YLI Reflections: Combating Islamophobia with Rupa Palanki

My high school history teacher, quoting Mark Twain, often said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” For centuries in the United States, minority groups, ranging from Eastern European immigrants to Japanese Americans, have faced discrimination from more established populations due to a sense of “otherness” that they are invariably perceived to disseminate. This has resulted in dark chapters of history in a nation that prides itself as “the home of the free and the brave.” The recent rise in hatred against Muslims is just another iteration of the same story.

With the 9/11 attacks happening only three years after I was born, life, as I know it, has included a constant undercurrent of backlash in the United States against Muslims. At present, the current administration continues to relentlessly engage in anti-Muslim rhetoric and news headlines continue to blame Islam for select acts of violence perpetuating false, negative perceptions of the Muslim community. At school and in my city, I have personally witnessed how lack of a nuanced understanding breeds bigotry and discrimination. Many people in my hometown in Alabama have never left the state or interacted with Muslims before, and their bias towards Muslims stems from stereotypes that have been perpetrated over generations. And often at college, I am the first South Asian American that my peers have conversed with for an extended period of time, leading them to ask questions about my culture, religion, and language or mistakenly identifying me as Muslim instead of Hindu.

Because of this personal exposure to islamophobia, I developed a desire to better understand the phenomenon and to equip myself to combat it within my community. This, in part, was what motivated me to apply for SAALT’s Young Leaders’ Institute last summer. During the training in Washington D.C., I developed the organizational and leadership tools necessary to carry out effective change. Speakers like Noor Mir and Deepa Iyer shared fascinating insights on different aspects of islamophobia that reinforced the importance of understanding it in the context of institutionalized racism like anti-blackness and colonialism, as well as provided meaningful insights on the resilience and solidarity necessary to work in the social justice field. I appreciated the opportunity to meet activists and student leaders from other colleges and the opportunity to discuss the specificity of our experiences as South Asian Americans. I had never really had the opportunity to explore my identity as a South Asian American so extensively before.

This propelled me to begin to shape my own project that I carried out over the course of the academic year to work against biases within my college community. This spring, I worked in conjunction with other South Asia Society members at the University of Pennsylvania to plan a Symposium for Awareness of South Asian Issues (SASAI), a week-long intercollegiate conference to create awareness for social justice issues and to encourage activism in its many facets. The week’s events included a keynote address from 2014 Miss America Nina Davuluri, a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization fighting malnutrition in South Asia, and a series of discussions covering social issues like islamophobia. With a mix of both fun cultural programming and deep political conversations, SASAI encouraged participation not only from a diverse range of South Asians but throughout the minority community at Penn. By the end of the week, we found it inspiring to see that our efforts to make our campus a more inclusive space for all were rewarded.

Photos from the awareness symposium Rupa helped organize in the University of Pennsylvania.

As the incredibly passionate, intelligent, and socially conscious individuals that made up my Young Leaders’ Institute cohort carry out their projects over the course of this year, I hope to see visible change within the communities that they target, just as I hope that my actions have spurred. However, our work cannot be done alone. As President Obama notably wrote in his final message to the American people as Commander in Chief, “America is not the project of any one person. The single most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the People.’ ‘We shall overcome.’” Together, we must push forward the fight against islamophobia, for this is not a matter of one culture or religion or language or social class; it is a struggle for achieving equality for all people.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization that fights for racial justice and advocates for the civil rights of all South Asians in the United States. Our ultimate vision is dignity and full inclusion for all.




11th Annual NCSO Convening & Advocacy Day

Join us this May for a powerful convergence of NCSO leaders in Washington, D.C.!

The National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO) Convening will gather over 100 representatives from our NCSO partner organizations on May 9, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Not only will it provide the opportunity to build NCSO strength through strategy sharing and problem-solving, but we will work collectively to expand knowledge on policies and legislation targeting our communities. We have also organized space to enhance our skills related to advocacy as well as make for regional and issue based caucuses.

On May 10, 2018 we will head to Capitol Hill for Advocacy Day. NCSO members will connect with government officials and Members of Congress. You will have multiple opportunities to engage with policy makers, from a morning Congressional Briefing to one-on-one meetings with Congressional offices in the afternoon.

To learn more about the 2018 NCSO Convening and Advocacy Day, please review our FAQ . Then, register to attend the Annual NCSO Convening and Advocacy Day where you can connect in person with NCSO members and be a part of building our collective power!

