An American Girl Watches Trump -- And Worries

"I'm a little bit scared"

In any ordinary time, 13-year-old Alina would have no reason to fear. 

Sitting on the couch at her home in Virginia, in a sweatshirt and jeans, her hazel eyes light up as she talks about her favorite pastimes—watching Star Wars, reading Harry Potter, and sharing photos with her friends on Snapchat.  Soccer, swimming and softball trophies fill a shelf in her room, but these days she’s focused on figure skating, she says, because “I like feeling graceful.”   

In her eighth grade history class, she’s studying the importance of checks and balances. “It makes sure each part of government doesn’t do anything too extreme,” she says. On Friday evenings, she begins her Girl Scout meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. She’s eager to start high school, go to medical school and become a dermatologist.  She believes she can.  “America is inclusive of everyone,” she says, “a place where people have equal opportunity.”

But this is no ordinary time, and she confesses, “I’m a little bit scared.” 

Alina is a Muslim American. Born and raised in the United States, she is coming of age at a time when President Trump’s reckless rhetoric and ban on immigrants and visitors from certain Muslim-majority countries lumps terrorists together with peaceful Muslims.         

As a foreign policy speechwriter for President Obama, I had wanted to meet a child like Alina for some time. I had watched as Trump made his willingness to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism” (over and over) a centerpiece of his campaign. Not coincidentally, the FBI reported in November that hate crimes against Muslims surged nearly 67 percent in 2015 to the highest level since after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

When a president impugns an entire group of people because of who they are or how they pray, it has consequences.

Sitting in my windowless office in the basement of the West Wing, I read letters that Muslim American children had written to President Obama.  Some wondered whether they still had a place in the United States.  As my time in the White House came to an end, a mosque in Virginia connected me to Alina’s parents, who asked that her last name and hometown not be identified.  In a series of interviews starting in mid-January, she opened up about what it’s like growing up in America at a time when your own president sees your faith as a threat.

Alina has so far been spared the vitriol and violence that has triggered so much fear among many Muslim Americans.  But she knows there are Islamic State terrorists that “call themselves Muslims who do bad things.”  And she followed the presidential campaign closely, during which Trump said, “I think Islam hates us.”

When a president impugns an entire group of people because of who they are or how they pray, it has consequences.  Alina has heard reports of Muslim students across the country being bullied and Muslim women having their head scarfs ripped off.  When anti-Muslim protestors turned up at an Arizona mosque carrying guns two years ago, Alina’s parents kept her home from her Girl Scout meeting at their mosque fearing protesters would show up armed there as well.  After the election, Alina’s eight-year-old sister asked her parents, “does this mean we have to leave the country?”

In his inaugural address, President Trump made only one reference to Muslims or Islam. “We will,” he said, “unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” Not a word about how millions of Muslim Americans are law-abiding patriots who contribute to the United States every day as teachers, doctors, police and members of the military.

Still, Alina says, 'I have hope.' Alongside the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment elsewhere, she feels a rise in support for Muslims in her own life.

That afternoon, I called Alina. Trump’s speech, she said, made her “a little more anxious.” He “talked about unity in America, but I wish he had said more to reassure Muslims and other minorities about how we’re all a part of the fabric of America.”

Since then, she’s watched her new president issue executive orders temporarily barring most refugees from the United States and banning immigrants and visitors from several Muslim-majority countries (bans currently on hold while they’re challenged in the courts). “We must keep ‘evil’ out of our country!” Trump tweeted on Friday.

“If Trump continues to conflate our entire religion with extremists, it is going to be very damaging,” Farhana Khera, who leads the civil rights group Muslim Advocates, told me. “The bullying, harassment and assaults of American Muslims are only going to escalate.”

Still, Alina says, “I have hope.” Alongside the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment elsewhere, she feels a rise in support for Muslims in her own life. Christian and Jewish parents have reached out to her mother offering support. Some want their children to visit a mosque to better understand their Muslim neighbors. “When I see so many people, a lot of whom are not Muslim,” opposing Trump’s refugee and immigration bans, she says, “I realize that good will win in the end.”

At 13 years old, Alina still believes in America and her place in it. Whether the hopes of young Americans like her can be sustained will be one of the surest measures of the health of a pluralistic, tolerant America in the years ahead.

For now, Alina pins her hopes on the goodwill of her fellow Americans and the lessons she’s learning in history class. “Those checks and balances have to work,” she says. “I don’t want to be considered as any less of a citizen than anyone else.”