Jeh Johnson at ISNA: A ‘Soiled Antidote’ for Islamophobia

This past weekend, I joined a group of Muslim activists and organizers at the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA’s) 53rd annual conference in Chicago, in a rapidly organized protest of the keynote speech by Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The ISNA speaker who opened the program that Saturday evening did so by recounting how the late great Muhammad Ali was defamed for his courage speaking truth to power—a rather ironic prelude to a speech by the head of a government agency that is responsible for Islamophobic and anti-immigrant policies.

To their credit, ISNA’s programming this year included speakers and panels that challenged the status quo. And ISNA security did not intervene in our (mostly) silent protest (though those of us who acted had been willing to risk removal or arrest). But after learning that Secretary Johnson was delivering a keynote speech, we felt it was our moral and religious imperative to protest.

While some Muslims that night voiced appreciation that the White House sent a cabinet-level official to ISNA, and applauded Johnson’s speech, seeking proximity to power without making demands of that power does nothing more than amplify a declaration of weakness. And the need to speak truth to power becomes even more dire when power is in the room, not just when it is convenient and safe to do so from afar.

With myself alongside four Muslim women who led and grounded the action: Mariam Abu Ali, Maha Hilal, Ahlam Jbara, and Darakshan Raja, and supported by others who helped document it, we stood in protest while Secretary Johnson delivered his speech. A few of us lifted shackled wrists in the air, while I held a poster that read “Stop Deporting Families” on one side and “No CVE” on the other.

For us, the reason for making a stand was clear: Johnson and the DHS support, institutionalize, and enforce policies that are anti-Muslim and xenophobic.

Let’s start with deportations. Under the Obama Administration, DHS has deported more than 2.5 million people, more than any other administration in history. And their methods are cruel and dehumanizing. ICE agents raid communities under the cover of night, snatching women and children and tearing apart families. Before deportation, detainees are warehoused in sordid conditions in privately-run prisons. During deportation proceedings, agents use tasers and beatings, sometimes forcing migrants into body bags before tossing them onto airplanes like pieces of luggage. When they arrive back home, some who came to the US seeking asylum are killed by those whom they fled from.

These policies, which Obama and Johnson have stood by publicly and vocally, are inhumane and unjust. We cannot allow them to go unchallenged.

People are worthy of humanity and compassion—regardless of documentation status—whether they are women and children or those facing deportation because of accusations of “criminal activity.” And for Muslims specifically, our faith lays out an imperative for compassion towards migrants.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s a practical consideration: if Donald Trump becomes the next president of the United States, if you’re a Muslim you may very well find yourself declared “illegal,” no matter how meticulous your documentation may be. Who will stand up for you then?

In contrast to his pleasant-sounding words about not drinking the “soiled milk” of bigotry, the actions of Secretary Johnson’s department continue to be responsible for institutionalizing Islamophobia. Setting aside its profiling of Muslims and perceived Muslims at airports and borders, the separate systems of justice for Muslims accused of violence, and the misuse of “national security” to justify surveillance of social justice movements, we can look at DHS’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program as one that is built squarely on Islamophobia.

As explained by Professor Sahar Aziz, for Muslims, CVE continues counterrorism policies that facilitate selective and arbitrary enforcement, while deadly acts of terror attempted or carried out by non-Muslims go undetected. DHS furthers stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and terrorism as a “Muslims only club,” which has the snowball effect of more policymakers calling for more aggressive scrutiny of our mosques, community organizations, and student groups.

This reduces our communities to being relevant only within the national security paradigm. And that’s exactly what Secretary Johnson’s presence did at ISNA, as it has done in other cities where he has been sent by the administration to promote CVE programs. Out of the myriad government agencies that deal with key issues, the decision to send the DHS Secretary affirmed that Muslims only matter to the State within the framework of national security.

In the end, Secretary Johnson’s speech did offer one kernel of wisdom—about the failure of respectability politics. He told the story of his grandfather, Charles Johnson, who “despite his academic degrees…and his many achievements, in 1949…was called to testify in Congress before the House Un-American Activities Committee.”

Likewise, for Muslims today, no number of degrees, accomplishments, or photo opportunities with prominent officials will be enough to insulate us from our government’s McCarthyist anti-Muslim policies.

Black Americans did not end segregation by inviting George Wallace to speak at their conventions—the civil rights movement, which included Black Muslim leaders, achieved significant victories by organizing, influencing culture, engaging in various forms of advocacy and activism, and building political power. And today, we find the Movement for Black Lives, indigenous communities, those fighting for migrant rights, and other marginalized communities resisting, converging, and building collective power towards collective liberation. Only by following this path can we overcome the institutionalized and mainstreamed Islamophobia that our communities face today.

Photo credit: Iram Ali @iramfali

Mohammad Khan

Mohammad Khan is a campaigner and political organizer from Queens, NY. He’s currently the Campaign Director at MPower Change—the U.S.’s first digitally native grassroots Muslim organization—where he campaigns to organize Muslim communities and allies in the fight for justice for all people. His work focuses on transformative movement-based organizing and building the power of marginalized communities. Mohammad has worked across electoral, issue, and civic engagement campaigning and organizing in New York—from gubernatorial and City Council races to efforts including police reform, protecting public education, and exposing political corruption.