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How Muslim Americans Are Defending Themselves and Their Communities Against Bigotry

Islamophobia is becoming more widespread and systemic throughout the U.S., but Muslim Americans aren't idly awaiting their ruin.

On an early morning last summer, Ajeyo Yusuf got the fright of his life. "I get a little bit jittery when I talk about this," he says, recalling the incident.

That morning, the 26-year-old from Bangladesh woke up around 5 a.m. at his family's home in Queens, New York. He was answering emails before heading into work at the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, when he saw out the window "a few burly white guys" descend the stairs to his family's basement apartment. The men knocked on the front door and identified themselves as police, which was also emblazoned across the back of their jackets. Yusuf, though, could see through this ruse. "I knew who they were," he says. "They had to be ICE agents."

Yusuf and his family are just a few of the more than three million Muslims in the United States who now find themselves in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump's controversial immigration policies, as well as the hate groups and individual bigots who have been incited by the president's rhetoric.

Trump's road to the White House and his time in office have also been accompanied by a rise in extrajudicial anti-Muslim violence. Just days after the election, the Pew Research Center reported that assaults against Muslims had reached levels not seen since 2001.

But fear among Muslim-American communities is not leading to paralysis. Rather, it is inspiring resistance.

In response to the surge of Islamophobic policies and violence, Muslim organizations have begun training their communities to defend themselves. Founded in 2003 to address the needs of Muslims post-9/11, the Muslim Community Network recently began organizing holistic self-defense workshops.

"Our self-defense classes are unique in that we first offer attendees the opportunity to process current events and discuss how to empower each other through guided questions, and then we move into the self-defense portion," explains MCN executive director Christina Tasca. Following Trump's election, MCN organized a self-defense workshop that filled up its 2,700 slots in just 10 hours. Three more classes were organized after the initial event, and MCN has received funding from the New York Community Trust to provide further workshops.

Desis Rising Up and Moving, a non-profit founded in 2000 to organize South Asian immigrant workers and youth, focuses more on community self-defense. ("Desi" is a catch-all term for those descending from South Asia.) Seventy percent of DRUM's membership is Muslim and a majority are undocumented, putting the organization in a unique position to address the concerns of people like Yusuf and his family, who are twice targeted by the Trump administration's immigration policies.

Perhaps the most popular resource produced by DRUM is "A Brief Guide for Sharing Reports of Raids on Social Media," a one-page PDF that offers readers, both Muslim and allies alike, guidelines for confirming and reporting immigration-related law enforcement activities. While many of the suggestions employ common sense—take photo or video of the scene; don't share unverified reports; if verified, directly notify those you know nearby who could be affected—the guide has made an impact.

"It's been helpful to minimize the number of people who are frantically spreading rumors—not with ill intent so much as just concern," says Roksana Mun, DRUM's director of strategy and training. The non-stop calls of unverified reports the organization had been receiving since the inauguration practically stopped once the guide was released.

DRUM also offers specific training to its members. The organization builds on typical "Know Your Rights" education to provide what it calls "Know Your Rights, Know Your Reality, Know Your Worth." The goal is to not only distinguish between legal rights and the rights actually afforded to those stopped by law enforcement, but to foster the sense of self-worth that makes individual and community empowerment possible. Additionally, DRUM provides guidance and references to members facing racial profiling and surveillance by the police.

Yusuf is a living testament to DRUM's effectiveness. He began attending Know Your Rights trainings in 2011 and eventually started leading them for the organization. He was also forced to lead by example last summer, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents visited his family's apartment. With the help of his younger sister, who also attended DRUM's trainings, Yusuf was able to keep the agents from entering his home long enough for his lawyers, other DRUM members, and neighbors to arrive, effectively scaring off the officers.

The lesson was driven home further the following week, when a neighboring family allowed ICE agents into their apartment; Yusuf believes the mother of that family is now facing deportation.

"The evidence is right there," he says. "The difference between you being deported and having your livelihood destroyed versus you being safely with your family in a place where you call home could be the Know Your Rights training."