Activist Zahra Billoo Says Check Your Privilege, Focus On Your Faith

For Billoo, part of the struggle is not in the outcome, it’s in the practice of having faith.

By

Ameena Qobrtay
Art - Shayma Al-shiri

This feature is in partnership with Asian American Journalist Associations’ Muslim American Task Force with the mission to uplift Muslim community members. 

You may have seen her before, standing up for Muslim’s rights on TV or shutting haters down on Twitter. Zahra Billoo is a civil rights lawyer and executive director of the oldest chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), located in the San Francisco Bay Area. CAIR is a grassroots funded civil liberties organization that defends Muslims across the nation, with headquarters in Washington, D.C. and chapters across the nation. 

Since the very beginning of her career, Billoo has proved that she won’t let Islamophobes or white supremacists shut her down. At CAIR, she took on some major cases right from her start, combating entities from Hollister to the FBI. 

But even FBI agents couldn’t rattle the young Muslim lawyer. She shared that because she represented so many cases against them for a number of years, FBI agents would “talk trash” about Billoo to her own clients. 

Now more than 10 years later, Billoo is still keeping up the fight, and not letting anything slow down her fight for justice – not even a global pandemic. 

During the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, Zahra shut-Islamaphobes-down-and-protect-your-peace Billoo isn’t losing hope or giving up the fight. Just recently, she penned an open letter, along with 200 Muslim activists, to condemn the death threats againt Congressional candidate Amani Al-Khatahtbeh.

The activist talked with Muslim about what coronavirus means for many of us, how exploring faith can benefit us during trying times, and ways people can rethink their privilege. 

Billoo first discussed how the “No Ban Act” – the federal legislation to repeal the Muslim ban – was scheduled to go for a vote on March 12, which didn’t happen due to the spread of the virus. The activist described her disappointment with the unfortunate turn of events, especially since according to Billoo, it took a lot of hard work to get there.

Despite the activist’s concerns over passing legislation after the coronavirus pandemic in whatever “the new normal” looks like, Billoo also talked about how this pandemic should remind people to check their privilege. 

 

Zahra Billoo and Mina Kim in conversation. Photo by Ed Ritger.

 

She said, “I’m also hopeful that for so many people, the reality we’re experiencing right now is an important reminder about our privilege. If we emerge from this healthy, and with jobs, we will have an obligation to help our neighbors, our friends, our brothers, our sisters, our community members.” 

Billo described something that not many have said will come from the COVID-19 experience – empathy. 

She said, “Someone said the other day that like we’re not working from home, we’re at home trying to avoid a virus and trying to work. It’s not business as usual, and that gives us an opening to dig deep to empathize and to think about how we support each other.” 

The activist also discussed how she remains hopeful during times that are as difficult as these. Billoo talked about “leaning into faith,” and remembering that as Muslims, our work is judged on intention, not outcome. 

She said, “We have to submit to the fact that the outcome is not in our control. One of the common examples is that we are supposed to tie our camel, and trust in Allah. So we do have an obligation to tie the camel. But it’s not just tying the camel, it’s also trusting in Allah.”

For Billoo, part of the struggle is not in the outcome, it’s in the practice of having faith. She discussed the importance of not getting too wrapped up in results and remembering that this life isn’t permanent. 

The lawyer also discussed the importance of taking care of our mental health, especially during a time of heightened anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Billoo shared that she goes to a therapist regularly, which is not something that many activists discuss. 

Besides remaining hopeful, Billoo suggests that people should connect with family and their community, and to try to increase our service during this time. 

She said, “For those of us who have privilege, really dig deep. As Muslims we believe that we should give from what we love, and so the question that I always ask myself is, if I truly love something it’s going to be uncomfortable to give it. And that’s what I want people to lean into right now. 

“Lean into some slight discomfort. If I have not lost my job, can I give more to charity than I ordinarily would? If I have my health, can I put on a mask, find a charity that is serving people who are unhoused or food insecure and help them… Every person has varying kinds of privilege. And so I’m not wanting to tell people what exactly they need to do, but saying this is a moment to really do more.” 

Billoo’s tips come as a change of pace from most of our social media feeds that are riddled with more materialistic goals about “chasing the bag” or being productive for our own sakes. After all, Ramadan is the right time to follow our good sis Billoo’s sound advice. 

 

For a great source of information and more advice, cat pictures, and snaps of her amazing baking creations, you can find and follow Billoo on Twitter.

 

About AAJA’s Muslim American Task Force

The Asian American Journalists Association’s mission is to ensure accurate and fair coverage of AAPI communities and, more broadly, communities of color. More than 60 percent of the world’s Muslim population is in Asia and, as such, AAJA created a task force to develop resources for journalists covering Muslim/Muslim American communities and ongoing changes to U.S. immigration policies. The task force seeks to improve coverage of Muslim American issues and serve as a resource to journalists covering Muslim American communities. Learn more at aaja.org.