Resisting Islamophobia in the Workplace: An Interview with Chaumtoli Huq

illustration of fingers pointing at woman wearing a hijab
June 27, 2017
Gabriella Lifsec

What caused you to choose your current path of work?

At the moment, I direct an organization called Law at the Margins. It basically tries to provide legal support to community based organizing and uses the tools of media. We use social media but also create original content. This is a really new endeavor and I came to it after 20 years as a lawyer, and much longer in my role as a community organizer and needing a place to use all the tools that are available to make change.

Who would you say your main audience is for Law at the Margins?

It is presented as a hub for activists and lawyers. It’s an interdisciplinary and collective site and so it brings really a wide cross section of folks who are committed to social justice; that’s the central principle.

As the editor in chief, are you currently working on any specific projects concerning worker’s rights that you can share with me? Or is it really other people contributing to the website?

In my role in Law at the Margins, I produced a documentary on garment workers in Bangladesh. I’m screening that on April 24th in different cities throughout the United States. That’s the anniversary of the building that collapsed with the 1100 workers. We do a lot of work around the concept of global labor solidarity and this has been my work for many years. Now I’m just trying to bring that under the umbrella of Law at the Margins. Right now, because we don’t really have funding, we don’t have the capacity to do the individual casework, but eventually what I envision it having is this interdisciplinary feel of focusing in on issues in the movement. Our priority right now is focusing on freedom of association and right to organize. We have a few webinars that focus on that. There are a lot of labor issues and ways you can get involved but given that we’re one newly formed outfit, and we don’t have any funding, we wanted to just prioritize on what we though was most important. This was removing barriers for people to self-organize, whether it’s in a community or as workers.

Have you been in Bangladesh helping to produce this documentary?

I was born in Bangladesh, and most of my career has been working with low wage workers in the United States, mostly New York, and I then had to go back and forth to Bangladesh. In 2014 I went there in a formal role as a senior researcher to look at the labor conditions after the building had collapsed. Labor conditions changed after the 700 workers died, so with the interviews and research I was doing, I realized that it was better to have the workers tell their own story. Rather than me summarizing what they were saying and then putting it into some kind of academic journal, I thought what would be the best way to communicate their perspective. I’m not a filmmaker but that seemed like the best medium and so I teamed up with a local filmmaker in Bangladesh and we produced a film based on my research.

In terms of a U.S. centric perspective, I was wondering what similarities or differences, if any, you’ve observed in terms of worker discrimination and organizing in the Latino and the Muslim communities? The reason for this specific comparison is that we’re looking at Islamophobia in the work force but I’ve also done a lot of research on Latinos in the workforce, so I’m curious about those two groups.

While not a huge number, there are Latino Muslims, when we talk about organizing in these communities I think we have to first keep in the back of our minds that these are diverse communities. When we talk about Muslim communities, Muslim communities are extremely diverse. About one third of the Muslim community is African American, that means they’re born in the United States, not immigrants. Even though the image of the Muslim American is typically an immigrant, I think part of that has to do with a lot of anti-blackness across the board. Even when you look at immigrant organizing you focus primarily on Latino immigrants organizing but there are statistics that show that proportionally to the population, black immigrants actually face greater rates of immigration detention and removal. Underpinning both is not looking at the racial dynamic on how these categories are even created. I wrote a piece called the “Muslim Working Class” and found that when we looked at communities in these very narrow categorical ways, we lose that diversity. When we lose that diversity we also lose the potential for organizing. For me it’s not diversity in the face of necessarily oh “okay I want to acknowledge you”, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. But actually I’m looking at it from an organizing lens. It takes away our ability to build deeper connections across communities.

With that being said, we have to understand, as we’re doing more direct outreach to specific communities, in the context of the landscape in which they’re operating. This is the kind of bigger frame that I’m mentioning. What you’re mentioning is as you’re reaching into the specific communities, their issues might be different, but not necessarily. For example, a lot of Muslim workers, (well first of all we don’t have data on Muslim workers, and Muslim aren’t necessarily seen in that way,) but if we break it down this way, they’re similar. The fast food movement, for example, is often considered as lead by black workers in the fast food industry. What we don’t see is how many of these black workers are Muslim, so were losing any kind of data in the ability to see that. We’re seeing fast food workers as black workers organizing, not as Muslim workers organizing. Similarly, if we look at rate of underemployment of the black community, it is the same thing. If you figure statistically, a third of the Muslim community is black. Then, when we look at the percentage of the black community that’s Muslim, you could say that any sector of black workers organizing is going to be black Muslims organizing. We’re not appealing to them in that way.

