Protesting While Muslim Comes With Its Own Set Of Judgments

A Muslim activist wonders if civil disobedience is really open to all citizens.
Bilal Askaryar (holding a Black Lives Matter sign) joined a protest against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos early last y
Bilal Askaryar (holding a Black Lives Matter sign) joined a protest against U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos early last year at a school in Washington. He believes that as a Muslim, he was singled out for arrest at the demonstration.

When Bilal Askaryar woke up on the morning of Feb. 10 last year, he wasn’t expecting to get arrested. But it was a risk he was willing to take.

It was a cold winter’s day in Washington, a city still buzzing from the spirit of historic civic protests. Just a few weeks earlier, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to defend women’s rights. Days later, activists flocked to Washington Dulles International Airport and marched through the nation’s capital to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order that sought to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations and temporarily halt refugee resettlement programs.

Askaryar is a 32-year-old communications specialist who lives in D.C. and who believes strongly in the right of Americans to participate in protests and, when necessary, in acts of civil disobedience. He participated in the Women’s March and in protests against Trump’s plans to restrict refugee immigration. That February morning, Askaryar briefly contemplated staying in his warm bed and skipping another, smaller protest set to take place at a local public school. But his conscience tugged at him.

“I didn’t want to be one of those people that opposes everything on social media or in dinner conversations among friends, but doesn’t actually do anything about it, when it comes down to it,” he told HuffPost. “I’m going to put my body on the line for those who can’t.”

Askaryar said that in the hours that followed his decision to attend, he came to believe that engaging in civil disobedience as a Muslim can carry with it certain hazards.

He said he ended up the only person facing legal charges for his actions that day, although he claims others at the protest were more combative with police officers at the scene. (The initial Washington Post story on the protest reported that one person was arrested, without providing a name.)

In subsequent stories on Askaryar’s case, media outlets honed in on his ethnicity and his place of birth ― Afghanistan. That was information he doesn’t think would have been spotlighted if he was a white protester.

The U.S. Muslim community is heavily composed of immigrants and the children of immigrants from around the world. While native-born Muslims have been involved in civil rights demonstrations and other forms of political activism in the U.S. for decades, the newer wave of Muslim immigrants and their children, who hail primarily from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, are experiencing a political awakening. They’re running for office, forming new activist organizations and getting involved in intersectional activism.

But in a time when anti-Muslim hate crimes are spiking and Islamophobic rhetoric flows from the highest political offices in the land, these Muslims find themselves having to defend their identity as Americans.

Askaryar considers it ironic that while participating in civil disobedience, an act he believes is “the highest form of patriotism,” he had to contend with being portrayed as the “other.”

As the story of his arrest gained traction, Askaryar said he felt a sense of panic, and then disillusionment.

“I’d like to believe that every American citizen has a right to make his or her voice known and to fully exercise their First Amendment rights,” he said. “But in this case, it’s not true.”

Askaryar is a U.S. citizen originally from Afghanistan.
Askaryar is a U.S. citizen originally from Afghanistan.

“Where Were You Born?”

The night before Feb. 10, Askaryar heard on social media about a Black Lives Matter protest planned for Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington. The BLM protesters and other local groups wanted to express their discontent with Trump’s new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was visiting the school. Askaryar and other Devos critics view her policies as detrimental to public schools.

When he arrived for the demonstration, Askaryar said he and others learned that DeVos’ team was trying to avoid confronting members of the local teachers’ union, who were protesting at the building’s front entrance. The BLM protesters positioned themselves at a side entrance, to force DeVos to enter through the front.

In a video, Askaryar (wearing a black jacket and gray beanie) is seen with another protester physically blocking DeVos from using the side entrance. Holding a Black Lives Matter sign, the activist shouts “Shame” as the education secretary retreats back into her car.

In the ensuing altercations with police, Askaryar said that, like him, other protesters were resisting officers’ instructions. Some demonstrators planted themselves in front of DeVos’ vehicle and refused to budge.

Yolanda C. Rondon, a lawyer with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was acting as a legal observer at the protest. She told HuffPost she wasn’t sure if police singled out Askaryar for arrest ― “I’m not inside the police officer’s mind,” she said.

But she does think Askaryar could have stood out to officers because of the way he looked. The police department had previously dealt with the BLM protesters, Rondon said. And most of the members of the National Lawyers Guild who joined in the protest were white, she said.

