One on 1 with Sumayyah Waheed
“I think it’s really important to remember that the First Amendment is a limitation on government power.”
In this One on 1 interview, we are joined by Sumayyah Waheed, a Senior Policy Counsel at Muslim Advocates. Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working to ensure American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination. Waheed’s work has covered issues from the criminal legal system to workers’ rights, racial justice, and tax policy.
Sumayyah Waheed: I think it’s really important to remember that the First Amendment is a limitation on government power
Max Nosbisch: Hi, everybody. Thank you for tuning into this episode of The First Amendment museum one on one interview series. I’m Max Nosbisch the manager of visitor experiences here at the First Amendment Museum. Today I’m joined by our very special guest, Sumayyah Waheed. Sumayyah, thanks for joining us, and if you want to introduce yourself.
Sumayyah Waheed: Thank you, Max. Pleasure to be here. My name is Sumayyah Waheed, and I’m the Senior Policy Counsel at Muslim Advocates.
Max Nosbisch: So Sumayyah, do you think the First Amendment is important and what do you think its purposes?
Sumayyah Waheed: Yeah, so I definitely think the First Amendment is important. As a member of minority faith in particular, the protection of the freedom of religion is really important to me. So the First Amendment protects both the free exercise of religion and protects against the state’s establishment of a religion, and that those are just two of the protections included in the First Amendment. We often think about free speech as one of the primary protections included in the First Amendment and again that’s not all the first bit and also protects the power of people to petition their government, the freedom of the press, and taken all together, it protects our ability to vote kind of express ourselves whether it’s religiously, artistically, politically or otherwise, and to engage with our government and, and hold our government accountable. So I think it’s really important to remember that the First Amendment is a limitation on government power. And the way we look at it at Muslim Advocates, when it’s, you know, for example, students inherently by being a student in a school, you have less power than the teacher or the administrator. Prisoners in a prison have much less power than guards and prison officials. People have much less power than police. And so it’s really important in those cases, in those circumstances, for us to be certain that the First Amendment is being respected and complied with.
Max Nosbisch: So what is Muslim Advocates, and what kind of work you all do?
Sumayyah Waheed: So, Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization that provides expert representation to American Muslims in the courts, in the policymaking process, and in the public dialogue. So we also work alongside communities on the ground to fight hate and discrimination against American Muslims and all marginalized communities. And then, we work to celebrate and defend the full diversity of American Muslims, including Black Muslims, LGBTQ+ Muslims, immigrants, and Muslims of all races, colors, and creeds. Our work includes litigation, policy advocacy, and public education, and working with those in power, from school boards to Congress to enact change.
Max Nosbisch: What are some of the achievements Muslim Advocates have accomplished that you are most proud of?
Sumayyah Waheed: So Muslim Advocates was a leading voice fighting former President Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and Africa bans. We led a coalition of faith and civil rights groups and worked with members of Congress to support the no-ban Act, a bill that would close loopholes and immigration laws and prevent future presidents from enacting another Muslim ban or other discriminatory immigration ban. The bill was passed by the House, and we’ve been working to get it through the Senate. We also sued the government on behalf of Muslim ban victims who were wrongfully denied visa waivers. And recently, a judge ordered the government to work with us to create a new process that will ensure that Muslim ban victims can resume their visa application processes without having to start all over. So that was a great victory. And, of course, the work is ongoing. In addition, Muslim Advocates had the honor of working alongside the family of Muhamm Muhaymin Jr., a Black, disabled Muslim who was arrested and killed by Phoenix police officers while trying to take his service dog into a public bathroom. During the arrest, officers kneeled on his neck, mocked his Muslim faith, caused him to cry out, “I can’t breathe,” and call for his mother before he died. The family sued the city of Phoenix, and when a judge outrageously barred the press and public from witnessing the family’s lawsuit, we intervened and got another judge to unseal all the court records partially on First Amendment grounds and publicize the case. And then another example is, a County in Virginia abruptly changed its rules to prevent a Muslim nonprofit from building a cemetery for the needy. So we sued on their behalf, and then after that, the county rescinded the ordinance and paid our clients half a million dollars. And just recently, the nonprofit broke ground on the cemetery, which will be, which they’ll use to provide low-cost burial services to local Muslims in need.
Max Nosbisch: I saw that you were featured in a few articles about social media’s role in spreading hate speech, racist and bigoted propaganda, and more. So what are your thoughts on that? And then, what do you think social media companies need to do? I guess, to be more responsible arbiters of speech?
Sumayyah Waheed: Yeah, so a lot of social media platforms do have policies and rules against hateful conduct, hateful content, or incitement to violence, and they just don’t enforce those rules. And so that’s the first thing they need to do is really enforced them, invest in enforcement, and enforce fairly. So some companies will over-enforce the rules against people who might be political dissidents or otherwise marginal voices, and they’re actually not violating any rules, but because their kind of identity or their cause is not favorable to people in power, basically, the platforms will silence them. And then, in contrast, when powerful politicians like openly spew hate on their social media, we don’t see any kind of enforcement. So we want companies, the social media companies, tech companies to enforce their own rules and do it against the powerful and not just serve as another conduit to elevating powerful voices that really try to incite hatred and bigotry.
Max Nosbisch: So beyond your work with Muslim Advocates, how do you utilize the First Amendment in your everyday life?
Sumayyah Waheed: Well, like I said, as a minority religion, I think just by practicing my faith that’s how I utilize the First Amendment. I think I would be politically active no matter what I did for work. So definitely, I would be utilizing my speech and petition rights and teaching my kids to do that too. And I think on the… on the other hand, I do engage in some self-censorship, but I think as a member of a community that has been surveilled and targeted by law enforcement, at least for 20 years and… and really, it goes back farther than that, you know, collectively, we Muslims tend to be careful about you know, our like communications and things that we say so, you know, there’s like a joke amongst us, like, “you can’t be Muslim and say bomb,” right? And it’s hard for me to even say that as a joke, right? Because we know that there is a lot of surveillance on our communities and going back to the online world, a lot of our activity online is tracked. And so the effect of it is, in the First Amendment context, we call that a chilling effect. And so knowing that your community is viewed as inherently suspicious or inherently criminal means that we tend to be careful about what we say so that we don’t unwittingly, even jokingly, confirm some of those inherent biases that exist both in, like, law enforcement at large, but also through mass media, just in the culture in our society at large. So I think that that’s a struggle, and that’s why kind of the First Amendment is a… is a work in progress, just is.
Max Nosbisch: Awesome! Well, thank you so much for joining us, Sumayyah. I just want to give you the opportunity if you have anything you want to promote, get out there, anything Muslim Advocates is doing, working on, anything you’re doing or working on–anything you want. Now’s your time to plug it for anybody who could be watching this.
Sumayyah Waheed: Well, I would say stay tuned on our social media, and I’ll give you the links to that. We do plan to have digital and know-your-rights webinars that I think the community will benefit from, and hope to see you there.
Max Nosbisch: Awesome. Thank you so much!
Sumayyah Waheed: Thank you.