"What are you taught to do when you read a legal textbook?" Khaled Beydoun asked his audience at Michigan Law during his Martin Luther King Jr. Day talk. "We're taught to obey the law. So if the law is telling us that specific people are inferior, that specific people are presumptive of some sort of threat, and then societal attitudes are going to embrace that presumption. They are going to obey the law."
Beydoun, an associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law who focuses on critical race theory, visited Michigan Law on Jan. 16 to lead the event "Politics, Protests, Law, and Islam." Beydoun spoke about Islamophobia, the ways in which the law enforces fear against the Muslim community, and how activism can be used to push back against those fears.
One of the main focuses on Beydoun's talk was intersectionality. "I think that one thing that's always driven me was living in a place like Detroit," he began. "I myself am American, my mom comes from Egypt, my father from Lebanon, but my neighbors were overwhelmingly poor and working class, African American, Arab, and white. That experience forced me to grapple with dismantling stereotypes not only of Muslims but also of people of color at large. That's what drove me to the law. That's what drove me to academia."
As an example of how intersectionality among different communities has influenced his life and his work, he reflected on his experiences traveling to Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, to protest after high-profile police shootings. "I tend to view struggles and things that I care about along lines of principle, so if a community is oppressed, I feel that it's incumbent upon me to lend any resources I have to that struggle. It was important for me to go to Ferguson, to go to Baltimore, to these places that as an Arab American, I wasn’t being marginalized, but other people were. A great affinity drove me to be in those places."
Beydoun recalled the specific events that transpired in Ferguson for his audience, recounting, "I grew up boxing, so I’ve always been a fighter. Fighting is my natural habitat. But being on the ground in Ferguson, I remember the militarized police, I remember the tanks, and I remember the gas canisters being thrown. For me, it was really humbling because it didn’t matter that I was a professor, it didn’t matter that I was educated, it didn’t matter that I had these credentials; I was just another brown person on the ground."
Despite his own heavy involvement in protests, he stressed to the audience that he defined activism broadly and that "you don’t have to picket or hold a sign up or march to be an activist." He encouraged his audience to engage in a variety of ways, from starting conversations about Islamophobia to using their existing platforms to support and promote people whose voices are more marginalized.
Alliances and coalition building, he emphasized, are particularly important components of activism. "I personally don't believe that you have to belong to a specific community to function as an ally or support of that movement," he said. "Muslim Americans in this country don't have the numbers to do an effective job to rebuff all of this hatred coming from society and from the state." Especially in the current divided political climate, Beydoun said, "We need numbers, we need bodies, we need allies."
Speaking to the law students in the audience, he recommended three forms of action in particular: first, to protest not just as law students but as individuals; second, to lend their legal insights to protect the First Amendment rights of protestors; and third, to continue engaging in activism even if discouraged from doing so. "There are hurdles in the way that students who are critical in nature have to overcome," Beydoun said. "It's incumbent upon you to have the energy and the proactive spirit to take part."
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