x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

A Muslim woman's battle against American bigotry

As America's biggest city faces a budget crisis and recession, one Muslim woman is advising its mayor on creating a more inclusive society

Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American, oversees the welfare of New York's immigrants.
Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American, oversees the welfare of New York's immigrants.

NEW YORK // Fatima Shama worries about a rising climate of bigotry directed towards American Muslims. As New York's commissioner for immigrant affairs, her job is to oversee the welfare of the city's 2.9 million immigrants, but as a Muslim herself, she is particularly aware of the plight of her co-religionists.

Recent events such as the Fort Hood shootings by an American-Muslim doctor and the failed Christmas Day attempt to blow up a US airliner by a Nigerian Muslim have again shifted the focus on to Muslims. Many are concerned that the trial expected in the next year or so of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, accused of masterminding the attacks of September 11, could lead to greater persecution and hate crimes. "Fear is rampant in the Muslim community for any number of reasons. 9/11 is still very raw and it's going to get raw all over again," Ms Shama said. "I really do think the times ahead are going to be tough ? but specifically to Muslims and to anyone perceived to be Muslim. I think we saw that greatly after 9/11 even in communities who had nothing to do with 9/11, like Sikhs and Latinos."

Ms Shama was appointed commissioner last August by Michael Bloomberg, the city's mayor, who has been accused of insensitivity towards Muslims, as when he made a solidarity trip to Israel during its assault on the Gaza Strip that killed almost 1,400 Palestinians one year ago. Ms Shama, whose father was Palestinian, said Mr Bloomberg's trip and statements on Gaza were among the many subjects she has debated with the mayor, whom she has publicly defended for his efforts to educate himself about the diverse city under his leadership. Her appointment signalled to many New York Muslims that Mr Bloomberg had considered some of their criticisms as he embarked on his third term as mayor this month.

Regardless of the politics, Ms Shama, who was previously a senior education adviser to the mayor, said she was focused on the steps needed to create a more inclusionary society as the city faces a budget crisis and recession. Ms Shama speaks Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian, while her background illustrates the kind of interfaith respect and dialogue she is now trying to foster across the city she was born in. Her father was a Muslim from the West Bank and her mother a Brazilian Catholic, and they with their five children celebrated all the major Islamic and Christian holidays.

Ms Shama, 36, said: "My parents really respected each other's faith and just learned to celebrate it." She and her older four siblings were baptised into the Catholic faith, but they were also taught about Islam. "Fundamentally, my parents made a decision and made sure that we all understood that it was essential you believed in God and that we would grow up to pick something," she said. "My mother would say in Portuguese, 'Go with God', and my father would say in Arabic, 'God be with you' ,every time we left the house or were kissed goodnight."

She said she discovered Islam as a religion rather than a set of cultural requirements when she went upstate to the State University of New York for her bachelor of arts degree. She left home to go to college over the mild objections of her parents, who, despite their different religions, shared socially conservative values about the role of women within the home. "My appreciation for Islam was what I was now learning and it was so not what I saw growing up. I decided at this point this is who I was and who I wanted to be so I started to pray, started to fast," Ms Shama said.

"I recognised for me that Islam was not hijab. I remember saying to my father that I have to be an educated woman if I am to be a mother because I will impart that knowledge to my children. In fact, women probably need more education that men do." She is married to a Syrian Muslim and they are raising their two sons as Muslims although they also celebrate Christian holidays such as Christmas with the rest of her family.

Ms Shama went on to law school but became more interested in government and civil society, specialising in health and education policy before becoming involved with American-Muslim groups after the September 11 attacks. In recent months, Mr Bloomberg has been lobbied heavily by some American-Muslim groups to close public schools on each of the two Eids. Muslim schoolchildren number about 100,000, around 10 per cent of the total in public schools. The mayor has yet to make a final decision but has said that such a move would go against his aim of increasing classroom time for the city's children, a goal shared by Ms Shama.

"I hate to say this but as a community, as a Muslim community, there are many things to be considered, with Fort Hood unleashing some of the reality and fears that are still quite rampant," she said. "I don't know that I think Muslim school holidays are the pre-eminent issue. If I had to choose, I don't know that's what I would be spending my time on as an advocate, as a Muslim, as a mother. "I'd be more concerned about the teachers in the schools, in my children's classrooms, my friends and neighbours understanding us as a people and knowing that I wasn't the 'enemy'."