For Muslim Americans, Fear and Shock at a Trump Presidency
A imperiled minority fears that latent demons of intolerance and violence have been released into the wild.
American Muslims and Arab-Americans woke up Wednesday morning with shock, fear, and a determination to tackle head-on the bigotry that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House.
“The U.S. we knew yesterday is no longer the same U.S.,” Khalil Jahshan, the executive director of the Arab Center, told me as the final votes were tallied in the early morning hours. “To me, this is an unprecedented white insurgency. We’re in for some frightening surprises.”
Today, America is a nation in which Muslims and other immigrants fear they are no longer welcome.
“I’m lost for words. I’m completely, completely shell-shocked. I was never expecting this in my wildest dreams. I really thought deep down inside that, ‘Yep, it’s just a phase. It’s a fad. It’ll pass,’” Yasir Qadhi, an influential imam with more than 1 million followers on social media, told me Wednesday morning. “We need to hope and bank on the fact that the majority of Trump voters were disenfranchised, rural-class, working-class, blue-collar workers and not bigoted racists,” because if they were racists, “there’s not much hope in the equation.”
Most Muslims don’t drink alcohol, but if there were ever a time…
“The last thing I said before going to bed was: ‘This may be the first day I actually take a drink,’” said Asif Chaudhry, a former U.S. ambassador, with gallows humor.
Anti-Muslim hate crimes are already at record levels. Many Muslims are now worried that Trump’s victory will be seen by the fringe as a license for violence. After all, Trump repeatedly told the nation during the campaign that “Islam hates us.”
“I’m genuinely scared for my wife, who wears a hijab. I told her don’t go out shopping at night alone. I told my kids as well just be careful,” said Qadhi, who lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where he is the imam of a local mosque. “I am pretty sure they’re going to get taunted today in school, but if it’s just taunts, then at least it’s better than anything more than that.”
What happens next, says Sohaib Sultan, the imam at Princeton University, depends on Trump himself. “If he tries to put water to some of the fires that he started, then hopefully it won’t result in violence. This is a very, very volatile position for America right now,” he said.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” several people told me, using an ironic turn of phrase. Even if Trump’s call for national unity in his acceptance speech was genuine, they worry that he may not be able to control his more violent supporters.
“What concerns me is that this now gives people license to hate and to act on that discrimination and for it to be OK because of that, towards anyone,” said Cherrefe Kadri, a lawyer from Toledo, Ohio. “Forget being a Muslim, forget being an Arab, but just, you know, that human portion just as a person. Where is that OK?”
Former Ambassador Chaudhry knows from experience the danger of hatred unleashed: “I’ve seen in Afghanistan and the Middle East [that] once these kinds of genies get out of the bottle, it becomes very, very difficult, and it’s a long process to put them back in.”
It’s not only Arabs and Muslims who will be impacted. As we watched the final returns on Tuesday night, my mixed-race, Indonesian-American adult daughter read a series of texts from friends in liberal Seattle. One friend had just passed a group of men in camouflage brandishing Bowie knives and striding through a key intersection. Another reported that as her African boyfriend tried to help a drunk woman get into a police car, a passing driver shouted, “Careful, he’s with Black Lives Matter!”
“I’m frightened,” my daughter said, genuine distress on her face. She’s not alone.
“I am very angry, and I feel like I don’t have a home,” said Karla Morgan, a second-generation Mexican-American who spent much of Tuesday night in tears. “I feel like the country voted that myself and my family don’t belong here, and I am terrified about how that is going to affect my children and their self-worth.”
Immigration bans. Police patrols of Muslim neighborhoods. Identity checks. All promises made during the Republican campaign. The specter of internment camps no longer seemed quite so unthinkable. As Wednesday blurred into Thursday, social media was alive with the incidents of anti-Muslim abuse.
Celebratory tweets like this only fed the cloying fear.
Late on Tuesday evening on the East Coast, journalism professor Shaheen Pasha posted on Facebook: “I’m going to bed now. In the morning, I’ll check the news and wake my kids up and depending on what happens overnight, I’ll talk to them. But for now, I want to go to sleep still believing in the country I was born in.”
Wednesday morning, I asked Pasha if she still clings to that belief. “I do, actually,” she replied. The second-generation American was viciously trolled by Trump supporters after she wrote an opinion piece in USA Today saying Trump’s rhetoric was frightening her 8-year-old son. Like many Muslims I spoke with in the aftermath of the vote, she believes Trump’s victory will force America to hold a mirror up to itself and acknowledge that racism is not just confined to the political fringe.
“Once you have it in your face for the world to see, you have to do something about it. I think that that’s actually what’s going to happen in the end,” she said.
Pakistani-American Mohammad Saeed Rahman is equally determined to cling to faith in his adopted country. Back in the spring, he told me that the American people would never give the nomination to someone like Donald Trump. Now he’s trying to sound hopeful, but the goal posts have moved.
“My faith in America is in our Constitution,” said the Oregon-based businessman and philanthropist. “I believe the forefathers of our nation did a great job creating the Constitution, and if anybody’s going to go out and mess around with one group of people, there will be a price to be paid.”
For many Muslim leaders, Trump’s triumph is a call to action.
“Muslims should reach out and understand the plight of white poor uneducated people who came out in droves to vote for Trump,” said Sultan, the Princeton imam. “And instead of calling them names and casting suspicions on these people, we should try to understand what’s going on in this country beyond our own interests.”
Daisy Khan was a lightning rod for anti-Muslim sentiment when she and her husband spearheaded what came to be denigrated as the “Ground Zero Mosque.” She now says Muslims contributed to the rise of Trumpism by failing to grasp the impact of 9/11 on “the psyche of Americans.”
With Trump’s victory, she told me, “It’s clear to us what the challenge is. It’s clear to us what is the concern. As Muslims, we have a choice on how … we engage these people; having the kinds of conversations that we really haven’t had in the past, face-to-face and alleviating the fears of people. That’s the work that Muslims have to do.”
Pasha, the journalism professor, agrees. “We are going to have to put our narratives out there, and we’re going to have to force people to listen to us. I think a counter movement is going to come out of this and I think it’s going to be stronger because it’s going to be led by the very people that have felt disenfranchised to begin with,” she said.
Reports Thursday that Rep. Keith Ellison (D. Minn), one of two Muslim Americans in Congress, may be the next chairperson of the Democratic National Committee, seemed to bolster that hope.
But there was corresponding bad news: word from the Trump camp was that the next attorney general could be Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who sent undercover police into the mosques to “keep track of good ones and the bad ones” and has called for the geo-tagging American Muslims suspected of terrorist ties.
For American Muslims, and many of their fellow citizens, this could be a long and tumultuous four years.
Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images