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23 January 2018

How it feels to be a Muslim in Trump’s America

 I have had to warn my ten-year-old daughter not to join in the anti-Trump conversations on her school bus; to keep her head down and avoid any political discussions. I worry for her safety.

By Mehdi Hasan

Timing has never been my strong suit. I moved to the United States from Britain only a few weeks before Donald Trump declared that he was running for president in the summer of 2015. Trump launched his primary campaign by smearing Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, and by the end of the year he was calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”.

As a Muslim immigrant in America, I won’t pretend that I wasn’t concerned – for my security, for my kids, for our future in this polarised country. Over the course of a bizarre, 18-month presidential election campaign, I watched and listened in horror as Trump declared that “Islam hates us”; falsely claimed that Muslim Americans celebrated on 9/11; attacked Barack Obama for visiting a mosque; and lambasted Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the ultra-dignified Muslim parents of a US soldier who was killed in Iraq in 2004. (The Khans had criticised Trump in a speech at the Democratic National Convention, after which the billionaire said of Khizr: “If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”) When asked by NBC how his proposal for a database of Muslims living in the US differed from the Nazi registry of German Jews in the 1930s, Trump responded: “You tell me.”

“What have I done?” I asked American friends and colleagues at the time. “Thirty-six years on God’s green earth, and this is the time I decide to move to the United States? Seriously?”

Bad timing, indeed. I am now trying to raise two Muslim-American daughters, who are ten and five, in the age of Trump. It isn’t easy. On election night in November 2016, as the results from Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania poured in, I suggested to my American-born wife that we should consider moving back to the UK. I also asked her to be extra-vigilant the following morning when she was out in public – only a year earlier, she had been accosted in the street in Washington, DC by a man who called her a terrorist and demanded she took her headscarf “out of my city”.

In the 12 months since the new president entered office, I have had to warn my eldest daughter not to join in the anti-Trump conversations on her school bus; to keep her head down and avoid any political discussions. I worry for her safety. Over the past year, 42 per cent of Muslim Americans reported that their children had been bullied at school, according to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. This was more than four times the rate of the general public.

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Yet the biggest anti-Muslim bully of all sits in the Oval Office. Trump is often dismissed by his many critics as erratic, inconsistent, an empty vessel. Yet there is nothing erratic, inconsistent or empty about his fuelling of anti-Muslim hatred. There has been no “pivot” away from Islamophobia in office; rather, the president has doubled down on his bigotry. He appointed white nationalist fellow-travellers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, from the anti-Muslim Breitbart News website, to senior positions in his White House. Both have since been sacked – but what about Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who called Islam “a toxic ideology”, or his housing secretary, Ben Carson, who said he opposed putting “a Muslim in charge of this nation”? Or the president’s CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, who has accused mainstream Muslim-American organisations of being “tied to radical Islam” and “potentially complicit” in terror attacks on US soil? 

Trump has also been quick to use Twitter to denounce angrily any terror attack carried out by a Muslim, anywhere in the world, while either ignoring or responding with only brief and bland statements to mass killings by white Christians. The president has even stoked anger by tweeting about imaginary terrorist attacks (for example, in Sweden in February 2017 and the Philippines in June 2017) while also retweeting posts by far-right, Islamophobic activists such as Jayda Fransen, the deputy leader of Britain First.

After an Isis-inspired terror attack in Barcelona in August 2017, Trump tweeted a debunked rumour about a US general during the Philippine-American War who supposedly killed his Muslim prisoners by shooting them with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. The implication was that America could learn from this horrific example. “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught,” read the president’s tweet. “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!”

So how did Trump respond to a bomb attack on a mosque in Minnesota in the same month as the Barcelona tragedy? An attack deemed an “act of terrorism” by Minnesota governor Mark Dayton? With online silence, of course. 

The Trump era has been marked by a record number of attacks on US mosques. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of FBI figures, the number of assaults against Muslim Americans has now surpassed “the modern peak reached in 2001, the year of the September 11 terrorist attacks”. Two months ago, as I was walking near Capitol Hill with a Muslim friend visiting from the UK, a woman shouted out at us: “You people should get your countries to treat your women right.” (For the record, the head of government in our country is a woman; the head of her government was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.)

