Fear and coping in Muslim America

Muslim men attend the Friday sermon on Nov. 11 at a mosque in downtown Chicago where the cleric allayed fears following the election of Donald Trump as president. (Medill/Shahzeb Ahmed)
Muslim men attend the Friday sermon on Nov. 11 at a mosque in downtown Chicago where the cleric allayed fears following the election of Donald Trump as president. (Medill/Shahzeb Ahmed)

By Muna Khan and Shahzeb Ahmed

The third floor of the Downtown Islamic Center in Chicago fills quickly with men of all races and ethnicities—Arabs sit next to South Asians who sit next to African Americans. They have come for the obligatory Friday congregational prayer.

Most sit cross-legged with their heads bowed in silence, listening to the Imam’s lecture. Some stare intently at the television monitor suspended from the ceiling in the front of the room. The frame is fixed on a small man delivering the lecture. A sign taped to the wall proclaims the man is speaking from the fifth floor of the building.

Mohammed Kaiseruddin, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, which has 60 groups under its stewardship, delivers a powerful sermon allaying the fears of his congregation gathered on the first Friday after Donald Trump’s victory.

“Muslims are extremely anxious about what the future will hold for us because of the anti-Muslim rhetoric Mr. Trump expressed, also his campaign,” he begins. “The rhetoric included not letting Muslims into the country, requiring Muslims here to register.”

Since Trump’s victory on Nov. 8, many in minority communities across the country have expressed concern for their safety, given the president-elect’s statements on the campaign trail. During the prolonged campaign, Trump spoke about banning Muslims, deporting the undocumented, building a wall on the Mexico border, and imposing widespread stop and frisk policies. Many of his statements were seen as racist, particularly by those who felt targeted by his rhetoric.

At the DIC, Kaiseruddin spoke of the fear among Muslims in the aftermath of Trump’s election. He said he was receiving news of children frightened to go to school, afraid of being bullied or singled out, of students being harassed, of women having their hijab pulled off.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said on Nov. 14 it had recorded 315 incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation against Muslims since election day.

Kaiseruddin said he decided to address the election in his message in an effort to assuage the concern coursing through the community. “A khutba (sermon) won’t relieve their anxieties,” he said, “but I hope that it started a thinking process in their minds about their response to the election results.”

During his message, he recited a passage from the Quran where Allah assured his followers that after pain comes ease.

“There is no reason to despair because our trust is in Allah and no one can do any harm whatsoever if Allah does not want harm to be done to us. That’s absolutely the truth,” he said, before launching into a plan of action.

He told the assembly essentially to get involved in their community (at mosques for example), help other minorities and report any hate crimes to the police.

Muslims in Chicago seem to have found solace and support in the mosques, which is what Kaiseruddin said he hoped for as he preached for them to reach out to other communities feeling just as vulnerable.

“How about reaching out to Latinos, and offering them moral support or whatever support we can?” he said at the Friday prayer. “Why can’t we reach out to African Americans and join them in their situation and provide support to them. All the minorities can and should come together at this time. We should not simply reach out to people who can offer help to us. Thank God people are reaching out—ministers are calling, rabbis are calling offering support—we appreciate that but we should not be simply taking support, we should be offering support to people in much worse situations. That’s where we can find coalitions between Muslims, Latinos and African Americans and together we’ll be stronger.”

Other mosques and Muslim organizations across the country have echoed similar sentiments as they deal with their anxious communities.

The Islamic Society of North America, a 40-year-old organization considered the largest of its kind, issued a statement on Nov. 11 in which it asked Trump to engage with the Muslim community as well as other minorities.

“Trump will provide a great service to the nation by assuring fellow Americans his administration will not abandon fundamental values of cherishing equal protection of the law and equal opportunities for all Americans, regardless of race, national origin, gender, religion, or other constitutionally protected categories,” it said. The group’s website has also listed resources available to Muslims in the wake of the election result from helplines, articles on how to talk to children and organizations offering counseling services.

Mahin Islam, one of the hosts of the podcast Mad Mamluks, a show which discusses current events facing the Muslim community in the U.S., and invites guests to share their stories about the work they’re doing, shared his thoughts on the election. He and his co-hosts, Murtaza (who goes by the one name) and Syed Imran Muneer (known as SIM) invited Boston-based Muslim scholar Joe Bradford on Nov. 9 to talk about election results on the podcast.

“To be honest, I accepted the results pretty quick because it is what it is,” said Islam, adding he wasn’t firmly in the camp of Trump being the greater of the evils compared to Hillary Clinton.