Officers “probably saw Bilal and saw that he’s not part of [those groups] and thought he’s just a troublemaker ... here to start some stuff,” Rondon said. “They probably did treat him differently because he wasn’t black and he wasn’t white.”

Demonstrators last February wait for the arrival of DeVos at Jefferson Middle School Academy.
Demonstrators last February wait for the arrival of DeVos at Jefferson Middle School Academy.

Askaryar was charged with two counts of assault on a police officer, one count of failure to obey a lawful order, and one count of unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct.

All the charges were dismissed by a D.C. Superior Court judge in November.

Askaryar said he believes the risk of being arrested goes with participating in civil disobedience. But there was one part of his encounter with the police that caused him to worry.

He said one of the first things an officer asked him while he was being arrested was, “Where were you born?”

It’s when he heard this question that he said he started to feel scared.

“Being arrested was fine. I mean, I wasn’t planning on it. But there are worse things than spending a night in D.C. jail,” he said. “The thing that was actually scary was that the police immediately went to, ‘Where were you born,’ and assuming that I wasn’t a U.S. citizen.”

“I saw then that they think that’s relevant. And I knew I was in a sensitive situation because I happen to have been born in Afghanistan, which is a Muslim-majority country which people associate with scary things.”

Asked to comment on Askaryar’s allegations of bias, Hugh Carew, a spokesperson for Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, told HuffPost that “if anyone believes that they were treated inappropriately by an MPD officer, we urge them to file a complaint with MPD or the Office of Police Complaints so the matter can be fully investigated.”

Askaryar said he’s not interested in pursuing that course of action. But he also said that for him, the arrest was only the beginning of the story. 

Askaryar and a friend hold posters in front of the Washington Monument.
Askaryar and a friend hold posters in front of the Washington Monument.

An American Citizen Defends His American Identity 

Days after Askaryar’s arrest, he said he grew concerned about coverage of his case by local and national media. Along with defending himself against the charges, he found himself having to defend his American identity.

Askaryar’s family came to the U.S. as political refugees in the 1990s, when he was just 5 years old. Askaryar has since become an American citizen. A few weeks before his arrest, he’d published an essay on NPR about his family’s past, and America’s moral duty to continue to take in refugees fleeing persecution.

After his arrest, Askaryar noticed something curious. In a follow-up story on him, the Post highlighted that he came to the country as a refugee ― even making it the focus of the piece’s headline. The Post also contacted Askaryar’s father in California to ask about the family’s background and his son’s possible motives.

Askaryar doesn’t think white, non-Muslim activists arrested during acts of civil disobedience would have their family’s immigration history detailed in this way.  

“How many times when white protesters get arrested do people think to call their parents? Or ask their parents about their ethnic background and motivations?” Askaryar said. “Everything about the coverage of my participation in the non-violent civil disobedience was framed as immigrant or refugee arrested for assault. That’s not how we talk about Caucasians who get arrested on civil disobedience.”

The Post’s reporting was picked up on other sites, including right-wing outlets Gateway Pundit and PJ Media. The sites narrowed in on Askaryar’s former status as a refugee. They also highlighted his sexual orientation, based on an article he had written for The Washington Blade, a queer online magazine in D.C.

He said he began receiving online backlash from right-wing commentators, with some calling for him to be sent back to Afghanistan.

Reading headlines like “Gay Refugee from Afghanistan Charged with Assault for Blocking Betsy DeVos” and “Afghan refugee pleads not guilty to charges following DeVos protest at D.C. school,” Askaryar said he began feeling fearful about his safety and the safety of his family. He was also concerned the publicity would hurt his career prospects. 

Most of all, he said he was astonished media organizations thought the fact that he had come to this country as a refugee decades ago was relevant to his protest against DeVos.

Kristine Coratti Kelly, vice president of communications and events at the Post, told HuffPost that because Askaryar and his lawyer declined to speak with the newspaper for its follow-up article, the story relied on his NPR essay “to give readers a sense of who he is. His father confirmed the account, telling us, as we reported, that his son’s motivation in taking part in the protest was to ‘protect education.’”

“It’s ridiculous, I’m an American citizen,” Askaryar said. “I was there because I believe as an American citizen that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. It doesn’t matter where I was born 30-something years ago.”

“If I was there protesting the president of Afghanistan visiting the United States, maybe [his immigration history] would be relevant,” he added. “But I was there protesting the secretary of education of the United States of America.”

He said the only difference he sees in the attention he received “is my ethnic background.” 

