Islamophobia manifests in myriad ways that include differential treatment in public spaces, at business establishments, and even when accessing services in public transportation. CAIR-CA keeps a watchful eye for policies that impact the ability of American Muslims to lead full lives as equal citizens.
CAIR-CA’s offices continued fielding complaints involving deprivations of the right to conduct business free from discrimination and of the right to access public spaces because of visible markers of religious identity, such as the hijab, beard or the kufi. In situations such as these, our attorneys advocated on behalf of affected community members by reminding private and government actors about their legal obligations, by utilizing state agencies such as the DFEH to investigate, or, when necessary, moving forward with a lawsuit.
For instance, CAIR-SFBA filed a discrimination complaint with the City of Fremont Human Rights Commission (“HRC”) against payment processor Venmo, a service of PayPal, Inc., on behalf of a prominent community member, for its policy of targeting payments associated with Islam or Middle Eastern nationality or ethnicity.38 In an investigation conducted by Newsweek of several dozen payments on Venmo using various terms, payments with terms like “Persian,” referencing an ethnicity associated with the Muslim-majority country of Iran were flagged and singled out solely on that basis.
On the other hand, transactions mentioning “Cuba sanctions” and “North Korea food,” passed through unflagged.39 The digital advocacy group MPower Change also conducted and tested various transactions, finding that those mentioning Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim were flagged while other terms violating Venmo policies were not. The shocking findings revealed that terms including “KKK” and “cocaine” did not result in a single flag—even though they clearly violated PayPal’s user agreements i.e., that the platform “may not be used to promote hate, violence, or illegal activity.”40
This complaint arose from reports that Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (“AMEMSA”) Fremont residents like our client, Ms. Moina Shaiq, have potentially been denied the ability to use Venmo’s mobile payment service to transfer funds for ordinary activities like donating for charitable purposes and paying friends and colleagues for meals. Ms. Shaiq sent payment to a relative through Venmo as a donation to support a Syrian refugee in Atlanta who was assisting other refugees in the area - information she briefly included in a note. Several hours later, Ms. Shaiq received an email from a Venmo representative asking about her reference to “Syria” in the memo of the transaction and requesting she provide the “purpose of this payment, including a complete and detailed explanation of what [she] intended to pay for and the establishment/location if applicable.”41 Concerned that this was a precursor for singling out Muslims and those perceived as being of Arab or Syrian background, Ms. Shaiq reached out to CAIR-SFBA for assistance. Ms. Shaiq was additionally worried that being flagged for this payment could result in closure of her bank account(s), placement on federal watchlists, and denial of loans.
In response to CAIR-SFBA’s complaint, Venmo indicated that they screened certain payment activities to comply with financial sanctions lists and programs maintained by the U.S. Department of the Treasury and administered by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) . However, additional evidence of blocked transactions involving Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians revealed that Venmo’s OFAC compliance policies were overbroad and had a disparate impact on these communities. Our attorneys advocated to the HRC commissioners that a disparate impact claim for differential treatment existed under California law - especially the Unruh Act - where a business establishment could be held liable for discriminatory actions if it acted intentionally. In response to the complaint, Fremont’s HRC issued a letter to Venmo asking for a refund of Ms. Shaiq’s donation and clarification of their policies as it relates to Muslim, Arab, and South Asian customers who are disproportionately impacted. As of this writing, Venmo has refunded Ms. Shaiq for her payment while CAIR-CA continues to represent impacted individuals and pursue creative advocacy options moving forward.
In an incident involving a refusal to provide services to a visibly Muslim woman, CAIR-LA’s civil rights attorneys stepped in to represent the individual and ensure that her rights were respected. Having gone to a local plasma facility to donate blood plasma, the Muslim woman was asked to remove her hijab before she would be allowed to donate. Prior to her scheduled appointment, the client complied with the facility’s requirements. When she walked into her appointment, she was asked by a staff member to remove her hijab for identification purposes. The client explained clearly that she wore the hijab for religious purposes and as such would not be removing it in public. Moreover, the identification documents she had provided showed her wearing a hijab. When the manager reiterated that the client needed to remove her hijab, she left the facility. Feeling disrespected and discriminated against, the client contacted CAIR-LA’s civil rights staff. CAIR-LA was able to come to terms with the facility for a suitable monetary settlement for the client, and moreover, they agreed to amend their policies to ensure that individuals requesting privacy and accommodations for their religious attire were able to avail themselves of their services and donate.