I never ate school lunch as a kid. My mother would spend hours preparing lunch to send with me to school, painstakingly cooking Pakistani dishes such as red tandoori chicken. I loved the spicy home food, but at school I treated it like dirt wrapped in tin foil.
Eating with the other kids at my lunch table was difficult. I wanted to fit in and eat processed fish sticks like everyone else. The Pakistani lunches my mother made for me smelled and weren’t always solid in form. I received many disgusted looks whenever I tried eating whatever she prepared. There came a point where I would just straight up throw away the food.
After my teacher noticed that I easily got tired in the second half of the day, she investigated the situation. She realized that I felt embarrassed. Mrs. Swanson proceeded to talk to the whole class of first graders about valuing diversity and the importance of respecting differences. The kids changed their behavior from disgust to fascination. I started eating lunch again and had to bring extra because everyone wanted to try the “exotic” food. Mrs. Swanson fixed my dilemma. She taught me that I could take pride in my background and still be respected like others in class.
For three years, I felt free to express my views and approach new problems in a way that tapped into my unique Pakistani-Muslim background. But then tragedy struck on September 11, 2001, and as with most Americans, my world changed. A new era of intolerance took hold.
Processing my different skin color, classmates made jokes and passed offensive remarks. They would tell me that I obviously knew who carried out the attacks and that I was related to those depraved individuals. This conduct, the occasional “F@#* off, Mohammad,” and the slightly racist string of educators resulted in my return to identifying as the unwelcome “other,” even though I was born in the United States and had lived in the country my entire life.
[Trump's] attacks on Muslims have confronted Islamophobia, misinformation and a general intolerance toward people of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent square in the face.
Now, I feel immune to the racism. While I know it’s there, I rarely take it to heart and have instead become an expert at diffusing tense situations. Just the other day at an anthropology luncheon in Ann Arbor, a fairly educated individual I work with embarked on a cringeworthy conversation about Pakistan, American Muslims, and, wait for it, radicalization. Even obtaining a Ph.D. seemingly cannot protect an individual from stereotyping. Of course, I politely tolerated our talk and guided it back to tamer waters. Through my effort to maintain respectful and objective conduct, I hope to make small statements aimed at unifying even those I feel are hopelessly brainwashed. The process is long and a bit sad, but it’s the right thing to do.
Recently, I have become more charged and able to kindly address such tortuous conversations. I attribute my lifted hopes and energy to the presidential election season. It has made me feel more at home, like an American again. Was I really ever anything else? Ironically, Mr. Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims have confronted Islamophobia, misinformation and a general intolerance toward people of Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian descent square in the face.
Throughout the 2016 election cycle, Muslims have found themselves thrown in countless debates. On one side, Donald Trump foams to temporarily ban Muslims entering the United States and Senator Ted Cruz calls for greater surveillance of Muslim communities within the country. On the other side, Senator Bernie Sanders openly joins American Muslim social activists such as Linda Sarsour and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bashes Trump’s intolerant stance.
The heightened awareness toward American Muslims—and Muslims in general—is understandable. It is brought about largely by the negative worldwide attacks claimed mostly by ISIS and related groups, the media’s perfunctory-seemingly-cryptic nod toward the entire population of 1.7 billion Muslims, and the resulting many-fold increase in crimes against Muslim citizens across the U.S. and Europe (According to Juan Cole, Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of various works about the Middle East, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased eight-fold from 2000 to 2014. This figure, he says, is based only on crimes that were reported…).
But thankfully, not all of this awareness toward American Muslims is due to dismal reasons. There are glimmers of hope that have also contributed: Emma Watson donning a hijab to spread tolerance and humanize Muslim refugees, Pope Francis issuing heartwarming statements aimed toward sheltering Muslims from demonizing attitudes, and even closer to home, Muhammad Ali’s demise and the pride-engendering feeling he gave to Muslims worldwide, particularly in the U.S. Muslims are a hot topic nowadays, but this attention gives rise to, in my view, an overall brighter future.
