In 2016, Zahra Billoo, director of the CAIR-San Francisco chapter, bought a ticket for Washington D.C. to attend the presidential inauguration before knowing who’d win. She figured that if Hillary Clinton won, she’d go to protest some of Clinton’s policies while also witnessing the historic moment of a female president being sworn in. If, God forbid, Donald J. Trump won, she’d protest.
CAIR-San Francisco Director Zahra Billoo
And then the Women’s March, a growing movement that emerged in the wake of Trump’s victory, invited Zahra to speak at its signature march in Washington D.C. I remember, because I was at the march with my daughter and a contingency of Muslim women listening to her, Linda Sarsour and others fire up the huge crowd.
Zahra and I live on opposite coasts (her on the West, me on the East) and run in different circles. However, we overlap in one big way – we’re both Muslim women with activism in our blood (for her, a way of life; for me, something I try and do in whatever small ways possible).
For the sake of full disclosure, I’ve worked with Zahra before, publishing op-eds she has written (at Altmuslim/Patheos Muslim
) and including her in lists I’ve published about powerful Muslim women (here at Haute Hijab
). I’ve followed her activism trajectory from afar, impressed by her strong moral stance on several issues while also personally questioning at times some of the language she has used in standing up for what she believes in.
All this is to say, though, that like so many American Muslims and Americans in general, I hold her work, her passions and her strength in high regard. Fighting for the marginalized has been Zahra’s life’s work, which is why like so many others, I was shocked to see her removed from the board of the Women’s March
soon after her appointment became public.
Why? Because in large part, she was accused of anti-Semitism.
This is a huge accusation, and one to be taken very seriously. Cries of anti-Semitism have dogged some of the founding members of the Women’s March, namely Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory. But, I want to discuss what happened to Zahra right now – and while I’ve known Zahra to be staunchly against the state of Israel and anti-Zionist in her views and words, anti-Semitic is not something I’d accuse her of.
The problems began when the story first broke that three of the founding members of the Women’s March were stepping down and 15 new board members had joined (one of them being Zahra.) One of the first news stories from the Washington Post
discussed Sarsour and Mallory leaving due to anti-Semitism accusations and other issues, the implication being that the Women’s March was “cutting ties” with them. The reality, however, was different.
Then came two days of grueling attention on Zahra, painting her as anti-Semitic as well and bringing up old tweets in which she used strong language to criticize the state of Israel, among other things. Within 48 hours of the news that the Women’s March had appointed new board members, Zahra was voted out.
Zahra and others marching at the San Francisco Women's March in 2018. Image source: Zahra Billoo's public Facebook page.
Like so many who have worked with Zahra from near and far and have kept up with her work, I’ve struggled to understand this decision. It has brought up some fundamental questions about what it means to be pro-Palestinian, what the differences are
between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel, and what things can be forgiven and what cannot in the court of public perception.
I got on the phone with Zahra to find out what happened and to talk to her about the accusations, her work and what this has all taught her. As I wrote this, more than 70 individuals and organizations signed an open letter demanding that she be reinstated
to the board of the Women’s March. When you talk to Zahra, one thing becomes clear: She is placing her trust in Allah (S) to show her the path forward. “I have to make the intention that Allah, this is for you. And whatever happens, happens,” she told me.
The following is a portion of our conversation (edited and condensed for clarity).
Tell me about your involvement with the Women’s March. How long have you been involved and in what capacity?
I had already planned to be in Washington, D.C. [for the presidential inauguration in January 2016] and then heard of the Women’s March coming together, and I was honored to be invited to speak there. I remember looking into the crowd and being amazed at the sea of faces.
After the (national_ Women’s March, our staff and our board at CAIR San Francisco participated in the Women’s March in our area. I tweeted, I participated in regional events, I went to D.C. for the Cancel Kavanaugh
action [as organized by the Women’s March]. I spoke at the Women’s March convention. I did all of those things and was really honored to be invited to join the board early in the summer of 2019.
The official board term began July 15. The announcement of the big transition didn’t happen until the second week in September.
What drew you to the Women’s March?
I have been so inspired by the organization and the founders’ ability to take what was heartbreak and turn it into action. That need hasn’t dissipated since 2017. It is hyped with everything going on and the impending 2020 election. So in thinking about my time and capacity, I often share with people that the question that keeps me up at night is, what is our ability to mobilize people into action? The Women’s March has done that over and over, and it has done that in an inclusive, thoughtful, intersectional and courageous way with issues that touch all of our lives.
Let’s talk about the trajectory of this story – starting with the headlines in the Washington Post and other things – what is the truth there?
I have been at CAIR over a decade and have been doing advocacy for the community for over 20 years. I’ve never seen anything this outrageously untrue. On Monday morning we woke up to an exclusive in the Washington Post about the new board that told a story about the transition that wasn’t accurate, namely that the organization was cutting ties with the founders. This wasn’t the truth. They were supporting the transition. Beyond that there is a founder that still sits on the board.
(Editorial Note: It’s public knowledge that there is a rotating founder’s seat on the board. Carmen Perez, one of the four original founders, still sits on the board.)
Unfortunately it took several hours to have our narrative posted through our channels. [By that time], the story had already gone viral. Right wingers were crowing over it.
