10 Questions: Civil rights lawyer Farhana Khera fights for religious freedom for all Americans
Farhana Khera is no stranger to hate. As the executive director of Muslim Advocates, she and her staff work with volunteer lawyers and dedicated faith leaders across the country to stand up to hate and bias through education, advocacy and litigation.
Khera helped found the Oakland, California-based nonprofit after 9/11. Since that time, she’s led challenges to discriminatory policing practices, advocated for families of hate crime victims, and assisted travelers caught up in the Trump administration’s travel ban.
Most recently, in the wake of the deadly racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Muslim Advocates filed a suit against a neo-Nazi website for defamation and threats made against an American Muslim comedian. Every day brings a new challenge for Muslim Advocates, and Khera warns that the challenges are far from over.
You’ve been on the inside of the fight for civil and religious liberties for a long time. I’ll just be blunt: How bad is it right now for American Muslims?
At the time we started this organization 12 years ago, we never envisioned that things would get so much worse for the Muslim community. Things have definitely turned in a way that we didn’t expect.
How important is the pro bono help of other lawyers to what Muslim Advocates is able to do?
The pro bono support of the legal community is crucial to our success. I can’t underscore it enough. After the election, we immediately started planning. What is this new order going to be like? What do we need to be preparing for? We received an outpouring of support from lawyers across the country wanting to get engaged. We’ve been deepening some of our impact litigation work, and we’re also looking to create a legal support network to leverage the outpouring of legal support and to match that up to individual community members who need legal help. There has never been a more important time for lawyers, and specifically American Muslim lawyers, to be leading the defense of attacks on the values that we hold dear.
Is there an accomplishment or a victory you’re most proud of?
In terms of legal victories, I am thinking of the decision in Hassan v. City of New York, a lawsuit against the New York Police Department. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit—a three-judge panel that was a mix of Republican and Democratic appointees—ruled unanimously that we had presented sufficient facts that the police had engaged in unlawful surveillance of Muslims to survive a motion to dismiss. Then, just a couple of months later, there were presidential candidates and politicians calling for mass surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities—reminders that even though we’re securing these legal victories, we still have a lot of work to do to change and shift public attitudes toward Muslims so that these legal victories can be true victories.
Before founding Muslim Advocates, you worked for then-Sen. Russ Feingold, and you advised him on civil rights issues ranging from the death penalty to racial profiling and the Patriot Act. You co-wrote the initial drafts of the End Racial Profiling Act and organized the first congressional hearings on racial profiling. How did you get interested in public advocacy and civil rights work?
My interest in civil rights came about in a couple different ways. My family emigrated from Pakistan, and I grew up in a small town in New York called Painted Post. As a child, we would periodically visit relatives in Pakistan, and I would observe the differences in opportunities and in freedom of movement. I was able to go to school, learn how to read and write, and get an advanced degree—in contrast to extended relatives, particularly female relatives, who could not read and write. That early consciousness of being in a restrictive society stayed with me and sparked an interest in civil rights work. I started my career in private practice; and when I was at the firm, I took a couple of cases pro bono involving employment discrimination and I really enjoyed working on those matters. It really opened my eyes to wanting to make a difference on a macro level. I wanted to have a bigger impact. I was working in Washington, D.C., at the time, so I started looking for jobs in government. In 1999, I joined the staff of then-Sen. Russ Feingold.
And that’s where you were on Sept. 11?
Yes, when I saw firsthand how instantly the federal attention became focused on people of my faith community.
Have you ever been targeted for your religion?
I personally have never been targeted for a hate crime, thankfully. But a Muslim member of my staff was threatened and harassed on the BART train by another young person. This is in San Francisco, which you assume is a progressive area of the country! Bias isn’t confined to certain areas of the country. It’s everywhere.
What’s the most common misconception about Muslim Advocates?
That we are Islamic law experts. Our focus is on the Constitution, on protecting constitutional rights for all Americans.
On the topic of misconceptions, do you think you are dispelling misconceptions by being a woman who leads a Muslim organization and by not wearing a hijab?
Unfortunately, there are Americans who have the misconception that all Muslim women wear a hijab. That Muslim women don’t speak up. That they’re seen but not heard. That’s not the case in the United States. If I am dispelling those misconceptions as a byproduct of what I am doing, that’s a good thing.
It must seem like you could stay at work 24/7, that the challenges will never end. But there has to be some room to relax. What do you do to unwind?
I am a Green Bay Packers fan. When it’s football season, I like to watch my team and follow what they’re up to.
I did not see that coming! How in the world did you become a Packers fan?
I attribute it to working for Sen. Feingold. And I appreciate that it’s the only publicly owned team in the NFL. It’s the fans who own the team. Power to the people!
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “A Crisis of Faith: Civil rights lawyer Farhana Khera fights for religious freedom for all Americans."