In the backdrop of this ping pong with 23 percent of the world’s population, we see American Muslims emerging as a unique cultural and political entity that holds weight in the 2016 election cycle. Although the rhetoric against Muslims has without a doubt been terrifying at times, American Muslims have gained some more confidence and pride going into this election. We feel like our voices are finally being heard and that people are trying to make a genuine effort to include us as the equal American citizens we are.
Making up less than one percent of the country’s population, there are approximately 2.6 million Muslims in the U.S.—however, according to a 2015 speech delivered by President Barack Obama, the number is “nearly seven million.” While not great in number, the U.S. Muslim population has sent strong political messages in the past year alone.
During the primary season, for example, the Muslim population came to the spotlight when they contributed to Sanders’s poll-defying victory against Clinton in Michigan, home to the largest Muslim population in the U.S.. Although the polls projected a firm 20 percent lead for Clinton, the reality was much different. In Dearborn, which is 40 percent Arab, Sanders received 59 percent of the vote while Clinton received 39 percent.
Most Muslims in Michigan voted for Sanders, giving him a slap-in-the-face support that shocked the typical media agenda of pitting Muslims against Jews. Even today, many Muslims are struggling just like a large portion of other Sanders’s supporters in morally shifting toward Clinton.
We feel like our voices are finally being heard and that people are trying to make a genuine effort to include us as the equal American citizens we are.
A recent Politico article quotes Dawud Walid, the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Michigan, as saying in regards to Michigan Arab-American and Muslim voters that, “A lot of our constituents will not vote for Trump but they’re also not exactly throwing a party about Hillary Clinton.”
But while the Michigan primary example seems so far in the past, a more recent event celebrated by American Muslims concerns Khizr Khan, the Pakistani Muslim lawyer father to the late Captain Humayun Khan (Captain Khan died serving in Iraq in 2004 from a car explosion. Saving many lives by ordering his soldiers to move away from a suspicious vehicle, Khan sacrificed his own life.).
Before delving into the results of Khan’s speech, we must understand its timing. For months, profound personalities from both sides of the two dominant political parties have tried to dismantle Donald Trump’s surge in support. From Senator Elizabeth Warren’s valiant Twitter battles to Governor John Kasich and Senator Susan Collins’s flat out disapproval—not to mention Senator Ted Cruz’s GOP convention stunt where he reaches out to people and their conscience—the barrage of dissent has not subsided. Even the general population of opposition, aside from elected officials, has moved away from smirking at the idea of a Trump presidency to actively contemplating ways to prevent it.
Earnest attempts to derail Trump include subtracting Trump’s support by propping up Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, listing Trump’s various contradictory positions, and even simply criticizing his appearance. Interestingly, media outlets have also outdone themselves by taking part in defaming Trump.
For example, days before Khan’s address, a few television media outlets lined up Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech side by side with First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. The similarity of the speeches was clear as the two women said many phrases that matched up word-for-word. Of course, providing such an obnoxious comparison on national television points to the state of our country’s media sources and their “unbiased” journalism. But luckily, the decision just happens to sit well with the times…
But even with all the voices of opposition and brave Trump rally protestors, Trump seemed to have come through mostly unscathed. Realizing the unwavering momentum of his campaign is key to pinpointing anything or anyone that significantly disrupts it.
From his direct and powerful speech, [Khizr Khan] showed the country that we are a resource packed with energy and logic.
Only a few events can be said to have truly damaged Trump’s support, one of the most notable being Khizr Khan’s Democratic National Convention speech. The speech, given by a member of one of the minorities demonized by Trump, helped drastically change the scene. Khizr Khan’s short six-minute speech delivered the initial punch of a week-long ring fight that decreased Trump’s support by more than a few percentage points. Some argue that the speech may have been the crucial turning point in the election (as Clinton’s support has markedly increased since then).
