City leaders, citizens rally against Islamophobia

Marissa Page, City Editor

Hundreds of Evanston and Chicago residents, community organizers and religious leaders gathered at Evanston’s Fountain Square for an anti-Islamophobia demonstration Tuesday evening, a few hours before the fifth Republican primary debate.

Recent statements from Republican presidential candidates such as Donald Trump, who called for a ban on allowing Muslims to enter the United States in light of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks, have prompted a national discussion about Islamophobia. Lesley Williams, head of adult services at Evanston Public Library, said those statements were significant in her decision to organize the #StandWithMuslims, Stand Against Islamophobia demonstration for the night of the GOP debate. More than a dozen local organizations co-sponsored the event.

“I had a few days of vacation last week, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I organize a community rally against Islamophobia?’” Williams said. “Most of us have been expressing … our outrage at the amount of anti-religious bigotry we’ve been hearing in political campaigns, from public officials, from religious officials, and we felt that we needed to do something about it.”

The rally commenced with a blessing from the Quran, the central religious text of Islam, delivered by Tahera Ahmad, Northwestern’s associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement. Ahmad made national news in May after she posted on Facebook about being discriminated against for being Muslim on a United Airlines flight.

In addition to Williams and Ahmad, four speakers addressed the crowd, among them community organizers, religious leaders and Bushra Amiwala, a Muslim high school student at Niles North High School in Skokie. Collectively, they urged attendees to actively fight Islamophobia in their communities by listening to their Muslim peers and speaking out against anti-Muslim discrimination.

Renner Larson, communications coordinator for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said the contributions Muslim-Americans have made to both the city of Chicago and the country at large strengthen society as a whole.

“We are not here only because American Muslims deserve to be safe in their own country, we are also here because we, as non-Muslims, know that we are stronger because American Muslims live in this country,” Larson said.

Like Larson, fellow speaker Gabriel Machabanski, who works for Open Communities, a social justice group that works to combat housing discrimination in Chicago’s north suburbs, is not Muslim. He said non-Muslim allies like himself must be mindful of the needs of the Islamic community.

“I would encourage those of us standing against, yet not experiencing, Islamophobia to be proactive about elevating Muslim voices and be sure not to speak for Muslims,” he urged. “We must listen first, then ask, ‘How can we be supportive of you?’”

Several local leaders were present at the rally, including University President Morton Schapiro, Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) and Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin. Religious leaders such as Rabbi Andrea London of Evanston’s Beth Emet synagogue and Rev. Michael Nabors, senior pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Evanston and the event’s final speaker, were also in attendance.

Nabors said Trump’s recent statements were a “symptom” of the “disease” of Islamophobia in America.

“The recent vitriol that has become political spoil for many in our nation is unacceptable to most in our nation,” Nabors said. “The candidate running for our nation’s highest office, Donald Trump, has assumed the lowest and most revolting assumptions. His anti-Muslim rhetoric in which he calls for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States is reprehensible.”

At the end of the demonstration, Williams urged attendees to promote the rally on social media by posting pictures and using the hashtag #StandWithMuslims. She said she hoped spreading word of the rally would help inspire Muslims and allies across the country to host similar events.

“This is not the last step,” Williams said. “This is the beginning.”

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