Muslims in the United States, who make up between 1 and 2 per cent of the population, were already a marginalised and demonised minority before the Trump presidency; now it seems to be open season on us. Yet Muslim Americans, many of whom do feel justifiably anxious and vulnerable, aren’t going anywhere. They have been part of the United States since the very beginning: between a quarter and a third of the slaves brought over from Africa are believed to have been Muslim.

This is the key point that was acknowledged by President Obama – who, lest we forget, Trump repeatedly suggested was a secret Muslim. “Islam has always been a part of America’s story,” Obama told an audience in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in 2009, his first year in office. He pointed out how Muslim Americans “have enriched the United States” since the founding of the republic: “They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government… they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic torch.”

So how have these Muslim Americans – “largely assimilated, happy with their lives, and moderate”, to quote a much-discussed Pew study from a decade ago – responded to the unique new threat posed by the Trump presidency? What has changed for them over the past 12 months and, in particular, for those Muslim Americans involved in politics, policy and community activism? I decided to find out.

The White House aide

In the summer of 2011, Rumana Ahmed was 22 and fresh out of college. “Post-9/11, I was among the many [young Muslims] who had a cynical view of government,” says Ahmed. Yet she accepted a job withthe White House Office of Public Engagement, and within three years had been promoted to the National Security Council, becoming a senior adviser.

The headscarf-wearing daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants – “I was the only hijabi in the West Wing” – Ahmed hoped to keep working in the White House after Obama left office. “I thought I should try to stay on the NSC staff during the Trump administration in order to give the new president and his aides a more nuanced view of Islam, and of America’s Muslim citizens,” she wrote in the Atlantic in February 2017. How long did she last in the Trump White House? Eight days.

From day one, Ahmed had to work under Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who had previously compared Islam to “a cancer”. She had to sit a few feet away from Trump’s NSC spokesman, Michael Anton, who once declared Islam to be “incompatible with the modern West”. And, in the week after the inauguration, she was “terrified, appalled and frustrated” as the president signed a series of “uninformed and discriminatory executive orders”, including the “travel ban”, which prevented citizens of selected Muslim-majority nations from entering the US. That, she says, was “the last straw”.

“I decided to resign a day after the ban went into effect,” she tells me. “That weekend, for the first time in my entire life, I made a poster and joined fellow Americans at a march on Battery Park [in New York].”

Ahmed, who says the president’s words and actions have “indisputably fuelled Islamophobia and white nationalism”, has been a victim of anti-Muslim abuse herself. In January 2016, the month after Trump first called for a ban on Muslim immigration, she was almost hit by a car in a parking lot. The driver laughed as he passed by. A few weeks later, a man followed her out of a Metro station and threatened her. “These were the most aggressive and physically threatening forms of racism I had ever faced since 9/11,” she tells me.

Islamophobia in the Trump era, however, manifests itself in the corridors of power as well as on the streets. According to Ahmed, the Trump administration “has been a setback for political participation at the highest level of governance for many communities” – but especially Muslims. “Just within the White House complex – Eisenhower building, East Wing, West Wing – there were at least 26 of us that I knew of working in budget management, environmental quality, immigration policy, national security, economic policy, communications, etc,” she recalls. “Many have left government.”

Yet Trump’s election has also prompted more Muslims to run for office at the federal, state and local levels. According to a recent survey by the Islamic Scholarship Fund, a San Francisco-based NGO, there are at least 80 Muslim Americans who either ran for office in 2017 or are running in 2018. This is a far higher number than previous years; right now, only two of the 535 members of Congress are Muslims.

Muslim communities are also turning out to vote in record numbers. In November, in northern Virginia, I visited a packed phone bank organised by local Muslim American supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam – who would go on to beat his Republican opponent by nine points later that week. There was an energy and excitement among the volunteers manning the phone lines. For Ahmed, it is vital that “this shift in civic and political engagement is a long-term mental, organisational and institutional shift, and not just a reaction to counter Trump”.

