9 Tips for Muslims Who Want To Make Social Change

By Uruj Ehsan Sheikh

We are in a historic moment. Renewed Islamophobia has emerged in the mainstream. GOP candidates' anti-Muslim rhetoric and an upsurge of hate crimes against Muslims have gone unabated. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis continues to spiral out of control. San Bernardino, Paris, Ankara, Baghdad and many more – the politicization of Islam is polarizing and forcing many to take sides.

This was the context for my trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with 13 others from Witness Against Torture – a group demanding the United States close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, a “War on Terror” prison that has become synonymous with torture, solitary confinement and indefinite detention.


As a Pakistani-American Muslim, I was drawn to participate in this delegation in order to challenge the existence of Guantanamo; a place that exists to scapegoat, silence and hold Muslim communities domestically and abroad, collectively responsible. As a prison that houses an exclusively Muslim population, Guantanamo is not only an example of Islamophobia, but it also reinforces and reproduces the systematic targeting of Muslim bodies.

As Guantanamo approaches its 14th year of existence, more than 100 men remain behind its prison bars. Through hunger strikes and the sharing of their stories, the men in Guantanamo have a fierce resolve in pursuing their freedom. This fact has emboldened my resolve to challenge the face of this injustice too.

But times are daunting for Muslims, especially for those of us who want to make social change. This reality impelled me to compile a list of things that help me work through my own fear, and give me a sense of empowerment while I continue to protest for the closure of Guantanamo.

1. Talk and convene with other Muslims

I was blessed to be in Guantanamo with a Muslim sister who helped validate experiences around our reality as Muslims that we often suppress to be polite. Building community around shared experiences and uniting around our shared identity creates the groundwork for healing and organizing for systemic change and for the challenging of Islamophobia, whether perpetrated by the state or society. My advice to you, therefore, is to embrace your Muslim sisters and brothers, and find an organization or start a community group of your own.

2. The entire Muslim community is not culpable for acts of terror in the name of Islam.

This remains true although we are expected to apologize and draw a clear line of separation between terror and Muslim Orthodoxy. Since the 18th century, politicizing Islam for purposes of colonization has demonized an entire community and set us at odds with European colonizers. We are the newest inheritors of Islamophobia. We are the subject of someone else's reality that presumes us #innocentuntilprovenmuslim. We sometimes feel compelled to apologize because of a real fear of being targeted. We have real knowledge and actual experience of people in our community being picked out and imprisoned indefinitely – i.e. Guantanamo. Yet, apologies keep the Islamophobic narrative intact and do nothing to address violence at its root causes. We must consider this strategy in all our current and future advocacy efforts.

3. Focus on systemic issues, like ending war and militarism.

Scapegoating of Muslims forces us to choose between a binary: good Muslim or bad Muslim? Both stereotypes disempower us from defining who we are and who we can be. Our right to self-determination is stifled. We can resist that binary and opt out of proving our innocence by focusing on systemic issues.

4. Don't feel the need to hide.

It's scary, even alienating, to take action at our disappointment in the status quo. In Guantanamo, I was one of two Muslims in the delegation, and both of us were well aware of the risks; we constantly had to work through our fears of government repression and isolation. Conceived differently, we reflected that our ability to be our full selves was stifled because of our internalization of the subordinate status imposed upon us. Through tears, knowing glances and late night conversations, we began to overcome the discouragement and shame that are a result of internalized oppression, together.

5. Build alliances with other communities – Muslim and non-Muslim.

muslims and nonmuslims

Decades of organizing around mass incarceration, detention and deportation, colonization, forced removal and genocide show us that racial disparities cannot simply be surmised as “racism” but are part of an elaborate system called white supremacy. Islamophobia is one of many pillars propping up systematic racial and ethnic oppression. When we begin to understand injustice as institutionalized rather than the result of a few “bad people,” we make alliances and change possible. Solidarity makes us all stronger.

6. Talk to your family members about their experiences with Islamophobia.

Ask open-ended questions and make space for them to share without judgment. Care and love are stronger than oppression. Before leaving for Cuba, I shared my trip with my terrified mother who recalled her experiences of being targeted by police and neighbors. Inviting her to share experiences she normally suppresses and assuring her that taking action to end Islamophobia in all its forms can bring change, was grounding for us both.

7. Practice personal and community care.

Create channels for support and demand it. Healing processes help stop the cycle of victimization.

