SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – U.S. President Joe Biden spent his first day in office last week reversing multiple immigration policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. One, in particular, was the 2017 travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries, which Biden referred to as discriminatory.
The move was praised by several groups and organizations including the Emerald Project, a Utah nonprofit organization that formed in 2017 shortly after Pres. Trump signed the executive order for the Muslim ban.
“I was working as an interpreter for Catholic Community Services at the time in 2017 and I worked with a lot of people from Iraq and Syria, both of which were on the Muslim ban list,” said Nora Abu-Dan, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of the Emerald Project. “Just to see the horror in their eyes because they didn’t know when they were going to see their families again, to see something that was enacted hastily out of fear, to see that it didn’t matter if someone was trying to flee from religious persecution was disappointing and heartbreaking.”
The organization kicked off its first event nearly four years ago with a three-part series held at the Marmalade Public Library called, “Is Islamophobia real?” It eventually flourished into the first of many conversations that encompassed a diverse group of audiences including the FBI, local and state politicians, and citizens who are both Muslims, and non-Muslims.
In August 2019, the Emerald Project partnered with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts to host the “Ummah” Museum Exhibition that addressed Islamophobia and challenges of Muslim community members face. Abu-Dan estimates that there are approximately 60,000 Muslims who live in Utah.
“It was a need to just finally get up, make a change, and stop talking about it. We just kept hearing rhetoric about Muslims being dangerous and terrorists. For once, we just didn’t want to sit around and talk about it,” said Abu-Dan.
Satin Tashnizi, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Emerald Project said their organization’s mission is to combat the misrepresentation, misinformation, and unfamiliarity of Islam and prevent another Muslim Ban from ever happening again. Both she and Abu-Dan said they’ve experienced their own incidents of Islamophobia growing up in Utah.
“Not all Islamophobia is blatant and outwardly hateful. I think the bulk of the Islamophobia that I experienced were in my high school and college classrooms. I opened up textbooks and saw my identity so deeply misrepresented and synonymizing Islam and Muslims with terrorism. As a student of Middle Eastern studies, it was deeply disturbing,” said Tashnizi.
“I’ve had managers or co-workers saying I can’t have one of two celebrations off from work because it was surrounded by the lunar cycle. It’s hard to explain your faith when it’s presented in one negative light,” said Abu-Dan. “Sometimes Islamophobia is blatant and on-purpose, other times it’s out of pure ignorance and people not knowing.”
Tashnizi remembers how the events of the 9-11 attacks nearly 20 years ago brought Islamophobia in the U.S. to one of its peaks.
“When something as tragic as the attacks on 9-11 happens on U.S. soil, we need a culprit. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s not always the time to understand what the key differences between the terrorism and ideology that fueled the actions of 9-11 and the peaceful religion that is Islam,” said Tashnizi. “I think one, some people needed someone to blame and so a lot of people turned to Muslims. Some Muslims were pulled out of cars and beaten badly. I think those misunderstandings were never truly rectified and there was no real incentive for those who didn’t know to find out.”
Abu-Dan said some common misconceptions that persisted about Islam were that Muslim women were forced into marriages, it was acceptable in their religion for Muslims to “blow themselves up” or commit honor killings, or that Jihadists belonged to Islam.
“A lot of things are fueled by what people may see in TV or in movies or in the news or media. I think everyone has put all of that in a box and say, ‘This is what Islam is instead of going to a Muslim and learning what the truth is,” said Abu-Dan.
The conversations, panels, and discussions hosted by the Emerald Project can be difficult and sometimes, uncomfortable because no topics are off the table. However, the organization invites controversial conversations and tough questions but also prioritizes maintaining a neutral environment in order to achieve mutual understanding and allow everyone to feel comfortable with talking through their opinions.
The Muslim community itself has its own challenges. Tashnizi said that with a number of Muslims being immigrants and refugees, there can be a lack of communication between people of different ethnic backgrounds including Iranians, Arabs, Bosnians, Malaysians, Indians, Pakistanis, etc. For first-generation Muslim-Americans, they often face challenges and difficulties with embracing and feeling safe with their identity.
Both Abu-Dan and Tashnizi said there is a still a need for the services and resources that the Emerald Project provides, despite President Biden’s repeal of the Muslim ban. While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the organization to suspend their in-person events, they’ve adapted by shifting their discussions online through social media and streaming platforms. The positive takeaway is they’ve been able to reach a bigger audience.
“From an organizational and personal perspective, our work isn’t done. At the end of the day, we live in a country where a Muslim ban survived for four very long years and it took the pen of a brand new president to repeal that and that’s extremely concerning to me,” said Tashnizi.
“I think a lot of people are still scared of Muslims. As the Emerald Project, we are going to find those root causes, root feelings, and root thoughts that led to this. That way when you do judge a Muslim, it will be because of their character and not their faith,” said Abu-Dan.
For more information about the Emerald Project, visit their website.
To watch the full IN FOCUS discussion with Abu-Dan and Tashnizi, click on the video at the top of the article.
Catch IN FOCUS discussions with ABC4’s Rosie Nguyen weeknights on the CW30 News at 7 p.m.