View From US: Muslims in the time of Trump

Updated 04 Dec 2016


Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Muslim-Americans heard Donald Trump single them out for profiling. Whether this negativity was really required for him to get elected, we will never know. But a lot of damage got done. In corporate America, including Trump’s own company, it has been illegal for over five decades for people to be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. But in the Trump campaign team’s view, this kind of religious targeting has been fair game during this election season. By doing what Trump has done, he has lowered the standard for civilised speech in America, lowered his own stature and the stature of the Oval Office.

Ali Khan, a Pakistani-American, came here decades ago. From a lowly job, he gradually climbed the slippery slope of success. On the way, he met racism, bigotry and bias. But he stayed focused to make his ‘American dream’ come true. When asked how should Muslim-Americans cope in Trump-world, the three adages the New Yorker forwards are worth noting: “Life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent what you make of it — so don’t fear Trump or any of his surrogates,” he says. “Our future is in our own hands. Don’t let them define us. Let’s define ourselves by our own conduct. Let’s conduct ourselves with even more honesty, hard work, education, tolerance and contributing to society.”

Khan’s second adage is to “Never, never become a ‘victim’.” Victimhood puts people in a downward spiral of self-pity. “Let’s work on building our own upward spiral by having faith in ourselves, holding our heads up high and keep working to do good for others. Society will appreciate Muslims more if we are more successful, if we have more positive impact on the world.” Jews and Hindus, Khan says, get more respect because people keep hearing about their success stories — especially in technology e.g. Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of Facebook), Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google), and Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft). Ali’s third adage is to have zero tolerance for terrorists. “They hurt the image of hundreds of millions of peaceful, decent and hardworking Muslims around the world.”

Divergent Muslim-American voices speak of standing up to religious bigotry and integrating in mainstream society to shun ghettoisation

The media’s Ivy-League-educated crew of armchair ‘nattering nabobs’ living in a bubble have caused more confusion than clarity on Trump’s so-called plan to set up a database for Muslims immigrants. Granted that the president-elect is a moving target, the media has done little to wrap its arms around Trump’s Islamophobic proposals except to sensationalise, scare and confuse Muslims across America — schoolkids, university students, professionals, business people, housewives and even senior citizens.

Ras Siddiqui, a Pakistani-American writer and journalist living in Sacramento, California, says that Trump won’t be able to enforce a complete ban on Muslims entering the US. “It was good rhetoric for capturing the xenophobic vote but it’s bad for business and secular America,” he says. “I’m not worried about a Trump presidency. When the rubber meets the road, presidents change their tune.”

But the reality is that hate crimes against minorities, particularly Muslims, have spiked post-Trump. Dr Rifat Hussain, 72, is a plastic surgeon who has lived and worked in the US for the last 50 years. Presently he and his family live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s the heart of America.

He has faced death threats many times in the past. “But recently, what happened to my daughter, a human rights attorney, was the scariest of all,” he says. She was driving in Minnesota when a man in a large SUV came from the back and repeatedly rammed into her small car. Someone in a house on the street was watching and called 911. And the police came. By that time the man had fled. But the person who called the police had noted down the attacker’s car license plate number and gave it to the police. “While the car is a total wreck, my daughter is badly traumatised,” says the physician.

America has been a boiling pot of bigotry, racial hate and bias since its birth. At any given time women, blacks, American Indians, Latinos, Asians, British, Germans and Jews have faced alienation, bullying, loathing and even physical attacks. “The political leadership has repeatedly used this evil for its benefit over the years and thus Trump is not unique to use it as a political tool,” says Dr Hussain. In America’s capital, the white nationalists recently hailed the president-elect with the Nazi salute that was used to honour Adolf Hitler.

“Stop indulging in a ‘pity party’ and do for heaven’s sake stop using the religion card!” This blunt talk comes from a woman who has worked very hard to weather the racial storm for 40 years and come out ‘laughing all the way to the bank.’ Rima Ahmad is founder and owner of a successful company that manufactures healthcare products in South Carolina. “When someone chooses to call America their home, and it is not their country of birth, it is by choice. No one forces anyone to move to America. As Americans, we take pride in meritocracy, and welcome others, as long as all play by the rules, and try to blend in without wearing their ethnicity or religion on their sleeves. America did not come into existence as a religious state, but a secular one, unlike Pakistan, where sectarianism raises its ugly head … Heck, we can’t even agree with someone who is not our own sect within Islam!”

Ms Ahmad says, “I personally cringe whenever I hear the news of mass killing … hoping and praying that the perpetrator was a non-Muslim. Not much good news is attached to the Muslim community. Fear that America is not safe anymore began with 9/11 and the Muslims are blamed for it. Trump built upon this fear in the American psyche.”

Arshad Jamil is a professional engineer from New Jersey who fears that Trump will implement his anti-Muslim agenda. There’s a need for soul-searching, he says. “Muslims usually define themselves by their outward appearance, where according to them the only requirement is a hijab, burqa and niqab for women and long beards with long robes for men,” says Jamil. “Rather, we should be recognised and trusted for our work ethics and honesty,” Jamil urges his community to participate in local politics. “Talk to neighbours and colleagues. Go to the township, the congressmen, senators in your area to counter the anti-Muslim bias.”

Dr Rifat Hussain shares the sentiment: “Having long beards and breathing fire against the ‘kafirs’ while living in the US will not work.”

The Muslims led the world in education, scientific discovery and intellectual discourse as recently as the 14th century. Europe was in the Dark Ages with tribal wars and religious inquisitions. “Starting Monday morning, Muslims can begin striving toward their Second Golden Age,” says Ali Khan. “Once we come together and believe in ourselves as a force for good, nothing can hold us back. Let’s keep hope alive.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 4th, 2016