By Arnab Mondal
As Dilara Sayeed, a 51-year old Muslim in Chicago, entered an office building for a meeting, she had an experience which she had thought almost unthinkable a few years ago.
Besides her office attire, Sayeed was also wearing a colorful hijab, a symbol of her faith. Sayeed is a social activist, an educator and a Harvard alumna. She also ran for election in the Illinois House of Representatives to represent District 5 in 2018. As such, her work and achievements, rather than her religion, had been at the forefront of most interactions.
As Sayeed got into the elevator, however she was confronted by an elderly white woman, a complete stranger, who said she would go to hell for wearing the hijab.
Sayeed said she hadn’t experienced this kind of negativity since she was growing up. “People used to yell things like ‘Go back to your country’,” she said. “I even got bullied constantly at school because of my religion.”
The situation had improved over the years as the Muslim community in Chicago grew, and people became more understanding towards Muslims. However, everything changed again when Donald Trump became president three years ago.
Even before he became president, Trump had made anti-Muslim statements. In 2015, Trump falsely claimed to have watched Muslims in New Jersey celebrate after the 9/11 attacks. In the same year, Trump repeatedly called for surveillance of American Muslims and mosques, indicating his support for a Muslim registry.
In January 2017, Trump passed an executive order which indefinitely suspended the issuance of immigrant and non-immigrant visas to applicants from Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Muslims were horrified to find that the head of the nation repeatedly singled them out for condemnation in his speeches.
Sayeed also heard about numerous reports of Muslim students being bullied in schools for wearing the hijab. Yet, many of the victims were too afraid to file official complaints due to backlash within the student community.
That prompted Sayeed to co-found the Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, a Muslim rights advocacy group in Chicago, in October 2018. The goal of the organization was to educate people about issues plaguing the Muslim community, as well as to make sure that more Muslims voted, ran for electoral seats and participated in the census.
“We realized that it was no longer enough to just focus on our personal lives,” she said, “We have to stand up for ourselves, and we have to stand up for others publicly.”
Sayeed is not alone in experiencing increased racism and prejudice. With Donald Trump in his fourth year of presidency, Muslims nationwide have experienced greater discrimination.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, multiple mosques in the Chicago area received threats in June 2016 following the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Hira Khan, a Chicago resident, said that her dentist husband, who wished to remain anonymous, often received derogatory remarks from his patients. “They will say things like ‘Just so you know, I voted Trump into office,’ or ‘These Muslims are wrong,’” she said. “It is so sad to have these experiences in a professional space.”
Sayeed said that Trump’s rhetoric had also given rise to the brash attitude of a certain people who believed they had the right to make others feel they don’t belong in the U.S. “People now feel like they don’t belong in the country if they don’t fit the narrow description of a white and Christian American,” she said.
According to a poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a think tank focusing on American Muslim issues, 60% of American Muslims said they experienced some level of religious discrimination in 2017, compared to 38% of Jews and 11% of Catholics who said they experienced discrimination. That figure increased to 62% in 2019.
Erum Ikramullah, the research project manager at ISPU, said that the actual number might be even higher. “There likely are many cases where victims are afraid to come forward,” she said.
Some people said that they have become more afraid for their own safety over the last few years. Hira Khan, who returned to Chicago after living in Canada for 15 years, said that she was surprised to see that more mosques in Chicago had tightened their security measures.
“Now many mosques are using digital locks on their front doors, and only people with a pin number could get in,” she said, adding that there were also police cars and security guards often stationed in front on the mosques.
Tariq El-Amin, an African American imam at Al-Taqwa mosque in South Chicago, said the anti-Muslim environment has also created a schism between the Christians and Muslims in the community. He added that the conflict usually took the form of religious segregation and vocal condemnation of each other’s faith.
“Trump’s rhetoric has made Americans suspicious of people who are visibly Muslim,” El-Amin said, adding that some people have acted wary of him or completely avoided him just for wearing a kufi hat.
However, he said that this was not a common case and that there were more instances of cooperation within the African American community than discrimination.
Still El-Amin said he tries to resolve such conflicts by educating people about Islam and seeking common ground.
“The oppression of the black community is woven into the American culture, and that is a very easy point to start with,” El-Amin said. “From that common ground, we can talk about how the end result we all are looking for is peace and equality.”
Fatima Siddiqua, a student trustee at Northeastern Illinois University, said she preferred to focus on the positives that have come out of challenging times — one example being that minority communities had grown closer. She said that more and more advocacy groups from different communities were actively collaborating with each other every day to deal with issues beyond that of their individual communities.
“Trump’s actions have mobilized entire groups of people from different communities to unite and work towards overcoming this hate,” she said.
Muslims in Chicago also said most people in the city were supportive and welcoming.
Junaid Ahmed, the president of Chicago’s Indian American Muslim Council, a Muslim rights organization, said that when Trump implemented a travel ban against Muslims in 2017 or when Indian Muslims protested India’s anti-Muslim citizenship bill, many American organizations came forward to support them.
“Even individuals who weren’t part of the organization were really sympathetic to and supportive of our cause,” he said.
Still, the fact that the president has singled Muslims out in many of his attacks has made many anxious about their future in the country.
Aesha Siddiqua, a mother of four living in Chicago, said that she was concerned about the safety of her children.
“I teach them to be proud of their identity,” she said, “But how do I explain to them that there are people out there who will vilify them or even attack them just because they are Muslims?”