Through the course of the day, the narrative shifted to, You got rid of the old folks and you brought this new board in [with the same problems]. My name was at the top of people who were attacked in the 24 to 48 hours of that original news story. Most of the attacks were from right-wing press, Zionist press and internet people.
Monday night (September 16th) I heard from a couple of people who told me, “You’ve become the story, and this is concerning.” I told them that this happens to my people so often, and it will cycle out. On Tuesday I start to hear murmurs about people who are upset and that this is causing a lot of pressure. I was told that my comments are offensive (certain tweets). I went to the board members and said that I’m sorry for the hurt it’s caused. We had conversations on the phone.
There was a lot of, “The organization is too fragile to handle this.” But I was like – the organization I know is courageous, bold, strong. What is fragility, and what does it look like that we want to work together when we’re about to take on one of the most frightening and critical elections of our lifetime, but the moment you are attacked for something like this, you are cast aside?
(Editorial note: Zahra was called to task for things she has tweeted about and said several years earlier against Israel and Zionism, using strong, and what some may consider harsh, language.)
People told me, I’m anti-Zionist too, but I don’t believe Israel is a terrorist state. But when I talk to people about what life is like in Palestinian refugee camps (having visited one) – you don't plan for next week because you don't know if you’re going to be alive next week. If that’s not terrorism, what is?
[In regard to my dismissal being Islamophobic in nature] I heard a lot of, “We can’t be Islamophobic because we too are from a marginalized community.” This wasn’t just coming from white women by any means at all. These were women of color also saying this. And finally, I also heard a lot of, “We can’t speak about women’s reproductive rights when we have to talk about about Palestinian rights.” I say – why can’t we do both?
It came down to I either needed to resign or be forced out. Another option was why don’t I resign, and they’ll replace me with another Muslim woman? I was like – so you want to replace me with someone more palatable? It didn’t look like I’d survive the vote. So, I decided I was going to make the Women’s March do the work [of letting me go] and be on the record for their cowardice. On Wednesday evening (September 18th) I was voted off the board. I was disappointed in the Women’s March in so many ways.
What about those questionable tweets? What do you have to say about that?
What I heard was a range of talk about my entire body of public writing and speaking.
The comments were: How dare you criticize the military? How dare you say that the FBI recruits people into terror efforts? How dare you criticize the IDF? How dare you say Israel is a terrorist state or that Israel is persecuting Palestinians? But this is the reality of my community’s experiences and my experiences. Being on the board [of the Women’s March] doesn’t mean that they have to agree with 100 percent of the things I said.
I may not say the same things today that I said in 2014. I may not say the same things today that I said yesterday. I asked [the Women’s March], “What do you think I should do?” One of them said to me, “I think you should resign to protect your integrity.” But my integrity doesn’t come from an organization, from positions or title. It comes from my work, it comes from my religion teaching me that I shouldn’t back down.
I stand by the content of my tweets, but there are things that I wouldn’t tweet today. I might say certain things differently, For a decade I taught my community that you can't post what you can’t stand behind.
People tweet or do things all the time that they later regret or perhaps change their mind about or wish they had phrased differently. For example, in Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam wore blackface in a medical school yearbook photo. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also just apologized for wearing brownface in a past photo. You were called out for things you’ve said. What should be forgiven? What things are unforgivable in your mind?
I think it’s about degrees. Show me the criteria about racism in my tweets. Over and over I talked about Israel. When did I say anything about Jewish people? There’s a difference between blackface and criticism of Israel. I think people should have the opportunity, depending on the degree of what happened, to apologize and say, teach me, show me - where can we agree to disagree?
In this particular situation, I think the difference between blackface and my tweets about Israel is that there is no objective disagreement about blackface. There is objective disagreement about Israel.
The more important piece is that what happened here is not about a couple of tweets. It’s about the fact that Israel continues to steal land and subject Palestinians to the worst. And, our progressive friends in the West are unwilling to have conversations about that. Our Muslim women are facing exclusion from the left, and the idea of “Progressive except Palestine” is alive and well. That to me is the epitome of “How can we talk about reproductive rights if we have to speak about Palestinian communities?”
From all this, what I’ve learned is that the Women’s March is telling me, You can talk about Palestine until it gets tricky. You can be here, but not with your whole self. This is coming from the new Women’s March national board. This is not reflective of the founders, because they lived through this, and they did it courageously in a way this board hasn’t been able to.
And beyond that, this is not the Women’s March chapters across the United States. I’ve been incredibly moved by how some chapters have been. There is a mix of feelings and a lot of objections from some chapters. The chapters who worked so hard to align themselves with the founders, they are very disappointed.
This was the deepest commitment I made to an organization that is not majority Muslim – committed to joining as a Muslim speaking at their events. Allah says we will be tested in our work, and we are tested in different ways. My test might be in my work. I will say that this was not the place where I expected [to be tested] because this organization has been through so much of the same.
This is from Allah, and maybe there’s something good in it. As leaders, we say that we are doing this for the people. In teaching Islamic work and activism, I often say we are not in this for leadership, for awards or for any of the glamour. It’s really easy to say that when you have all of those things. For me, the test was saying that when I was losing all of this. The spiritual test for me and the test of my integrity was being willing to fight, being willing to stick to my principles even at risk of harm.