Censoring Ourselves – Zahra’s Story

The story below was excerpted from the January 16, 2018 Wired Magazine Article, 6 Tales of Censorship in the Golden Age of Free Speech featuring four very different stories of censorship, including Zahra Billoo’s – a Civil Rights Attorney, Executive Director of CAIR and Class XXXIII Fellow. Her words and experience remind me to pause and pay attention to who is in the room. Do I have the courage to leave room for a voice – or online post – that I disagree with? Do I suspend judgement and truly listen? Do I feed a polarizing narrative? I appreciate Zahra’s willingness to go big and share. – Suzanne St. John-Crane

ZAHRA BILLOO, Civil rights attorney

Years ago, on Memorial Day, I tweeted about how I feel conflicted around the holiday. I wasn’t sure how to honor people who I believe died in illegal wars. My tweets got picked up by the far right, and twisted into a narrative about how the Council on American-­Islamic Relations, where I work, wanted to cancel Memorial Day. My tweets didn’t come close to suggesting that, but Fox News did a story.

It escalated. I got hate mail for days on end. At work, we stopped answering the phone for a week because of the vitriol. Now we get a renewed spate of threats each Memorial Day.

Then, in 2016, at the Democratic convention, Khizr Khan gave a powerful speech. But again I felt conflicted. He was doing incredible work but on a platform that was given to him because his son had fought and died in another illegal war. This time, though, I didn’t say anything. I was worried about fallout. I talked to others who felt as I did, but we all hesitated to voice our concerns publicly. I went to bed that night and had this very distinct thought: “I hope Glenn Greenwald will write about the irony of what the DNC was doing.” I’m a civil rights lawyer, an American Muslim woman, and I went to bed hoping that a white man would say what I felt I couldn’t.

When I was inundated with threats years back, I had been married. Now I was living alone. I look over my shoulder, I make sure all the gates are closed. My apartment complex has security cameras. I live very differently as a single Muslim woman. Some right-wing supporters of the military will say the army men died to preserve my freedom of speech. But if I use that speech, they say they want to kill me.

— AS TOLD TO MARIA STRESHINSKY

For the full article featuring James Damore, Ijeoma Oluo and Laura Moriarty, click here.