FAQs: NCSO Convening & Advocacy Day 2018


Are the events accessible by public transportation?

The NCSO Convening will take place at the Georgetown Conference Center. Advocacy Day will take place on Capitol Hill, and SAALT will provide a shuttle for all NCSO Convening participants to attend Advocacy Day.

What time are check-in and check-out at the Georgetown Conference Center?

Check-in time to the Center is 4:00pm. Check-out time is 11:00am.

Are the events accessible for those with physical disabilities?

All event venues are accessible. Please contact almas@saalt.org with specific questions or requests regarding physical accessibility.

What is the dress code?

May 9th | NCSO Convening: casual/business casual

May 10th | Advocacy Day: business/professional attire

 Will there be interpreters available for the events?

All events will be offered in English. Registrants may request an interpreter during the online registration process. For additional in-language requests, please reach out to almas@saalt.org no later than March 15, 2018.

 How will I get to the events?

The NCSO Convening will take place at the Georgetown Conference Center. Advocacy Day will take place on Capitol Hill, and SAALT will provide a shuttle for all NCSO Convening participants to attend Advocacy Day. Outside of this, participants are responsible for their public transportation, taxi, and other travel costs while attending events.

Register here.


Almas comes to SAALT as an experienced grassroots organizer and capacity builder. Her diverse portfolio includes tenures with collectives, non-profits, and the federal government, namely, the South Asian Network (SAN), the U.S. Department of State in their South and Central Asia Bureau, Satrang (Los Angeles, CA) and Khush D.C. (Washington, D.C.) Additionally, she has also served on the steering committee of API Equality-LA and the board of National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA). Almas currently serves as the Racial Justice and Equity Committee Chair for NQAPIA.

As SAALT’s Community Partnerships Manager, Almas will work to expand SAALT’s work at the regional level with our community partners in the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), particularly around local advocacy and organizing efforts.  She can be reached at almas@saalt.org


Mahnoor joins SAALT as our first Policy Associate. Prior to this role, Mahnoor worked as a Programs Associate at APIAVote, where she organized AAPI youth in civic engagement efforts on campuses across the country. She also interned at the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project and the Global Knowledge Initiative, and explored the influence of the South Asian diaspora on the 2016 elections in her undergraduate thesis.

As SAALT’s Policy Associate, Mahnoor will support the development and implementation of SAALT’s legislative, administrative, and public policy agenda and activities. Mahnoor can be reached at mahnoor@saalt.org


This Week in Hate: July 17

Prepared for SAALT by Radha Modi

For the first time since the election of Donald Trump, the total number of hate incidents against those who identify or are perceived as Muslim, South Asian, Arab, Middle Eastern, and Asian has surpassed the total from the previous year. Currently, 113 hate incidents have occurred since November 8, 2016. At this rate, we suspect hate incidents for the first year of Trump presidency to be double that of the previous year.

Three major categories of hate incidents are verbal/written threats, physical assaults, and property damage. Verbal and written threats are by far the most common category of hate incidents. These types of threats are typically verbal harassment of the victim by strangers. Recently, a middle-aged white man, Federick Sorell, followed a Black Muslim couple for 20 blocks and barraged them with racist language such as: “Take off the fucking burka, this is America; go back to your fucking country.” Additionally, he threatened to run them over with his car and made a gesture of a pulling a trigger on a gun at them leaving the couple terrified.

Hate incidents such as these not only signal a rise in Islamophobia but also reveal the ways Islamophobia intersects with anti-Blackness and xenophobia. Sorell indicated that he harassed the couple because he was fearful for his life. This is a commonly used defense to justify violence towards Black communities. Further, Sorell yells to the victims to “go back to your country,” an anti-immigrant sentiment that supports white supremacist notions of America as a white only country.  As shown, on-the-ground harassment is often a combination of various forms of hate.  

The fight against hate crimes and racial profiling will then involve collaborative community work across communities of color. South Asians will need to show up on the front lines for issues facing Black, Native, Muslim, Latinx, queer, and immigrant communities as these issues are intersections of multiple systems of oppression.   



SAALT Calls On Law Enforcement To Investigate Bias As Motivation in Latest South Asian American Killings


South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national South Asian civil rights organization, mourns the loss of life in separate killings of South Asian Americans last week in California and Michigan, and demands that law enforcement investigate whether racial or religious animus motivated any of these incidents.