She is both worried and hopeful about the future of Muslim Americans as a result of this presidency. She is concerned “about the lasting emotional and psychological toll that such bigotry will take on individuals, especially children”. Nevertheless, she adds: “With difficulty, come the greatest opportunities for positive change.”

The counter-extremism Imam

On 21 January 2017, the morning after his inauguration, President Trump arrived at Washington National Cathedral for a prayer service. One of the 26 religious leaders invited to speak that day was Imam Mohamed Magid, who recited two verses from the Quran, in Arabic and English, as a stony-faced Trump sat in the front pew.

The first verse he read was from Surah Al-Hujurat (49:13):

“O humankind, We have created you a single male and female, Adam and Eve, and made you into nations and tribes and communities, that you may know each other. Really, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you, and God has all knowledge and acquainted with all things.”

The second was from Surah Ar-Rum (30:22):

“And among the signs of God is the creation of heaven and earth, and the variation in your languages and your colours. Verily, in that are signs for those who know.”

In an age of rising bigotry and religious and racial divisions, the political implications of these two verses were clear. “They asked me to recite only in Arabic,” the imam tells me. “But I insisted it had to be in English, too.” The gregarious Magid – dubbed “America’s imam” by Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe – was a regular visitor to the White House during the Obama era and is an outspoken critic of Isis. He has served on the Department of Homeland Security’s working group for countering violent extremism, and also advised the FBI.

These days, Magid is deeply concerned about the way in which the rise in anti-Muslim bigotry might be helping to fuel radicalisation among some young Muslim Americans. Violent extremism and Islamophobia “feed into each other,” he says. “They use the same tactics… the more people say they hate Islam and Muslims, the more the extremists say [to Muslims]: ‘We told you so.’” What would the imam say to the current president, if he had the opportunity for a one-on-one meeting? “We Muslims are part of America’s social fabric,” he says, recalling how he presided over the funeral of a Muslim American soldier, Ayman Taha, at Virginia’s Arlington cemetery in 2006. “I want [Trump] to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice that Muslims have given to this country.”

Some Muslim Americans criticised Magid for attending the national prayer service in Washington. An official with the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused him of providing the Trump administration “with a token cover for their bigotry”.

Magid, who moved to the United States from Sudan in 1987 and is now executive director of one of the nation’s largest mosques, says he has no regrets because he “believes in engagement with every person, no matter how much you disagree with them. You don’t only talk with people you agree with.” The self-professed optimist is keen to locate the current Muslim-American struggle against discrimination within a longer American and Islamic history. “Things cannot get worse [for Muslim Americans] than what the African Americans went through, or what the Jews went through. There have been dark moments in American life before.”

He also reminds me that the Prophet Muhammad “faced the most difficult Islamophobic community of all: they were Arabs, they were his uncles and cousins”. Yet, he says, the Prophet engaged with all of them. “A Muslim is a person who believes there is a possibility of changing someone’s heart any time you speak to them.”

In 2011, Herman Cain, who was then running for the Republican presidential nomination, pledged not to appoint any Muslims to his administration, claiming Islam was incompatible with American values. After a meeting with Magid, however, the Republican candidate said he was “truly sorry” for making such offensive comments. “I am not closing the door on anyone,” the imam tells me, pointing to Cain’s apology.

The Muslim Republican

“I take pride in being a Texas Republican,” says Mohamed Elibiary. “I don’t belong to a national party called the Republican Party. I belong to the Texas Republican Party.”

You could call Elibiary an endangered species: a Muslim Republican. According to an exit poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, in the 2016 presidential election, 74 per cent of Muslim Americans voted for Hillary Clinton; only 13 per cent backed Trump.

It wasn’t always this way: in 2000, before the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq, the vast majority of Muslim American voters backed George W Bush over Al Gore.

The child of immigrants from Egypt, Elibiary moved to Dallas when he was eight and declared himself a Republican at 16. He served in a range of local and state positions within the party and also advised the Obama administration on homeland security. He tells me that “many Muslims felt welcome” in the party of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. Today, however, with the rise of white identity politics, “the Republican Party, simply put, has become a special interest party, and as a result is no longer welcoming to other minority interest groups”.