Beyond that, for immigrant Muslims at least in NYC, a vast majority of those who are in retail, in fast food, Taxis, and the domestic care industry, are Muslims. Because we characterize them based on their work we’re not seeing the way in which islamophobia is directly impacting rank and file workers. In NYC you might remember there was a transit worker who wore a hijab and her hijab was pulled off. If you google it there’s an article about her case. That case was just presented as an instance of islamophobia, but it also should have been seen as an instance of workplace safety. What is the transport worker’s union doing? Although the assailant was just a passenger, what is the city doing to protect transit workers more generally?

Do you think with that, while also acknowledging the diversity of the Muslim population and from a labor organizing perspective, do you think it’s still powerful to focus on organizing certain minority groups or do you think a more general approach is necessary?

Organizing is one on one, you appeal to the person you’re organizing. You have to organize based on the full experience. What I think is that the labor unions don’t do a good job at acknowledging the Muslim workforce.

So it’s more understating who is part of the Muslim community in the U.S.

Not even the community who is part of their membership. You don’t have to go out of the community to see how many Muslims are in your unions membership. Because there is so much fear around expressing your religion, it lets the leadership really creates this space. It also creates a space for understanding how Islam plays a role in the members lives. We’re not going to know so much about that. You don’t have to go outside your union or your labor organization, you have to acknowledge who’s in your organization.

And is Law at the Margins one of the places that people can look to get help and information on that?

In terms of interventions, like writing to get people to think differently, that’s really kind of our role at the moment. In terms of full scale organizing we’re probably not at the capacity to do that. But if a union wanted to invite us to talk about islamophobia and how they can change their corrective bargaining agreements to reflect islamophobia, we could. Are they recording instances of hostile work environments, meaning co-workers saying things like oh you’re Taliban. What is the union doing to educate its members about islamophobia? There’s so much work that needs to happen, even within the organization. In terms of workshops, definitely Law at the Margins can be a resource.

Now a little more generally about action and what we can do. I read the post you made after the election where you suggest being present for others and also call upon the lawyer community to continue working for social justice. But aside from representing people, as a lawyer, do you have any recommendations for students to effectively organize against the current administration’s policies?

For students, while law and representation is one piece, I think we really need to get back to the basics of organizing. Students get their training through campus organizing. One of the current organizing efforts that’s happening nationally, which Law at the Margins has done a webinar on, is sanctuary campuses. Students can get involved in making sure that their university is in fact a sanctuary town not just in name, but what are you doing at the individual level. Are you connecting with the Muslim students on campus? Are you connecting with the immigrant students on campus? Are you making the link between all that’s been happening and criminalization of black students? They’re all actually connected and I think student can play a really important role and have been actually. A lot of the excitement and momentum has come out of the sanctuary campus organizing.

And the second is New York just passed a kind of free tuition. I think that there should be some focus around making education accessible to working families, because I think about my own personal experience. I was raised by a single mom, I was able to receive the educational opportunities I have now and I went to law school. I got involved in labor issues, for the large part because of my background. Having those educational opportunities for working families is really key. City universities should be free for the working class. It used to be free but there are a lot of elected officials who are older who benefited from low tuitions. It was when the public and city universities were pretty white. Now that the public and city universities are predominantly students of color then its less affordable. That’s a fight that is going to go under the radar just cause there’s more attention around immigration and islamophobia. One of the things that I try to do in my work is focus back our attention on the economic structure that also could close this inequity. This is more for marginalized communities every indicator when you look at black communities or other communities of color, when you say race and class together it shows up worse. It doesn’t mean that making these opportunities is going to do away with racism but at least opening up these economic opportunities will be much more helpful for a lot of the communities. The tuition is a huge thing and I fear that that might just get lost because it’s not seen as sexy in comparison to deportations and hate crimes. There’s something about it that feels less urgent. To me those kind of economic opportunities are generational, because of generational shifts.

Thank you for speaking with me and sharing your expertise.

Thanks for taking the time to do this!