The second debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump brought to focus the Muslim issue once again. Gorbah Hamed, an undecided Muslim voter (are there any undecided Muslim voters left?) asked a question that seemed simple for the audience in the room and at home:
“There are 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, and I’m one of them. You’ve mentioned working with Muslim nations, but with Islamophobia on the rise, how will you help people like me deal with the consequences of being labeled as a threat to the country after the election is over?”
Yes, Islamophobia — the irrational fear of, and prejudice against, average Muslims — is very real. As a Muslim American, I have lived with Islamophobia since I emigrated in 1998. But in recent years, and especially since the 2016 election campaign began last year, the levels of Islamophobia seem to have increased significantly. Anecdotal evidence as well as polls show that the hatred, fear and distrust of Muslims has been affected negatively by the political rhetoric from the Trump campaign, especially a proposed ban on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance of mosques, etc.
While the average Muslim feels prejudice on a daily basis, it is also important to record actual incidents The Huffington Post’s Islamophobia Tracker records all sorts of anti-Muslim sentiment here. Other organizations conduct nationwide polls tied to the election cycle, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has reported an increase in the bullying of Muslim children here.
Nobody needs to be told that bullying of kids or discrimination of adults is anything but serious business. From clergy to politicians, from interfaith activists like myself to journalists, many are concerned about the rising tide of Islamophobia. It’s why articles like my recent one about talking to your Muslim children about terrorism are so popular, even though we wish it weren’t needed at all.
So when Hamed asked how the candidates would deal with Islamophobia after the election was over, she wasn’t asking about the candidates’ political policies or their views about ISIS. She was asking about herself and her family. As a Muslim, I could hear her inner fears as she asked the question, her feeling of physical insecurity, her worries about her family’s emotional safety. She was asking what all Muslim Americans are asking these days as we watch election coverage and wonder about the weeks and months, even years ahead.
Basically, the question is an existentialist one: what does it mean to be Muslim American today? How can we work towards religious and cultural harmony when we all live together in this great country? How can we stop judging and stereotyping each other, and get to know each other as neighbors, coworkers and fellow Americans? When will my children feel welcome in their own nation? When will we stop otherizing Muslims and blaming them for the acts of terrorists?
All Muslims in America think the same thing every single day. Hamed was trying to tell the candidates about these feelings, and trying to convince them — especially Trump — that politics of divisiveness have long-lasting consequences that are all too real to the average American. How the candidates handled the question was very telling:
TRUMP: Well, you’re right about Islamophobia, and that’s a shame. But one thing we have to do is we have to make sure that — because there is a problem. I mean, whether we like it or not, and we could be very politically correct, but whether we like it or not, there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on. When they see hatred going on, they have to report it.
Translation: fear of Muslims is real, but you have to suck it up, because ISIS. This statement of Mr. Trump’s is sad on a number of levels, most of all because it once again promotes the narrative that Muslims are somehow responsible for the criminal activity that goes on our midst. Never mind that, according to the FBI, the best and most frequent informers are Muslims. Never mind that we don’t set the same standard for other groups. That calling out Islamophobia would somehow be only a form of political correctness and not the decent thing to do.
After Trump’s comments, Muslims took to Twitter with the hashtag #MuslimsReportStuff to make comic relief of these less-than-funny sentiments.
I'm a Muslim, and I would like to report a crazy man threatening a woman on a stage in Missouri. #debate
— Moustafa Bayoumi (@BayoumiMoustafa) October 10, 2016
The issue, however, is serious at its core: Muslim Americans feel unsafe in their own homes due to Islamophobia, and feel tremendous pressure to be a model community that will not only live perfect lives but also report those who aren’t. Most of us are offended that our only value to our society today seems to be through the lens of terrorism. Later in the debate, Clinton answered Hamed thus:
“We need American Muslims to be part of our eyes and ears on our front lines.”
Sadly, this is the flip side of Islamophobia: treating Muslims as informants. On the contrary, our purpose in this country isn’t to be informants, any more than it is for any other ethnic or religious group. Yes, we do believe in the motto, “if you see something, say something,” but that’s not why we should be respected or treated as equals.
American Muslims are a part of America, as old as this great nation itself. My review of the book Muslims and the Making of America is an important read, as is the book itself. We are American citizens and immigrants, and we have inherent value in all areas of culture and politics. We are part of America, from the first Muslim slaves to the first Muslim American member of Congress and the greatest champion of all time. We are America. Those who really want to eradicate the scourge of Islamophobia must understand this well.