Khera: “Each and every one of us has a responsibility to make sure our country is living up to its ideals”
Washington, DC – Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates, attorney, and longtime civil rights advocate, recently sat down with fellow Wellesley alumnae Amita Parashar Kelly to recount her time on campus – running for college president in a hostile environment and forming al-Muslimat, the first Wellesley faith group for Muslim students; her experience working in the Senate Judiciary committee on September 11th; her decision to form Muslim Advocates, after witnessing a “a real, tremendous void…and that was the need for the community to have a voice in the courts and in the policymaking process”; and the way the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and policies have changed her work.
The profile titled “Having Faith in America” is excerpted below or available online in full here.
“The ban, enacted through executive orders, has been through a couple iterations, and is now is being challenged in court through several cases, including one by Muslim Advocates.
The organization also created a reporting form on its website for people detained at the border that is a window into the current climate. The form asks questions like: “Were any electronics examined or copied?” and “Were you asked to share your social media accounts or recent internet browsing history?”
Whiteboard calendars hang on the walls in Khera’s unassuming office in downtown Oakland, Calif., to track upcoming events. In the few months after Trump’s inauguration, she traveled nearly every other week to fund-raise, meet the American Muslim community, and lobby.
Khera, an attorney, recently attended oral arguments in D.C. district court, packed mostly with opponents of the immigration ban in the case. The organization filed to fight the ban along with partner organizations. The lawsuit argues that the ban violates the United States’ guarantee of religious freedom and equality by preventing some Muslim organizations from bringing scholars to America.
Khera’s senior year, she ran for College Government president in an election she remembers as fraught with tension. In the year before the election, when it came time to fund student organizations, she says, CG favored existing organizations. They declined to fund several new ones, including a South Asian student group she also helped start. The situation created a lot of animosity, and she remembers several students launching an anonymous campaign against her presidential candidacy. “They put up posters around campus [reading] ‘Don’t Support Farhana. She Doesn’t Support You,’” and left her what she calls “nasty” voicemail messages on her room phone, she says.
She won the election, and recalls advice from Nan Overholser Keohane ’61, then president of the College, that she clearly still lives by every day—even 25 years later. “You know, Farhana, this is basically politics,” Keohane told her, “and if you’re going to be in politics, you have to have a thick skin.”
“Nan had been through a lot of very tough fights” herself, Khera says, from the College’s divestment in South Africa to reconsidering its need-blind admissions policy.
That thick skin is serving Khera well these days. Anyone would need it—and comfortable shoes—to spend five minutes in Khera’s life. She is the target of hate on Twitter and blogs “on a regular basis,” she says. One user recently tweeted, “islam IS NOT a religion but an ideology of a pedophiliac psychopath killer” and another “SHAME on you! How is the travel ban affecting 6 of 50 Muslim-maj countries a Muslim ban? Have you no shame?”
Khera’s desire to become a lawyer was motivated by a passion for human rights. Being raised in upstate New York, she says, came with “a lot of freedoms to be able to do what I want, practice my faith however I want. If I want to go ride my bike, I can go ride my bike.”
When she visited relatives in Pakistan, she says, she “would see how differently situated my relatives, particularly my female relatives, [were].” Several of Khera’s more distant female relatives are illiterate, having not been given the same access to education as she was. “And freedom of movement [for women] doesn’t exist,” she says.
So all of those freedoms “you could easily take for granted in the U.S.” She recognized from an early age that “not everyone is treated in this way, and that these are certain fundamental freedoms that we should all have.”
FILLING A VOID
As the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Khera had just started as counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“I was actually in a meeting with a colleague who worked for a Republican senator about potentially getting her boss to co-sponsor [a] bill to end racial profiling,” she remembers. “Little did I know.”
The conversation around racial profiling, which until that point had centered around traffic stops, exploded “in an instant,” Khera says. Suddenly, there was a national security element, talk of surveillance of Muslims, and ultimately the Patriot Act.
Signed fewer than two months after the attacks, the act made it easier to electronically surveil and, in some cases, wiretap citizens. It drew condemnation from American Muslim and civil-liberties groups and opened Khera’s eyes to how vital it was for her community to have a stronger voice.
“I had literally a front-row seat” during that time, she says, “and saw that suddenly, all of these laws and policies were being proposed and even enacted, that were directly affecting my faith community. But my faith community was not at the table.”
“We saw a real, tremendous void,” she continues, “and that was the need for the community to have a voice in the courts and in the policymaking process.”
The need to help her community find its voice during important policy decisions eventually moved her to cofound Muslim Advocates in 2005, along with other Muslim lawyers who had made similar observations.
“We had now seen this really enormous threat to our ability to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as our fellow Americans,” she says, “based simply on our faith background.”
Khera has now been at the helm of the organization, which has a staff of 10, for 12 years. In 2012, the group challenged the New York Police Department’s surveillance of American Muslims in coffee shops, halal delis, mosques, and universities. The organization is currently in settlement talks with the city of New York.
“What makes America great is that everyone is treated equally under the law,” Khera said in a statement at the time.
In 2011, she testified on Capitol Hill in the first-ever hearing on protecting the civil rights of American Muslims. She has appeared on CNN several times and earlier this year co-wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that the second version of Trump’s immigration ban is still illegal.
Today, Khera says, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the policy and advocacy work she does—even in her own family and community.
The real turning point, she says, has come in the past few years when people see the need for her work advocating on behalf of the Muslim community in the courtroom and on Capitol Hill.
“In the last year or so, even with the older generation, I feel like there’s been more of an awakening,” she says. “I think as their kids have gotten older and are starting to have kids,” they have more firmly planted roots in the country. They are starting to realize, “oh, yeah, my grandkids are going to be affected by what’s going on.”
STANDING AT EASE IN A STORM
In the midst of the angst and fear so prevalent in their communities, Khera and other community leaders express a remarkable sense of resiliency and optimism that the climate will improve.”
Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy and educational organization that works on the frontlines of civil rights to guarantee freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths.