The fear stalking America’s Muslims


Cii Radio| Ayesha Ismail| 19 December 2016| 19 Rabi ul Awal 1438

IN her online avatar Marwa Abdelghani wears a hijab, an azure scarf, with a grey and black leopard-skin print covering her neck and head. On the streets of Los Angeles, her home town, she goes without. Better to be and feel safe, she thinks. Allah will understand.

A week before the Presidential election she was walking home from a class at the University of California at Irvine when a young man in a car swerved to a stop in front of her, rolled down his window, and began shouting and gesturing at her angrily. It was rush hour and she could barely make out the words through the traffic noise, but there was no mistaking his hatred.

Days later her sister was waiting at a traffic light in her car when a stranger ran up and pounded on the window, yelled something about ISIS and flipped the middle finger as she drove off.

The hijab, signifying modesty and faith, was part of Abdelghani’s identity. More than 50 scarves, in every colour. She did not give it up lightly. But she could not un-see the man’s face, alive with rage. “What happens if it’s somebody who’s armed with a weapon? What happens if he’s walking past me? Would he grab my scarf, try to rip it off me?”
“I decided I didn’t want to be noticeable anymore,” she says.

Her parents, who have heard the din of Islamophobia rise and fall and rise again in the 30 years since they emigrated from Egypt to the United States, told her: “Do what you feel  comfortable doing. Hopefully you can come back to it some day.”

As an outreach fellow at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Abdelghani knows hundreds of young Muslim-Americans across southern California. “The fear is increasing,” she says. “After Trump’s election my entire social media was filled with people saying: ‘What are we going to do? Are we going to pack our bags and leave? What happens to my family? Are they going to be able to enter this country again?’”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation there were more hate crimes against Muslims in 2015 than in any year since 2001, when the September 11 attacks were followed by a wave of small retaliations against mosques and worshippers. This year’s figure will be higher, as racists emboldened by Trump’s victory over ‘political correctness’ express their bigotry openly.

Until Trump takes office, though, and starts signing executive orders, Muslim-Americans cannot be sure how much has really changed. The country they were born in, or swore allegiance to and made their home, is still a diverse, pluralistic nation, in which freedom of religion is written into the Constitution.

The surest way for a Muslim actor to land a role on television is still to play a terrorist, however. In the last year alone American warplanes dropped thousands of bombs on six Muslim-majority countries. Millions of Americans, maybe tens of millions, see Islam – not ISIS or Al-Qaeda or Wahhabism, but the religion itself – as the enemy.

None of this is new. But where the last two Presidents, Barack Obama and George W Bush, took pains to express solidarity with Muslims, Trump has shown a willingness to scapegoat them as enablers of terrorism. Syrian refugees are a “Trojan horse” or a bowl of poisoned Skittles. Thousands in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers fell. And so on.

He has also surrounded himself with people who make no distinction between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. In July former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Fox News host Sean Hannity: “Western civilisation is in a war… We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background – and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported.”

General Michael Flynn, soon to be National Security Adviser, tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” In August, he told attendees of a conference organised by ACT for America: “Islam is a political ideology… it definitely hides behind being a religion.”

This is the paranoid mindset that has led Republican legislatures in 16 states to introduce bills ‘banning’ Sharia law. In the last week before the election a pro-Trump Super PAC, Secure Our Future, ran an advert called Welcome to the Islamic States of America, imagining a country in which children pledge allegiance to the caliphate, the Statue Of Liberty wears a burka and the sign in the Hollywood hills reads Allahu Akbar.

On Fridays several hundred people pray at the Muslim-American Society youth centre in Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighbourhood, but on a Tuesday evening there are only a few pairs of shoes in the hallway. Posters advertise karate classes, Girls Scouts game night and discussion groups for ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’.

In the basement a group of five and six-year-olds have finished Quran class and are lined up by the stairs, some with trainers flashing red, others with Spider-Man and Batman and Bejeweled backpacks. They are American kids. They learn verses from a different book, but this is Sunday school, and I wonder how many evangelical Christians would change their minds about Islam if they could see it.

“It’s very much geared to the spirituality of the individual, but before you can get people to buy into that you’ve got to culture them as kids,” says José Luís Solis Torres, the young, bearded, Mexican-American convert who has volunteered to be my guide. Pictures on the wall teach the Arabic words for lion, butterfly and dog. One pupil has made a collage of the Five Pillars of Islam. Letters written by older kids, telling the story of Muhammad’s childhood, are pinned to a board.

