Leadership, Women

Meet ‘Muslim Advocate’ Farhana Khera

Farhana Khera is the Executive Director of Muslim Advocates and the National Association for Muslim Lawyers (NAML). Muslim Advocates is a national legal advocacy organization which promotes freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of faith. Farhana and her organization work tirelessly to make sure American Muslims are equipped with the legal resources they need to navigate the post 9-11 environment, and policy-makers, in turn, are educated about the needs and issues of the community. elan recently spoke with Farhana about her career path, mission and advice for young Muslims.

Tell us about your career, and what led you to your current position as Executive Director of Muslim Advocates and NAML?

I’ve been with the organization since its founding 5 years ago. Prior to that, I worked for 6 years for the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, and worked for Senator Russell Feingold. I advised the Senator on a variety of issues, including civil rights, racial profiling, immigrant rights and the Patriot Act. Prior to joining the Senator’s staff, I was in private law practice for a few years, and worked for a couple major law firms in Washington DC as a litigator. I focused on commercial matters but did some pro bono civil rights work on the side, which underscored my interest in pursuing civil rights.

Describe your role and day-to-day?

My job is to oversee both the programmatic and the operational sides of Muslim Advocates – everything from ensuring that we are making progress towards our goals of ending racial and religious profiling and strengthening charities, to ensuring the computers are running, phones are working, lights are on, and ensuring we are securing the revenues and donations in order to sustain our work. So I wear a fundraising hat, an operational hat, and serve as the public face and advocate.

What is the mission of Muslim Advocates and NAML?

The mission of Muslim Advocates is promoting freedom, justice and equality for all, regardless of faith.  These principles are at the core of the Constitution and at the core of Islam. We go about doing our work using three main tools – legal advocacy, community education and policy engagement.  We educate policy makers about how laws and policies are affecting the community.  We also educate community leaders and members about the law and how they can protect themselves.

Why did you pursue a life in civil rights advocacy?

I can’t point to a single, seminal event, but a series of things. My father’s professional outlook greatly influenced me. He was a physician in a rural part of upstate New York where I grew up. Many of my father’s patients were on Medicaid or uninsured.  He was committed to serving an underserved population.

My parents also immigrated from Pakistan. I was able to reflect on my experience in the United States and what my life would have been like if my parents had not immigrated – having the opportunity of an education, to think freely, to worship as I choose and not worry about government intrusion or government dictating how we can live our lives. I started to learn about that in the classroom and the wonderful values upon which our country was established. We do have something very special in the United States. But these rights and protections have not been just automatic. They have taken generations of Americans stepping forward to ensure our nation lives up to its ideals.

After the horrific attacks of 9/11, and the realization that the American-Muslim community was bearing the brunt of new, overly broad laws and policies, and some of our fellow Americans feeling perfectly fine abridging our rights, it was incumbent on us as Americans and as Muslims to step forward and fight for the founding values of our country.  This fight is also about the future and the role of the United States in the world.  The U.S. at one time was a role model for other nations on respecting basic human rights, and we have the potential to be that role model again.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Muslim youth in America today?

One of the biggest challenges is the anti-Muslim environment that is so pervasive in our country right now. I can’t think of another group of Americans where it is so widely acceptable to say offensive, racist things. Young people are being raised in the kind of environment where your peers may make inappropriate comments, or belittle you because of your faith. Going through the anti-Muslim attitudes that have continued to grow in the last ten years since 9/11 is one of the biggest challenges for young people.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Muslim women today?

Muslim women have many opportunities in the United States, perhaps more so than they would have in most Muslim-majority countries.  But given the increasing anti-Muslim climate in our country, Muslim women do face challenges.  The freedom to practice their religion without facing discriminatory treatment is a significant challenge.  In particular, a heavy burden is born by Muslim women, particularly those who cover.  They are visually identified as Muslim and probably have been subjected to more jeers and sneers, and sometimes even violence, than they would have been 15 years ago.

Your work in the Senate focused substantially on the Patriot Act and racial and religious profiling. How do you think the current administration is doing in these areas?

When Obama was campaigning and during his inaugural address, he pledged repeatedly to restore the rule of law. He expressed in a number of ways that during the prior administration the country had gone off the rails, so to speak, and refused to follow the rule of law. What’s concerning now though is that we haven’t seen the President take significant steps toward fulfilling his commitment to restore the rule of law. The President has made statements that haven’t actually played out in terms of policies. We’re continuing to educate policy makers in both Congress and the executive branch about the impact that overly broad policies have on the day-to-day lives of innocent Americans. We haven’t seen the kind of policy change that we were assured would happen.