On May 4, Dr. Ramesh Kumar was found shot dead in his car on a highway near Detroit, Michigan. Hours later in a separate incident in Modesto, California, Jagjeet Singh, a convenience store clerk, was stabbed to death by a customer outside his shop. Racial motivations have been alleged in both cases.

“Our communities have faced a hostile climate of hate for years, with particular intensity since President Trump took office. This makes race as a possible motivation in these tragic killings a very real possibility,” stated Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT. “The President’s divisive rhetoric and policies have fanned the flames of violence against our communities since his campaign, and now in his Presidency. Unfortunately, broad swaths of our nation’s residents face hostility and violence as a result of the xenophobic and anti-Muslim rhetoric advanced by President Trump.”

2017 has been a deadly year for our growing communities, including tragic shootings in Kansas and Washington State, numerous arson attacks and vandalism of mosques, businesses, and homes nationwide, and mounting fear experienced within our communities across the country. The nation has seen a groundswell of violence aimed at South Asian, Muslim and immigrant communities, with numerous perpetrators hurling epithets before committing acts of violence against community members. South Asians are the most rapidly growing demographic group nationwide.

These relentless and numerous tragedies build upon the historic violence of the 2016 presidential elections. In our latest report, “Power, Pain, Potential,” SAALT documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Arab, and Middle Eastern American communities during the divisive elections, 95% of which were animated by anti-Muslim sentiment. Notably, 1 in 5 xenophobic comments came from then-candidate Trump.

The President’s rhetoric has been implemented with devastating effect via divisive policies such as two attempts at a “Muslim Ban”, both of which have been halted by the courts. This week the administration is appealing a nationwide restraining order on the latest “Muslim Ban” in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia. SAALT and our allies rallied in staunch opposition to the “Muslim Ban” as part of the #NoMuslimBanEver week of resistance. Lakshmi Sridaran, Director of National Policy and Advocacy of SAALT, stated, “The President may be a businessman at heart, but civil rights do not belong at the negotiation table. SAALT, our allies, and our communities will continue to be at the vanguard of efforts to resist this and any administration’s efforts to strip us of our dignity and justice.”

Contact:  Vivek Trivedi – vivek@saalt.org

Statement on San Bernardino Shooting

We express our deepest condolences for the victims of Wednesday’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, CA during a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center that left 14 people dead and 21 people wounded. The two suspects named by local authorities as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28 and Tashfeen Malik, 27 were killed by police yesterday.

Second Mistrial Declared South Asians Must Be Vigilant and Engaged

November 5, 2015
Contact: Lakshmi Sridaran, lakshmi@saalt.org

SAALT is outraged that a second mistrial was declared on November 4, 2015 after a deadlocked jury once again failed to convict Madison, AL police officer, Eric Parker, on a civil rights charge brought against him by the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year. Parker was captured on video beating Indian grandfather, Sureshbhai Patel, to the point of partial paralysis in February after Patel, initially identified by a neighbor as a “suspicious Black man,” repeatedly told the officer he could not speak English. The U.S. Department of Justice re-tried the case after the first mistrial was declared in September.

“While the trial was supposed to focus on the unreasonable use of force that Parker used on Patel, it was Patel’s immigration status and English proficiency skills that were really on trial,” said Lakshmi Sridaran, Director of National Policy and Advocacy at SAALT. Indeed, in his opening remarks, Parker’s attorney said: “When you come to the U.S. we expect you to follow our laws and speak our language. Mr. Patel bears as much responsibility for this as anyone.”

“We continue to believe in the strength of the evidence and that the defendant’s actions violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiff,” said Bhavani Kakani, President of AshaKiran.

As we see time again with police brutality cases in this country, particularly with Black victims, the message of this case is loud and clear: that police brutality rarely warrants punishment. Dante Barry, Executive Director of Million Hoodies United, noted: “It is absolutely devastating to hear the news from Alabama as it reflects a deep pattern of unfairness for people of color. Although grounded in anti-blackness, police brutality by law enforcement and immigration enforcement is no stranger to South Asian communities and it is indicative of this political moment to be on the path to justice.”