People in the crowd cried over Khan’s words and cheered at his iconic Constitution offer to Trump. The business mogul scrambled to respond with a stereotypical projection targeting Ghazala Khan, saying that Muslim women are not allowed to speak unless given permission to by their husbands. But the stereotype did not stick because Ghazala Khan responded herself that she was still in mourning over the death of her son. Even though his wife had a heavy heart, Khizr Khan said she coached him on what to say in the convention speech and how to say it.
While the interview with the Khans conducted by MSNBC did include some explanation, it was by no means defensive. In fact, Khizr Khan brought Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into the discussion. Doing so sent a mini ripple effect to other Republicans who do not wholeheartedly approve of Trump or his views, evoking either condemnation of Trump’s words or condolence for the Khan family’s loss. The exchange also charged dozens of other Gold Star families to speak up and denounce Trump’s candidacy.
Khizr Khan drew much-needed positivity toward American Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian descent. From his direct and powerful speech, he showed the country that we are a resource packed with energy and logic. By talking about his son, he reminded the nation that we also contribute to the US in the deepest ways possible. And from the outstanding strength exhibited by Ghazala Khan, the public sees that we are resilient humans who desire to live by high moral values and loyal actions.
The Michigan primary and the Khans’s Democratic National Convention address represent much of American Muslim sentiment during this election cycle. In the past, Muslims have not carried much of a voice as the Islamophobia campaigns—funded with 206 million dollars between 2008 and 2013 alone, according to a CAIR-University of California Berkeley report—dominated the scene.
Trump has engendered a response American Muslims have been waiting for: a unified front against Islamophobia that is not limited to just the Muslim community.
But now, with the greater public awareness of Islamophobia, spread ironically by extremist groups such as ISIS and politicians such as Trump, the environment feels a little bit more open for Muslims. Muslim leaders from the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) are taking advantage of the fear Trump brings. Through the “Million Voters Registration Drive,” USCMO aims to increase the number of registered Muslim voters from 300,000 to at least one million for the 2016 presidential election.
The Muslim block is currently fairly unified behind Democratic leadership, but it is small compared to the more than 100 million people who generally vote in the election. However, like in the Michigan primary, Muslims may be the key to several swing states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—states with some of the largest Muslim populations in America.
By trying to make Muslims a scapegoat and continuing the worn-out narrative hashed out by fearmongering media outlets, Trump has brought the issue of Islamophobia out into the open. For years, it has been present, even before 9/11, in a more hidden form. In 2000, CAIR reported several instances of Islamophobic remarks passed by individuals ranging “from Congressional candidates to syndicated columnists” in the United States and Canada. But these events, as well as other more violent ones against American Muslims in the 1990s, did not receive much airtime.
Now, Islamophobia is in the spotlight and the U.S. population can easily identify it. So while his campaign seems to be the culmination of decades of erroneous, intervention-based U.S. foreign policy and marginalization of minorities, not just the Muslim minority, it has presented previously tangled issues related to prejudice in a light that has never been more clear. As a result, Trump has engendered a response American Muslims have been waiting for: a unified front against Islamophobia that is not limited to just the Muslim community.
By having a strong response to Islamophobia forming in both the Republican and Democratic sides of the campaign, even if only to obtain the moral high ground for present and future presidential and congressional campaigns, the U.S. is cementing a considerably better code of conduct toward a thoroughly smeared minority. Hopefully, the code of conduct will continue to increasingly match with the core ideals of the U.S. Constitution, concerning “liberty,” “equal protection of law,” and freedom of religion. Islamophobia—and Trump’s use of it—has ultimately led to the unintended result of unifying sensible Americans and identifying true hatred.
Aushja completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He enjoys writing narratives, jumps at the chance to provide political commentary when appropriate, and is on the verge of publishing three children’s books—once he settles on a publishing company. Aushja wants to use every opportunity he sees to contribute to a more accepting world that respects diversity and latches onto thinking critically and passionately.