How do you feel about the way that the US media handles these topics – racial profiling, Patriot Act, etc?

It has been interesting.  With the rise and development of the blogosphere, there are more opportunities to make our voices heard and for a more diversity of voices to be heard on the most important policies of the day.  In turn, these ideas and thoughts find their way to mainstream broadcast news and outlets. In today’s rapidly evolving media environment—including the growth of the blogosphere, consolidation of traditional media, and newspapers going out of business and reducing staff—we’ve had to be more diverse and creative in how we go about trying to get our message heard, as well as using new technology tools like Twitter and Facebook. There was a day when you could issue a press release or press conference and get a reporter to show up as a primary vehicle for moving your message.  That’s not true today.  We’re able to get our message out through different channels.

What’s an initiative you’ve worked on recently?

Last month, I testified before Congress on the issue of racial and religious profiling by state, local and federal law enforcement. The other witnesses included a representative of the NAACP, a representative of the Sikh Coalition, a police chief and three academics. This was the first comprehensive hearing on racial profiling in Congress in almost ten years. I thought it went great – there were a number of members of Congress who attended and asked very thoughtful questions. This hearing is hopefully the beginning of Congress refocusing its attention on this issue and moving forward with holding the executive branch accountable and taking steps to end racial and racial profiling.

Why did you decide to leave a life in the government?

Having worked in government, and certainly after 9/11, I observed that our community didn’t really have a voice in policy circles or an ability to understand and navigate the legal and political systems.  My founding board members and I believed that, as lawyers and policy experts, we had a unique responsibility to step forward, lend our expertise and do our part protect the rights of the community and our nation’s founding values. Our board members were working in government or law firms; they worked for civil rights organizations like the ACLU.  From our diverse backgrounds and experience, we concluded that we could play a vital role in building a bridge between the community and policy makers.

Who or what inspires you? Who is your role model?

I would say definitely, first and foremost, my parents. Senator Feingold, who I worked for for several years, was also a great inspiration and role model.  Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr. are also great, great role models. Most people know Marshall as a Supreme Court Justice, but prior to that he was a long time lawyer for the NAACP, and was part of legal team in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that persuaded the Supreme Court to ban segregation in our nation’s public school system, a decision that paved the way for other civil rights advancements to come in the next decades.

Your bio says you are an expert on “American Muslim charities.”. What are your thoughts on charities geared towards Muslims in America?

The issue of charitable giving is a matter of religious obligation. For American Muslims, it’s a civic obligation that we take seriously as well too. At Muslim Advocates, we flagged protecting charitable giving and charitable institutions as the first priority issue for our work.  It’s an critically important issue for two reasons.  First, it’s a matter of religious freedom since zakat, or charity, is a religious obligation.  Second, in order for the community to thrive and grow and for Muslims to be able to participate in civil society, American Muslims must be able to build and develop their civic organizations.  As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted recently, much of participation in civil society takes place through civic organizations. However, we realized that the intensive government investigations and prosecutions of Muslim charities were having a chilling effect on donors and institutions.  We decided to focus our efforts twofold – educating charity leaders about good governance practices and legal compliance and educating policy makers about the impact of government policies and practices on charitable giving and community institutions.  We have held educational seminars and webinars for nonprofit leaders featuring lawyers and tax and financial experts.  We’ve also urged the administration to ease legal hurdles to charitable giving.

What’s the first thing you do on Sunday mornings?

I guess it depends on the Sunday! Sometimes I read the New York Times or head out for a stroll in my neighborhood or go for a bike ride. There are some beautiful areas in San Francisco!

What’s the best part about living in SF?

The first thing that comes to mind is the beauty of the area and the city, the rolling hills tucked against the water. I also think of it as a laidback New York City – it has a nice cosmopolitan vibe, but not as intense as New York City. I am from a small town in upstate New York called Painted Post.

Who are you rooting for in the World Cup?

Oh…I’m bad.  I haven’t really been following!

What advice do you have for young Muslims looking to use the legal field to affect social change?

I went to law school in early 90s, and have certainly seen a rise in the numbers of Muslims in law school over the last several years. I also can’t help but think that there is a higher level of motivation by these young people to be involved in not only the law, but also civil rights issues. There’s quite a healthy number of young people across the country who are interested in doing civil rights work.  They seem to understand the important role that protecting civil rights has in protecting our country and all Americans. I think it’s quite promising to see the level of interest that young people have in the law and human rights.



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