Nevertheless, Elibiary can’t help but defend his political tribe. “The Republican Party isn’t built upon Islamophobia, and Islamophobia hasn’t taken over the party. Yes, there are many Republicans who are afraid of Muslims, but there are also many Muslims who are afraid of different types of Muslims, so what does that prove?”

While acknowledging that the Trump administration poses a “socio-political-cultural threat” to Muslim-American communities, Elibiary refuses to accept that it is also an existential threat to them. He believes Trump is an opportunist, “cynically milking Islamophobia” to win favour with his base. “The American president is actually the least powerful in domestic affairs of any western leader, and the institutions of American governance are a constraint on the president’s power, not his enabler,” he says. “President Trump will face an oppositional Congress sooner or later when the normal electoral cycle propels more Democrats in.”

There is a strange irony here: the Muslim Republican waiting for Democrats to rescue his party from itself. Yet he is defiant: “It makes more sense, from a Muslim community perspective, that I remain a Republican and continue to leverage my long-term Republican relationships to frustrate Islamophobic policy advocacy.”

The grassroots activist

On 2 February 2017, more than a thousand bodegas – the New York corner deli and grocery stores – were closed, as their Yemeni-American owners went on strike to protest the Trump administration’s executive order banning entry into the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Yemen.  For eight hours, stores were shuttered across the city as more than 5,000 protesters gathered at a rally in Brooklyn, where they unfurled both Yemeni and American flags while chanting, “USA, USA, USA”.

Debbie Almontaser, one of the Yemeni-American organisers of the Bodega strike, tells me that until then this community had been “very, very apolitical”. Yet their approach to the protest, she says, was simple: “We are tax-paying citizens, we have contributed to this country, and we want to do something to show that we refuse to be silent.” Almontaser, who was born in Yemen and came to the US aged three, says she needs no lessons on patriotism – from Trump or anyone else. One of her two sons is a police officer and the other is a former member of the National Guard, who was a first-responder on 9/11. Several of her nephews also served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “My family is entrenched in patriotism because of my family’s service,” she tells me.

Yet she, like the bodega owners, felt devastated by the Trump administration’s Islamophobia in general, and the “Muslim ban” in particular. Almontaser, who wears a hijab and was once described by the New York Times as “arguably the city’s most visible Arab-American woman”, says that “each and every Yemeni American in the city has a story: whether it’s their parents or their kids or their brother or sister”. Her husband’s brother was affected by the travel ban – his Yemeni wife was, for several months, blocked from joining him in the US. “Every day is a challenge, especially when Trump spews anti-Muslim rhetoric,” Almontaser says. “There are times when I worry for my safety.”

Some Muslim Americans are also worried that Trump will outlast the protests against him; that we are already witnessing rally “fatigue”. The first iteration of the “Muslim ban” in late January was met with big, spontaneous protests at airports across the country; by the time of the third iteration in late September, there were few demonstrations.

“We’re not giving up,” Almontaser says, referring to the recent Supreme Court decision to reinstate the travel ban. “People call me and say: ‘It’s hopeless, why are you bothering?’ But we’re not giving up. We have to stay the course.”

What advice does this veteran activist have for young Muslim Americans? “Be proud of who they are and where they come from, never let anyone make them feel different, and claim this country as their own and fight for it as if they’re fighting for their lives.”

Almontaser, like Ahmed, Magid and Elibiary, is an optimist who sees a “silver lining” in the dark cloud of the Trump presidency. She believes Muslims will become much more engaged in the political process; build alliances with other marginalised minority communities; hold politicians’ and journalists’ feet to the fire over anti-Muslim bigotry; and demand their rights and protections as guaranteed by the US constitution.

The story of Muslim Americans in an age of Trump, therefore, is not only one of fear and anxiety but also of confidence and defiance, of hope and optimism, of commitment and empowerment. “We have to be involved, engaged and out there,” Almontaser says, “and show the world that this is our home, we care about it and we refuse to live in the shadows.” 

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history