The Next Wave in Civil Rights Heroes: CAIR-New York’s Aliya Latif Channels a Bit of Erin Brockovich

By Yara Souza

July 23, 2009

“Law and Order” might be her go-to television show, but CAIR NY’s Civil Rights Director Aliya Latif asserts Jack and Abbie had nothing to do with her choice to lunge at a law degree. The tough time she endured wading through law school prepared her that much more to be dedicated and commited to organizing and mobilizing American Muslims. Plus, her work for CAIR (Council of American-Islamic Relations) has enhanced her exposure to the spectrum of discrimination cases facing the community.

The utmost professional and modest to a tee, the only time Latif slips is when she says the word “water” in her native New Jersey accent. In this Profile interview with elan, Latif takes her noteworthy duties and accomplishments all in stride.

Q: How has your experience working for CAIR been thus far?

A: The experience has made me into a tanner, more clothed version of Julia Roberts from Erin Brockovich! By that comparison, my role as CAIR-NY’s civil rights director has given me an opportunity to experience the realities on the ground through meaningful interactions with my clients, community leaders and advocates, and as such has allowed me to better vocalize the concerns and aspirations of the New York Muslim community to offending agencies, elected officials and media.

The past two years have definitely been EMOTIONAL: I’ve met the human faces behind the statistics. It’s hard not to become desensitized and compare the egregiousness of one case to another. To mention a few: I remember talking to the father of a Yemeni student who was locked in a closet by classmates, telling him to go back to his country while his teacher was well aware of the whole ordeal.

It’s been HUMBLING: To iterate my Sunday school teacher’s mantra that there is good in every situation: I’ve learned in the process to better articulate myself to different audiences and personalities.

Fortunately, it’s also been EMPOWERING: It’s this indescribable feeling of being told not once, but twice, that you are the first woman to speak in front of a congregation in a mosque.


Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the Muslim community?

A: First, we need to take a more proactive role in defining ourselves as American Muslims and take every opportunity to provide a positive representation, especially in the media. Also, Muslim institutions need to learn how to better specialize. We need to stop being mic-happy and willingly pass it over to individuals based on merit.


Q: What’s next on your to-do list?

A: In terms of ongoing projects, three stand out: CAIR-NY sits on the steering committee of a diverse coalition of 80-plus organizations pushing to have the two Eids incorporated in the NYC public school system. After several years of advocacy efforts on the part of the Coalition of Muslim School Holidays, City Council recently voted in our support.

Second is working on the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition, a New York-based group of lawyers, activists and community leaders created after the release of the 2007 NYPD report on homegrown terrorism. The effort is part of our Safe While Free campaign that aims to preserve national security interests without unduly infringing upon civil liberties.

Lastly, I’ve joined a taskforce of national leaders on behalf of CAIR that plans to address intra-Muslim issues through a process of reconciliation and healing. The effort emphasizes the importance of common purpose and activity to achieve that end.


Complete this sentence: On Sunday mornings, the first thing I do is…

Make a silent prayer that I didn’t sleep under my bed sheets so there is one less thing for me to do when I get up.


What’s the one thing you can’t live without on a daily basis?

It used to be Coke…now, I think it’s my iPhone.

Take us through what an “average” day looks like for you, Aliya.

I wake up, hopefully in time, so that I begin my day with forehead, nose, hands, knees and toes on the floor pointing to Mecca. I rush to catch the NJ transit, talk to random people on the transit and later on the subway. During the day, I get a phone call from my mom asking what I ate. And in between, my main task is to handle complaints of discrimination from intake to logical resolution that disproportionately impact the American Muslim community.

Photo Credit: Mike Fitelson



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