'No Ban, No Wall': Growing solidarity among Latinos and Muslims
AUSTIN, Texas - Muslims and Latinos have both been vilified by President Donald Trump, whose rhetoric and policies have painted the two communities as potential terrorists and criminals.
In Austin, Texas, on the frontline of the battle for immigrant rights, the two seemingly distant groups are joining forces to organise rallies and political events to push back against what they describe as discrimination from the White House.
The culmination of this joint alliance thus far took place on 25 February when several thousand people rallied at the state capitol to voice their rejection of the travel ban and Trump’s proposed border wall. One of the activists who coordinated the event, a graduate student from Puerto Rico, coined it as the beginning of a “No Ban, No Wall” movement.
“It started with a Facebook event that I created a month before the event. I thought only 20 or 100 people would meet at the capitol but it suddenly grew real quick,” Omar Rodriguez Ortiz, one of the organisers of the rally, told Middle East Eye.
Figuring out the number of friends that we have out there is unbelievable. That in itself is one big accomplishment.
-Yassir Fazaga, imam
As word spread of the rally, Rodriguez knew he had created something bigger than he had realised. Through “friends of friends” and “connections of connections,” he and other organisers enlisted 18 speakers, including several US Congress members to address the rally.
Non-profit groups like the Workers Defense Project, an organisation that advocates for immigrant labour rights, and an anonymous donor helped fund the rally.
The beginning of sustained action
The demonstration’s success was built on previous events organised by interfaith and immigrant rights groups. When Trump won the presidency, Muslim rights organisations in Texas became encouraged to become politically active to support themselves and other communities.
“The Muslim community and their allies have had five specific events since the election. This last one was with the Latino community,” said Banafsheh Madaninejad, one of the organisers of the No Ban, No Wall rally and visiting professor of philosophy and religion at Southwestern University.
Just days after the election, the rights group Muslim Solidarity ATX formed a human wall in front of the Nueces Mosque in Austin in a gesture of solidarity with the Muslim community during Friday prayers.
I think Latinos and Muslims share in common is that before the election, they felt like second-class citizens, now that Trump got elected, they feel like third-class citizens
- Roy Casagranda, political science professor
"These people who made the wall were Muslims, non-Muslims, Jews, folks from the LGBTQ community, all sorts of people," Madaninejad said. "Around 400 people showed up and made a wall on the street in front of the Nueces mosque."
Less than two weeks after the election, Muslim leaders held a community forum at a public school in Austin, which was attended by many of the city’s leaders.
“A lot of people showed up, the sheriff showed up, city council members, school district board members, Mayor [Steve] Adler showed up, everyone who was somebody showed up and said ‘we support you’,” Madaninejad told Middle East Eye.
In January, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, and two days after the first rendition of the Muslim ban, CAIR organised Texas Muslim Capitol Day, where followers of the faith from all over the state were bused in to meet with their elected representatives. Madaninejad said 700 Texas Muslims travelled to the state capitol and nearly 2,500 mostly non-Muslims, organised by Muslim Solidarity ATX surrounded them with a human chain in an act of solidarity.
Mohamed-Umer Esmail, imam of Nueces Mosque, said being strong and engaged is a top challenge for Muslims in Trump’s America.
There are about 15,000 Muslims in the city, mostly of South Asian descent, according to Esmail. He said Latinos and Muslims have common issues.
“Both of us are being vilified,” the imam told MEE. “There’s a movement of hate against both communities.”
He cited the “No Ban, No Wall” movement, saying both groups are coming together to advocate for their common cause and send a message that they are “not asleep”.
Still, Esmail called for increased engagement from Muslims. “There needs to be more activism on our part. We need to reach out more,” he said.
Yassir Fazaga, imam of the Islamic Center of Brushy Creek, echoed Esmail’s comments on the parallel marginalisation of Muslims and Latinos.