SAALT encourages South Asian Americans to be vigilant and engaged in the efforts of the movement for Black lives to draw attention to the ways in which Black communities in particular, as well as other communities of color, are facing state violence. “The case of Mr. Patel provides an opportunity for South Asians to become active participants in the demands of the movement for Black lives,” said Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of SAALT.

14 Years Later: Still Under Suspicion, Under Attack

Today, the 14th anniversary of the tragic events of September 11th, South Asians are the most rapidly growing demographic group in the country numbering over 4.3 million. Yet, as our communities continue to grow in new, unexpected, and longtime destinations, we are increasingly the targets of hate violence, suspicion, and surveillance. Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and those perceived as Muslim have borne the brunt of a continued post-9/11 backlash, reflected in policies that cast our communities as un-American, disloyal, and suspect. Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities were swiftly targeted for “special registration” through the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program just months after the events of September 11th. Through NSEERS, more than 80,000 men were required to register with the federal government; thousands more were subjected to additional interrogation, detention, and deportation. Nevertheless, this extensive and misguided program did not result in a single known terrorism-related conviction. A surveillance system first deployed against the Black Freedom Struggle, adapted for NSEERS, and then evolved to spy on Muslim communities through FBI mapping programs is now in the third stage of its evolution through the current Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which single-mindedly focuses on Muslims to identify and crack down on violent extremism.  The same system continues full circle today to surveil  Black Lives Matter movement leaders.
The current political debate continues to poison and inform the national discourse about our communities and immigrant communities at large. SAALT captured this troubling dynamic in our September 2014 report, Under Suspicion, Under Attack,which tracked a nearly 40% increase in xenophobic political rhetoric from our previous 2010 report. Furthermore, over 90% of these comments were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment.  Some of the most egregious political rhetoric from presidential candidates Donald Trump and Jeb Bush, among others has currently labeled immigrants as “illegals” and “anchor babies.”  This wholesale and unacceptable language implies some do not have the right to be in the United States, the quintessential nation of immigrants.
Fourteen years after increasingly xenophobic political rhetoric and misguided federal policies painted our communities as disloyal, monolithic, and suspicious with no results, Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities appear to increasingly be the targets of hate violence. SAALT’s report, Under Suspicion, Under Attack, also documented 76 incidents of hate violence against our communities from January 2011 through April 2014. Over 80% of these incidents were motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. In fact, the most recent FBI hate crime statistics released last year show that anti-Islamic hate crimes are at their highest since 2001. 2015 has seen a wave of violent incidents aimed at Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. In February,three Arab Muslim students at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill were gunned down execution-style, apparently due to their religion. Later that month, a  Pakistani Muslim man and father of three in Kentucky was shot and killed in his car after dropping his daughter off at school. This week a Sikh man in Chicago was approached by another driver who yelled “terrorist go back to your country” and violently beat him in his own car, requiring hospitalization. And we cannot forget when a known white supremacist walked into a Sikh house of worship, or gurdwara, and shot and killed six Sikh community members in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012. Earlier this year a vicious and deadly attack by a white supremacist in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, left nine Black community members dead. We join other communities of color to address the growing threat of white supremacy that has burgeoned nationwide. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of white supremacist groups in the United States has grown over 54% from 2000 to 2014.
Now more than ever, South Asian communities need and deserve trust with law enforcement at multiple levels as we grow in number and continue to be targets of violence. In response, SAALT developed a proposal and successfully advocated for the creation of the White House Interagency Task Force on Hate Violence last year. We are working to ensure the task force focuses on the unique barriers our communities face with law enforcement to report and prevent hate crimes, particularly after the revised Department of Justice Profiling Guidance was released last year, including exemptions for national security, border security, and state and local law enforcement. We have seen what happens when our communities are victimized rather than protected by law enforcement: earlier this year Sureshbhai Patel, an Indian grandfather in Madison, Alabama, was beaten to the point of partial paralysis by a local police officer in his son’s neighborhood. He was mistaken for Black, recognized later as a South Asian immigrant with limited English ability, and ultimately brutalized by law enforcement.
To truly realize our values as a nation, everyone is entitled to equal protection under the law. Our communities deserve to know their rights, feel empowered to report hate violence, address xenophobic political rhetoric that will certainly surge further in this election cycle, and build meaningful relationships with government and law enforcement. In order for our communities to flourish as we grow, we must advance policies that uphold our core American values of diversity, inclusion, equal rights, and protection for all.