We’re joined by Ahmed, a student at Brooklyn College who runs the football, basketball and gridiron teams at the mosque. Ahmed says he read somewhere that 61 per cent of Americans have never met a Muslim. This stat proves hard to find, but in a YouGov poll last year, 74 per cent of respondents said they didn’t work with a Muslim, 68 per cent had no Muslim friends and 87 per cent had never set foot in a mosque.

In New York roughly three per cent of the city’s population is Muslim. In state schools the figure is closer to 10 per cent.

“Growing up, some of my best friends were Christian, Jewish, people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities. We all respect each other, because that’s just how it is growing up in a diverse city,” Ahmed says. “But even here, just in the last week alone, three women wearing hijab were attacked, and that shocked me.”

Soha Salama, a station agent on the New York subway, was pushed down the stairs and called a terrorist. Off-duty cop Aml Elsokary said a man told her, “I’ll slit your throat, you ISIS bitch” and threatened to set his pitbull on her. Student Yasmin Seweid claimed that three men harassed her on the train, shouting, “Take that rag off your head!” but was later accused by police of making the whole thing up.

Self-defence classes for Muslim women in New York have been packed since the election. Nisma Zakria, a second degree black belt, says they come to “learn skills that they never thought they needed to learn before” – front kick to the knee, palm heel strike to the nose, how to break the grip of someone pulling at your hijab.

No-one can say with any certainty what Trump’s immigration and national security policies will be, or how they will affect Muslims. During the Republican primaries he proposed “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” but later modified his position several times.

In November 2015, at a campaign event in Newton, Iowa, he was asked by a reporter from NBC news whether he would set up a database of Muslims in the United States, and replied, “I would certainly implement that. Absolutely.”
His communications director, Jason Miller, has since said that Trump “never advocated for any registry or system that tracks individuals based on their religion”.

The most likely first step appears to be the reintroduction of a post 9/11 scheme, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required adult males from “higher risk” countries to be interrogated on arrival and monitored while in the United States. This did not single out Muslims, but of the 25 countries on the list 24 were majority Islamic.

Muslims living in the USA are accustomed to being under surveillance. Muslim football  leagues that Jose and Ahmed played in, set up and funded by the New York Police Department, were full of undercover officers from the NYPD’s since-disbanded Demographics Unit. According to investigative journalist Trevor Aaronson the FBI has “more than 15,000 informants whose primary purpose is to infiltrate Muslim communities”.

The danger with Trump is not that he will increase surveillance, but that he will hold all Muslims accountable for the actions of a few. In the second Presidential debate he repeated the baseless claim that neighbours “saw the bombs all over the apartment” of the Muslim couple who murdered a dozen friends and colleagues in San Bernardino, but chose not to report them to the police.

More than 100 people have been charged in connection with ISIS-inspired terror plots in the United States in the last three years. How will Trump respond when there is a successful, large-scale attack? “The Muslim registry thing, it’s scary because it happened,” says Solis Torres. “Japanese-American people were put in camps. What makes this so different? Because we have friends here, and businesses? Japanese people had friends and businesses too.”

Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General, has received awards from two of the most prominent anti-Islam groups in the USA. The zealots who believe there is a Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the US Government and view the Council on Islamic-American Relations as a front for Hamas have more influence than ever before.

And just as the hateful sermons of Anwar Al-Awlaki radicalise young men and make violence seem righteous and necessary, so the feedback loop of conservative media encourages racists to act on their feelings of rage and resentment. Last weekend in Simi Valley, California, police arrested a man, John Matteson, after he stabbed a worshipper outside a mosque.

Facing the threat of repressive policies, plus hate crimes tacitly condoned by the demagogue in the White House, Muslim-Americans have good reason to be fearful. The one silver lining has been an outpouring of solidarity and support.

“The day after the election the entire main campus was packed with students standing in a circle, discussing how we’re going to stand up together, protect each other, fight against racism and injustice,” recalls Ahmed.

Mosques in California are receiving hate mail threatening ethnic cleansing and referring to Muslims as “vile and filthy people,” but people are also showing up with platters of fruit and food. A photograph widely shared on social media showed a Texan with a white beard and cowboy hat picketing a mosque. His sign read: “You belong. Stay strong. Be blessed. We are one America.”

“As much as Trump is trying to divide us, he’s also bringing people together,” says Abdelghani. “I don’t see many extreme measures being taken against Muslims – I don’t think they will actually happen. The good that I see in this country, and the good people, outweighs the bad by a lot, and that’s something that gives me comfort.”

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