans are unconstitutional …. This violates the First Amendment. The government cannot target people based on religion and Donald Trump and his administration here attempt to do that.

Protesters hold signs at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 29 urging that visa-carrying refugees be allowed to enter the U.S. The protest took place after President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 27 prohibiting foreigners from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the U.S. and halting the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Photo by Kenneth Lu/CC2.0/Album at Flickr.com: https://www.flickr.com/photos/toasty/albums/72157677981330061/with/31793133103/

Protesters hold signs at San Francisco International Airport on Jan. 29 urging that visa-carrying refugees be allowed to enter the U.S. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr/CC2.0. 

Q. What advice do you have for those who experience travel delays or harassment at airports?

Our basic advice (is) … U.S. citizens have an absolute right to enter the United States. If they are being pulled aside, harassed, or questioned, that’s the kind of thing that they should be contacting CAIR, the ACLU and other organizations about how to get help with.

If they are a visa holder and are experiencing anything of that sort, their experience is a little different because they don’t have the same right to enter the country as a U.S. citizen does so if it’s something they’ve experienced before we advise them to contact again so that they can prepare best for what their options are.

(W)e tell people, anything that you travel with is subject to search. So you want to make sure that you’re traveling with very little private information now that could be true about dirty laundry in our suitcases literally or private family pictures on our cell phones so we want to make sure that we have as little private information on us as possible.

And then if we’re U.S. citizens we know that we have a right to enter the country we’re not required to answer questions about religion or politics or anything else that goes far into an inquiry about (our) status as a U.S. citizen. And it’s important that U.S. citizens assert those rights and we encourage them to do that because the less they do the less strong those rights are.

Seal_of_the_United_States_Department_of_Homeland_Security.svgQ. There is an initiative in Montgomery County, Maryland called the CVE program that is targeting young Muslims in public schools to get them to forward tips and information to homeland security. What advice do you have? How should students and families respond?

Great question. For those that aren’t familiar with CVE, it stands for Countering Violent Extremism. It’s an acronym that really moved into the mainstream during the Obama administration.

The government’s position has been that through funding and intervention — deciding who’s good and who’s bad — they can stop violence. Our position in pushing back against this has been that it is not the role of government to interfere with religious activity, to attempt to define who is a good Muslim and who is a bad Muslim or to fund religious organization in any way. And beyond that we are very concerned with the disproportionate focus on the Muslim community.

Studies show that violence is unfortunately a problem that no community is exempt from. We have white supremacy violence, we have gang violence, we have border violence, we have terrorist violence there are so many different ways in which violence happens in different communities. And really, to be more raw and honest, we have more police violence and military violence. We worry that one the government is crossing lines on first amendment issues when they disproportionately target the Muslim community but also that it’s ineffective to target just one community and to reduce the problem to the question of religion …

Now, one of the problems of what we’re seeing in programs like the one in Maryland is that you have school and other officials targeting the most vulnerable amongst us – young people – to become soft informants. Our concern is that these are people who really should feel safe at school they shouldn’t have to think about law enforcement targeting them at school, they shouldn’t have to worry about being trained as informants at school.

And so our advice to families is to reach out to the community organizing and advocating in your region like CAIR like the ACLU, The Asian Caucus, The Brennan Center, the local Muslim student associations and others … there are many groups that have been mobilizing against these programs. We believe we are much more powerful when we work together. The other thing that’s important is that parents talk to their children about interactions with law enforcement.

It’s a difficult balance. I don’t want young people to be afraid of law enforcement but I want them to understand what the risks are of engaging with them without asserting their rights.

CAIR_logo.svgQ. What if you’re Muslim and you’re being bullied at school? What should you do?

Children, youth, and young adults have a right to be safe at school. Communities including our own but also more broadly recognize that students will learn better when their identity feels unsafe or threatened. And so generally speaking, if a student is experiencing Islamophobia from (a) peer, it is so important that they talk to their families and their school administrators …

If the bullying is happening from a teacher, which is sadly also often the case, it is really important that the students and their families talk to administrators. They have a right to be graded objectively so I would worry about taking a class with a teacher who had made Islamophobia remarks and then have the authority to give me a grade.

I understand — ‘cause it’s been awhile but I was once a young person — that not every person talks to their parents about what is going on. And so we advise students who maybe aren’t comfortable talking to their parents to talk to mentors, other teachers, club advisors, and sometimes even religious leadership in their community. They can’t often solve the issues alone.

The other reason that it’s important to report it regardless is because we need to track the data on what is going on with Muslim youth or LGBT youth or Sikh youth or young people right now living in Trump’s America. So when someone comes forward, not only are they getting help for themselves, they’re also more broadly helping their peers. 

The last thing I’ll say is that parents need to learn how to identify signs of bullying. So a kid may not be talking to me about what’s going on, but are they more depressed all of a sudden? (I)t’s important for parents to be looking for signs to identify problems before it’s too late.

A 2009 photo of the Kabbah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. "The cube" is the most sacred site in Islam and a destination for Muslims worldwide. Photo by marviikad at Flickr/CC 2.0.

A 2009 photo of the Kabbah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. “The cube” is the most sacred site in Islam and a destination for Muslims worldwide. Photo by marviikad at Flickr/CC 2.0.

Q. In your Twitter bio, you describe yourself as, “American, Pakistani, litigious, feminist, hippie, anarchist, outspoken, rebellious, socially conscious Muslimah.” That’s a lot to take in. What should we really know?

I would say that at its core, being Muslim is what I identify with the most. I was born into a family that practiced the faith and increased their level of practice over time. But it’s also a faith that I choose to practice, I have lived away from family for over a decade now…and…maybe because of the way I was brought up and who I’m surrounded with, my faith guides everything I do in my life. The way I treat my friends to what I eat and consume to when I wake up and pray and how I treat my cat…I believe that when I am good to my cat it is an act of worship so…I don’t think that I could say that there’s one event in particular that made me more Muslim, you know, than any other episode.

One of the most memorable instances that I’ve had is making the pilgrimage with my parents when I was seven. We didn’t have a lot of family so even though we were young my parents brought us with them. I have a distinct memory of walking in and seeing the Kaabah for the first time.

(W)hen people tell me that I should go back to (your) country, I’m like, well, this is where I was born — there really isn’t anywhere to go back to. It’s oftentimes startling that that (this) language … comes at me in the course of my work in advocating for the rights of Muslims and by extension all Americans.

I’m not saying or citing the Quran when saying we shouldn’t let law enforcement come into our houses without search warrants, I’m citing the Bill of Rights. And yet it’s that very work that gets people to say you’re not American.

Screenshot of CAIR video.

Screenshot of CAIR video.

Q. You were invited to speak at the Women’s March on Washington. What was that like?

I remember thinking … what do you say in three minutes to 250,000 people? I generally don’t pre-write my speeches (but) I wrote my speech for that one. I wanted to make sure I covered everything I needed to cover in order to honor the spirit of the invitation and honor my organization and represent myself …

I was really appreciative of the organizers’ inclusion of diversity …. (the organizers) included people who were the children of immigrants, they included black Muslims, they included LGBT members … everyone imaginable.

ice-cream-berry-isolatedQ. Last but not least: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not fighting for human rights?  

I eat ice cream. I have a horrendous sweet tooth. When I’m going to a new place for work, even before finding a nutritious dinner I find an ice cream shop.

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