(Oct. 27, 2016) Donald Trump and ISIS. It was the Perfect Storm. The damage has left a barrage of emotions reverberating through the American Muslim community, from fear and suspicion to anger and defiance.
Come November 9th, unless lightning strikes, Donald Trump will be, to use one of his favourite expressions, a loser. And the nation will begin the slow process of repairing the damage of a year of divisive rhetoric. But the Islamophobes were around long before Trump came on the scene and they will be with us even if he goes quietly into the night (unlikely as that may be).
Yet a close look reveals that even after a year of hate-filled campaign rhetoric, American Muslims are not in the defensive crouch of the years after 9/11.
“Fifteen years ago, you tended to see people who would wave the flag and carry the Constitution and they would begin and end every speech by, ‘We are American, we’re just as American as you are,'” says Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University and recognised leader of the “progressive Islam” movement.
“Today, there’s a more confident and even defiant attitude, especially among young Muslims. There’s a sense of, ‘Who the bleep gave you the power to question my right to be here?'”
The embodiment of that new defiance is Khizr Khan, the father of a slain American solider, who in his speech at the Democratic National Convention publicly told Trump, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
For Trump and several of the GOP candidates he vanquished in the Republican primary, Islamophobia was just another tool to energise the political base of support in conservative Middle America. Dark talk of an amorphous Muslim threat played on the deep-seated suspicion of Islam that has festered just below the surface in America since before the Revolution. It fed the same sense of fear and anger toward what academics call “the Other” that made Trump’s idea of “The Wall” to keep out Mexicans so popular.
In a sick twist to the presidential campaign, the Islamic State and the handful of American Muslim extremists have been Trump’s best ally. The brutal attacks in Europe and the slaughter of innocents in an Orlando, Florida nightclub and a California social services office at the height of the campaign fed Trump’s narrative of an ISIS-built “Trojan Horse” in our midst.
Those attacks left American Muslims facing the grim reality that there are people in their mosques who have been suborned by the Islamic State’s message of hate. The murderer who killed 49 young people in the Orlando nightclub was born in the Queens borough of New York City, not far from Donald Trump’s own birthplace. You don’t get much more American than that.
To be fair, along with the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the past year there have also been plenty of politicians on both sides of the aisle who defended Muslims. While Ted Cruz was calling for patrols of Muslim neighbourhoods and Ben Carson was saying a Muslim should never be allowed to be president of the US, others were denouncing the rhetoric of Islamophobia, including GOP leaders like Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
But there’s always a catch. American Muslims are voting overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, but they are painfully aware that even her seemingly positive words about Muslims come with strings attached.
“We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines. I’ve worked with a lot of different Muslim groups around America,” Clinton said in the second presidential debate.
The idea that the only reason they are needed is to self-police, is deeply offensive to many American Muslims.
“You’re placing the burden of guilt on an entire segment of the population. That’s self-defeating isn’t it?” Sheikh Yasir Qadhi, an American imam with more than one million Facebook followers, told me. “It’s just like asking African Americans to control your drug problem. That’s so racist, so just stereotypical and extrapolating.”
Others see self-regulation as self-interest.
“Muslims have come to realize that the only way to face challenges from within and outside, including the claim of ISIS being the representation of Islamists, is to work together with the government,” says Shamsi Ali, the Indonesian-born imam of a mosque in the New York borough of Queens.
After the killing of an imam and one of his assistants outside a mosque in the same part of the city, Ali stepped up efforts to ensure the incident did not feed radicalisation in his own community. “These incidents truly created such tremendous anger and anxiety. Many of our people are fearful, they are worried, they are angry and that is truly a big responsibility on us to bring them back on track,” he explains.
Self-policing has long been controversial in American Muslim communities. The worry is that it creates an atmosphere of suspicion in the mosque, already a problem given the widespread use of informants by the FBI.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch and Columbia University’s Human Rights Institute, of the more than 500 terrorism-related convictions in the US since 9/11, half relied on informants – and at least one-third involved sting operations that raised questions about whether the individuals were caught in the act or were manipulated into the crime by undercover FBI agents.
The reality is that while an entire religion should not bear responsibility for the sins of the few, American Muslims are much more likely to see red flags when a member of their community – or their family – is starting to head down the wrong path, just like Irish Catholics 40 years ago were much more likely than Protestants or Jews to pick out fellow Catholics who might be providing arms or funds to the IRA.
Besides, wouldn’t you intervene if they thought your kids or someone you knew was getting deep into drugs or planning a crime?
Hillary Clinton is far from the only example of good intentions gone bad. A website called EmergingUS.com, which celebrates multiculturalism in America, is currently running a feature called, “What makes for a ‘good immigrant’? The pressure to be a good citizen when you aren’t one.”
As my daughter reacted when she read the headline: “Who says they’re not?” The assumption that immigrants are not automatically good citizens speaks volumes about the inadvertent “Othering” of immigrants, even among liberals. The fact is, studies find that first generation immigrants commit far fewer crimes than the population as a whole.
The other relevant fact is that African-Americans make up the largest portion of Muslims in America, and they are anything but recent immigrants, much less representative of what Trump calls “radical Islamist terrorists”.
Violence by extremists is real, but the actual numbers belie the rhetoric. Since 12 September 2001, 118 people have been killed by Muslim extremists on US soil, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland.
That’s an average of 7.8 a year. Meanwhile, almost 13,000 people in the US were killed by guns in 2015; and more than 50 shootings have been carried out by young children this year alone.
But language is a powerful thing. Those 118 were victims of “Islamic terrorism” in the eyes of a majority of Republicans, according to a Gallup poll; the kids were involved in “occasional mishaps,” at least that’s how the head of Gun Owners of America described them. As a purposefully ironic Clinton campaign ad put it, “Guns don’t kill people. Toddlers kill people.”
Trump’s political reality show is about to be cancelled, but in quiet corners of America, extremists of a different variety continue to stoke fears.
“Are you prepared for the two or three dozen jihadis in, pick a city in Minnesota, with mortars or shoulder-fired rockets?” former FBI agent John Guandolo recently asked a crowd gathered in a Baptist church on Minnesota’s border with Canada for a discussion of Somali immigrants in the state.
There’s an old saying in the US: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’ American Muslims can take that to heart.