8. Know your rights and fight for them, even if you know they will be disregarded.

Civil liberties are a human right, but the law is often sidestepped in favor of a political agenda. Knowing the law and our rights with law enforcement when taking social action is important for keeping ourselves and our community safe.

9. You define yourself.

Don't be afraid to call yourself an activist and organizer, and don't be afraid to resist definition. Saying change is possible and taking the powerful step towards inserting yourself into the narrative provides inspiration and a safety net for other Muslims to demand justice too.

Muslims resisting Islamophobia and working in coalition towards peace and justice is nothing new. That is so important to remember. We come from a humanity that speaks truth in the face of oppression. As I continue to organize the shutdown of Guantanamo and end oppression of all people, I hope my Muslim family heeds the call to make transformative change towards a democratic society, too.

Uruj Sheikh is a Muslimah living in Secaucus, NJ. She is a member of Witness Against Torture–a community of activists using nonviolent direct action and cultural organizing to close Guantanamo Bay Detention Center and end torture. She  works at the War Resisters League in New York City and is a member of Organization for a Free Society.  

10 Responses

  1. Iffat

    Wow! Informative, assertive and inspirational!! Jazak Allah khair for your contribution to the Guantanamo issue. May Allah grant you success and unite us all as ONE ummah.

  2. christine dorothy

    I think collaboration between all peoples is a fundamental element of a democratic society. So is free speech. It seems criticism of all religions is allowed, but when one questions Islam, Muslims cry Islamophobia, when all that is needed is education. Questions and criticisms allow for more information to be shared, more learning to take place. As a non-muslim, I am perplexed how nice peaceful Muslims can follow the same doctrine as orthodox Muslims in Muslim countries who stone women, hang gays, shred hands, cut off hands and feet and execute people for saying something they don’t like. Could someone explain how this can be? Thank you

    • Yassir

      Which doctrine are you referring to? There are certain doctrines all Muslims are supposed to believe in (e.g. God is one, Muhammad S.A.W is the last messenger, day of judgment, etc.). There are those where even amongst Muslims exist differences of opinion.

      Then there are doctrines only believed by minority of Muslims, which are disagreed by majority of Muslims otherwise.

      This is not a simple matter for simple generalization. I know it can be perplexing – but statistically, any group large enough will have bad apples.

  3. Aafia

    Masha Allah Very useful Practical Tips.I would like to add one more fact-
    Islamophobia has been in our Society since generations.Infact since the advent of Islam.The Early Muslims had to face the worst of Islamophobia.Our dear Prophet,Prophet Muhammad(SAW) has set sn example for us even in this regard-http://islamhashtag.com/how-did-the-early-muslims-respond-to-islamophobia/

  4. Uruj Sheikh

    Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I want to direct y’all to this urgent case of three brothers entrapped by then US attorney Chris Christie and Federal gov. They are up for trail tomorrow morning where they are attempting to prove they were falsely accused of being involved in a terror plot. This could be a huge win, help open the trail and bring justice to them and their family.

    To learn more & support, check out: facebook.com/events/1530507547269733/

  5. Nunio Bizinez

    And don’t rape the women of the country gracious enough to let you into it’s boarders

    • MSH

      Please search google. You will find highest raping rate is in USA and most of the so called liberal western countries. But probably as an ignorant you do not know how to use search engine.

      • Truth

        I think you will find African countries have the highest rape statistics.

  6. Kristy

    Terms like “Islamophobe” and “Islamic terrorist” have been overused and lost their original meanings of applying to the few among the non-muslims and muslims of western societies. Stereotyping is now the norm, and unless mixed group people-to-people activities and steps are taken to both define the terms and identify the profiles of those among us who typify islamophobes and islamic terrorists, there seems to be no end in sight to the broad brush mudslinging and use of these insulting terms to define entire populations.

    Sadly, as far as solutions, the caption “Build alliances with other communities – Muslim and non-Muslim” actually says nothing about how to build such alliances. Where are the details on how to align with like-minded non-muslims and what activities might unified groups engage in to build positive bridges towards such alliances? The statement “When we begin to understand injustice as institutionalized rather than the result of a few “bad people,” we make alliances and change possible; Solidarity makes us all stronger” provides no real strategies and makes no mention of who muslims might align with since the only non-muslim group mentioned under #5 are white supremacists.

    And the rest of the suggestions read like an isolationist, inbred Islamic group encouraging only more isolationist, Islamic inbreeding along the lines of plain old socialism.

    Nothing new here, but beware of why the old was kept at bay.


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