I Traveled to Geneva to Deliver a Report on 'Stand Your Ground'

Muslims can't afford to be silent about these dangerous laws, says a Florida-based civil-rights activist.

Ahmad Abuznaid, 29, serves as the legal and policy director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based group working to halt the spread of "Stand Your Ground" policies to others states, push for reform in Florida, and engage and train a new generation of social-justice activists.

This week, he joined a coalition of American civil-rights activists in Geneva to report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee about what they see as the dangerous and deadly effects of Stand Your Ground policies. Abuznaid, a Palestinan-American, is also a Muslim. Islam has become one of the fastest-growing faiths in the United States. In Geneva, Abuzinad has wondered why Muslims — the frequent victims of hate crimes and blanket suspicion — have not been more vocal about the dangers presented by Stand Your Ground. 

Abusnaid shared his views with National Journal's Next America project.

As a young, Palestinian-American man, I am extremely worried about the proliferation of Stand Your Ground laws and the ease with which they have been adapted, and even expanded. I'm so worried that I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, with a coalition of like-minded partners to present our concerns about the effects of Stand Your Ground policies to the United Nations Human Rights Committee this week.

International bodies such as the U.N. Human Rights Committee were created to bring broad, global attention to injustice. Late last year, U.N. experts called on our federal government to complete its investigation into the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teen whose death brought Stand Your Ground policies to the world's attention. But with global injustice on the agenda, there must also be practical rules and limits. For instance, our entire group had just two minutes to discuss Stand Your Ground laws, police brutality, and the inherent racism which drive both.

Still, those two minutes contained truth, power, justice, and love.

The shadow report that our group developed and presented to the committee laid out the ongoing assault on people of color and women, complete with statistics and stories of real tragedies that have occurred because of Stand Your Ground policies. We highlighted the stories that have become a part of all of our lives — Trayvon, Jordan, Marissa, Ricardo, Jonathan, Renisha. Unfortunately, they aren't the only human beings who have been taken from us or lost their liberty due to Stand Your Ground policies and their grossly uneven and inconsistent interpretation by prosecutors, police, and juries.

To be clear, Stand Your Ground policies effectively give state sanction to those gun owners who are inclined to view certain human beings as targets, threats, and dare I say "enemy combatants". Many of the cases referred to above were animated by a very real "Us vs. Them" dynamic and ended in utter tragedy. People committed to peace or at least no plans to engage in violence were pitted against those committed to violence then armed with weapons, the legal protection provided by Stand Your Ground laws and the confusion they seem to create for juries.

As a young man born in East Jerusalem who has lived in the West Bank and South Florida, I know violence, I have been afraid of violence, and I certainly know what it's like for that violence to be tied to racial/ethnic differences, ignorance, and outright racism.

However, here in the U.S., most Muslim and Arab communities still have not joined the forefront of the fight against Stand Your Ground. No disrespect meant to those championing other causes within the Islamic community. There are those out there which I personally admire and support. With that said, I do think Muslims have to break the barriers. We have to get involved in more than just stopping the "anti-sharia" legislation popping up around the country.

We must be aggressive and vigilant in making this country better for all, including us. Muslims have been revolutionaries everywhere, even here in the United States of America. Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and others were able to utilize Islam in the civil-rights movement to push forward the issues plaguing black America at the time. Most boxing historians would acknowledge that Ali was never known as the "Greatest" because of his boxing prowess. He earned that moniker because of the man he was, and still is today, the things he stood for and the things he continues to stand for. He lost everything refusing to serve in an unjust war against other people of color. For that, he is a hero to us all.

While Muslim communities often lag behind in overall civic engagement, we are certainly at risk of falling victim to the many injustices that plague the country. In a society with growing levels of Islamophobia, and decades of anti-Arab/Muslim rhetoric and images in the media/entertainment industry, Muslims have become a "suspect group." Even people perceived to be a part of the Islamic community have experienced discrimination, abuse, violent and deadly attacks, spying, entrapment, deportations, and arrests. After the horrible tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, I was immediately the subject of jokes regarding Arabs and Muslims. Statements such as "Your cousins went crazy" and "Don't mess with those Arabs" were thrown around often. The real danger of the thinking behind those jokes have became more apparent in the years since 9/11.

Today, Stand Your Ground policies make me fear that the next time a bigot with a hot temper is at a gas station, or patrolling "his" neighborhood, the victims could be a group of young Arab kids wearing keffiyehs and blasting Mohammed Assaf's latest hit, or a group of Muslims heading to the mosque, who happen to use the phrase "Allahu-akbar" ("God is greater").

So, as I prepare to return from Geneva, I wonder: Where are the Muslim and Arab communities on these issues? How long will we remain silent and allow others to decide our fates?

The Dream Defenders and other groups are on the ground in the state of Florida, organizing and educating people about the injustices that Stand Your Ground laws facilitate. There is space in this movement for those who are fighting Islamophobia.

The dream so eloquently described by a man who drew the world's attention to 20th-century injustices, Martin Luther King Jr., belongs to Muslims, too. The dream belongs to Arabs, and any other people who have been marginalized but are not willing to give up.

We, too, must be the power behind social change.

Ahmad Abuznaid serves as the legal and policy director of The Dream Defenders. Follow him on Twitter @diplomatesq.


Are you part of the demographic that is the Next America? Are you a catalyst who fosters change for the next generation? Or do you know someone who is? The Next America welcomes first-person perspectives from activists, thought leaders and people representative of a diverse nation. Email us. And please follow us on Twitter and Facebook.