Askaryar participates in the Women's March in 2017.
Askaryar participates in the Women's March in 2017.

When Being A Visible Muslim Draws Suspicion

In the years since the 9/11 attacks, Muslim organizations in the U.S. have documented a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes and rhetoric. There are also more subtle ways in which presenting oneself as a Muslim in society spurs unintended consequences.

Some describe the perils of “flying while Muslim” ― referring to the discrimination and profiling Muslims face while traveling on airplanes. Simple things, like using the word “Allah” or reading a book about Syria, can cause fellow passengers alarm, and sometimes result in Muslims being kicked off flights.

Muslim women describe facing verbal harassment online. Linda Sarsour, an outspoken Muslim activist and one of the leaders of last year’s Women’s March, is often the target of such attacks.

Muslim communities have also been subjected to massive, unwarranted and targeted surveillance by law enforcement ― with officers eavesdropping on conversations, infiltrating student groups, and monitoring sermons in mosques.

Such religious profiling has enflamed already tense relations between American Muslims and law enforcement, Rondon said. 

“I think it’s important to note that, similar to the black community, Muslim and Arab communities have had strenuous relationships with the police, particularly because they feel [officers] are only there to police them and not to keep them safe,” she said.  

Askaryar said he believes he stood out from the rest of the activists at Jefferson Middle School Academy not because of what he was doing, but because he was a Muslim man with a beard.

Askaryar has sported a beard since 2015. Although he’s a devout Muslim and some Muslims choose to have beards to emulate the Prophet Muhammad, Askaryar said he didn’t grow one because of his faith. Rather, it was simply something he decided to do for aesthetic reasons.

For most of his life, he said, he had been “relatively passing” as an American citizen. But once he had the beard, he said he began to notice a difference in the way he was labeled. People began to “assume maybe this guy is a Muslim or Middle Eastern.”

Blair Imani, a community activist based in Brooklyn, New York, is well acquainted with how appearances associated with being a Muslim can change other people’s perceptions.

Before Imani converted to Islam in 2015, she said she was seen by others only as a black woman during protests in which she participated. But after she began wearing a hijab, she said the heckling she received at demonstrations changed. People started to telling her to “go back to where you’re from” ― even though black Muslims have been in the United States for centuries.

“As a black woman, protest and standing up against police brutality was in the canon of who I was expected to be,” she said. “But once I converted, there’s this foreignness that the Muslim identity is given.”

Mariam Durrani, an anthropologist who studies Muslim youth at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, agreed that Muslim Americans continue to be seen as foreigners. And because of the current climate of xenophobia and anti-Muslim racism, Muslims Americans ― like other minority groups ― are often held to higher standards when protesting.

“Muslim Americans are expected to be model citizens, which somehow means not being critical of policies or the government,” she told HuffPost.

A Political Awakening In Immigrant Muslim Communities

Black and indigenous Muslim American communities have been speaking up about discrimination for decades. But as the non-native community grows, Durrani said, its youth are starting to see themselves as stakeholders in conversations the country is having about race, class, and gender.

“Today’s activism is intersectional, digital, and begins with the premise that [Muslims] are part of this country and invested in its future,” Durrani said. 

The problem is that when Muslim activists engage in protest, the story often becomes more about who is protesting, instead of what is being protested.

That’s what Imani sees when Muslim women protest while wearing the hijab.

“What would make it easier is if our message resonated in a way that honors who we’re protesting … versus, ‘Oh, she was wearing a scarf,’”  she said.

Askaryar said his experiences last year haven’t deterred him from wanting to participate in civil disobedience in the future. But he called his arrest and the media coverage of it a “wake-up call.”

“I used to think that I could show up at these Black Lives Matter actions and volunteer because black kids should not be doing this because they’re in a lot more danger than I am,” he said. “But I’ve realized since that that may be true, but it’s also not a good time for Muslims, South Asians, Arab folks to be engaging in these things either.”

As an immigrant and a Muslim, he said he’s experienced discrimination. But this was the first time he really understood the double standard that Muslim activists, and other minority activists, are held to.

“People brashly question, ‘Why is this former immigrant engaging in civil disobedience? If you don’t like this country go back to where you come from.’ That kind of obnoxious, toxic rhetoric is anti-American at its core,” he said. “People have been given license to increasingly question their fellow Americans that have different origins than they do. ... We are protesting not because we hate this country, but because we love this country and we want to hold it to the highest ideals that it aspires to.”



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