In the podcast, SIM echoed something similar when he said a vote for Trump was a vote against the establishment and he may have gone that way, too, had the Republican candidate’s rhetoric not been so hostile to minorities. Now, however, he said he is more concerned about the individuals being considered for appointments, like Frank Gaffney, head of Center for Security Policy, a right-wing think tank and former defense official in Ronald Reagan’s administration.

SIM said he recognized that Muslims were feeling despondent post-election, but he didn’t agree with the widely expressed sentiment on social media that “it’s going to be the Holocaust all over again.”

He’d heard of hate crimes being reported but had not experienced anything himself, nor had he heard of anyone in his social circle experiencing any conflict or confrontation since the election.

“It is part of our creed as Muslims to accept things as the will of Allah,” he said. “It is pretty upsetting that we don’t know what the future holds but that [belief] is part of our faith.”

And there are Muslims who are delighted about the presidential electi results.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” said Pakistani-born businessman Talat Rashid, who has supported Trump since the Republican candidate announced his decision to run in 2015.

Rashid, who has been living in the Greater Chicago area for the last 30 years, believes Trump’s Muslim ban proposal was simply political rhetoric.

“Look, whatever he (Trump) said, he is not going to do most of it,” Rashid said firmly. “Political slogans are different from when you sit in the driver’s seat.”

Rashid, who has been invited to attend the inauguration ceremony in January, has no qualms about the future of Muslims or other minorities in America.

“People who are illegal should definitely be sent back, and they should come to this country through the proper channel if they want to,” he said.

Asked about Trump’s proposed changes in foreign policy, especially toward enemy combatants overseas, Rashid brushed it off as populist messaging too.

“They (the Trump administration) have to survive in the international community. They can’t afford to make everyone angry,” he said.

On a webcast broadcast on Nov. 16, eminent Islamic scholar, Imam Zaid Shakir, co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, said it was imperative for Muslims to be principled in their responses to Trump’s rhetoric.

Shakir, who is considered one of the most influential Muslims in America, warned Muslims against viewing themselves solely through the prism of safety and security, and reminded his audience of a time in the 1960s, when people like the iconic boxer Muhammad Ali took great risks to uphold the principles of their faith.

“As a Muslim [men like Ali and Malcolm X] could stand up and defy the war machine,” Shakir said, adding that Muslims should turn for stimulus to the civil rights movement, which he described as not just a protest movement, but one that built on a sense of identity and purpose.

He said the fear that provokes some Muslims to talk of distancing themselves from their heritage in an effort to assimilate — including talk of shaving beards or removing hijab—comes from a lack of confidence in their identity. Rather than shrink away from their heritage, he asked his listeners to revel their rich history in this country, a history that dates back to the Muslim slaves who were brought here from present-day Senegal.

“If you own that, no one can tell you that you don’t belong,” he said.

Shakir was joined on the broadcast by Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, also co-founder of Zaytuna College in California. Yusuf stressed the importance of the community being calmed down and devising a long-term strategy to deal with any fallout from the election.

“If we get people riled up, it could get very ugly,” said Yusuf. “This civilization loves nothing more than violent resistance because they’re so good at dealing with it.”

Still, in spite of the efforts to calm nerves in the Muslim community, a sense of unease remains following the election.

Saman Shaikh, 38, a Pakistani-American woman who is married to a professor of mathematics at East-West University in Chicago, said she never felt marginalized in the U.S.—despite arriving here right after 9/11—until this year. The mother of a 1-year-old daughter, who has been applying for jobs for the past few months, said that lately, she can hear the voice on the other end of her phone interview deflate when she says she’s from Pakistan.

“I recognize I don’t conform to a stereotypical image of a Muslim woman,” said the 2014 graduate of the Integrated Marketing & Communications program at Northwestern University’s Medill school who does not wear a head scarf and is married to a white man, “but I’ve lately felt this notion that breaking the glass ceiling isn’t just for women but people of color, too.”

Shaikh is hopeful, however, about the country’s future. “A friend of mine told me how she was having coffee with another friend at a café the day after the election, and a woman came up to them and asked how they were,” she said. “That woman was really nice to my friends and just wanted to let them know that not all Americans think badly of Muslims.”

Muslim men attend the Friday sermon at a mosque in downtown Chicago on Nov. 11. The cleric tried to allay fears following the election of Donald Trump as president. (Medill/Shahzeb Ahmed)