“Both are perceived as outsiders; both are contributing very meaningfully to the fabric of this country, and they are not recognised for that,” he told MEE. “That brings their commonality and their struggle together.”
Roy Casagranda, a political science professor at Austin Community College, said that neither group is treated well.
“What I think Latinos and Muslims share in common is that before the election, they felt like second-class citizens, now that Trump got elected, they feel like third-class citizens. They already didn’t feel like equals but now there has been a reduction in status,” he told MEE.
It may seem counterintuitive that Muslim Americans are benefiting from Trump’s presidency, but Fazaga said interest in public affairs and courting allies are good developments that have surfaced from the seemingly bad situation.
“Figuring out the number of friends that we have out there is unbelievable,” he said. “That in itself is one big accomplishment. The people who are for diversity, the people who appreciate diversity - these people are coming out, and that tells us that we are not alone.”
This just might be the beginning of a different kind of America. We might get defeated, but it will live up in history
- Banafsheh Madaninejad, activist and professor
Fazaga urged Muslim Americans to use their visibility to tell their own narrative by being approachable, open and proactive - “making ourselves fully available to the community out there”.
The increased political awareness is evidenced by the founding of a local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), which was launched in June 2016.
Fayyaz Shah, a board member of CAIR-Austin, said Muslims want to make sure that the United States remains true to its core principles of tolerance, diversity and religious freedom.
“It’s not only good for Muslims and minorities. It’s imperative and good for the US as a whole. It’s those values that have really brought the US to where it is today,” Shah told MEE.
Activists say they want to take the unfolding unity between Muslims and Latinos beyond the confines of both communities and bring in everyone who is concerned with social justice issues.
At a meeting for organisers who were involved in the "No Ban, No Wall" protest, advocates were brainstorming ideas on how to broaden their coalition and turn their activism into tangible action.
Over Middle Eastern food at a restaurant in north Austin, the activists suggested holding periodical protests, reaching out to various rights group, utilising social media to spread their message and putting together social and political events.
One activist suggested a picnic for Muslim, Latino and LGBT organisers. Another attendee added that African Americans should be brought on board as well.
“I think it’s coming together,” Miguel Rodriguez, a Latino community advocate, told MEE of the intersectional struggle. “We are in the process of getting all the voices heard. It’s good to have more meetings and perhaps some activities around that subject, showing information, getting to know about each other and recognising that we [are] all working towards the same goals.”
Omar Rodriguez Ortiz also stressed the importance of the growing political ties between different communities.
“What we’re going to try to do, since we made a lot of connections and leaders from other groups, is to help people connect. We hope to connect indivisible groups, progressive Democrats, and women’s right groups,” he said.
Madaninejad believes a coalition is being formed.
"We’re thinking of bringing a core umbrella group together where all of our communities – the LGBTQ community, the Muslim community (believers and those who are just culturally Muslim), the Latino community – so that we start [meeting] once a week," she said.
The religious studies professor added that one of the goals is to have activists of different communities show up at each other's events and stand for each other's causes.
Good for democracy
Elaine Cohen, an immigrant rights activist, who is also a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace group, said with a hint of irony that President Trump may be good for democracy because he is inadvertently encouraging people to bond together in opposition to his policies.
“When Trump got elected, many non-profits geared up and wanted to have meetings, but this one is different,” she said. “What’s different about this was the focus to bring Muslims and Latinos, and it took [white] Christians and Jews to fill in the other cracks.”
Despite the escalating crackdown on immigrants, travel bans and prevailing nationalistic rhetoric in Washington, Cohen is optimistic about the future. She predicted that the “pronouncements coming from the throne” will be struck down.
Madaninejad also sees a better future.
“Regardless of executive orders or state legislature, I think we’re doing something super important,” she said.
“Just look at Austin. This just might be the beginning of a different kind of America. We might get defeated, but it will live on in history. When has the Latino and Muslim community ever come together? On anything? Never, never. This is historic,” she said.