After the insurrection on Jan. 6, I posted a question on social media asking if ministers across the United States would denounce violence and white supremacy. As we watched angry rioters scream “Jesus is my president, Trump is my savior” during the raid on the Capitol, it was a genuine question. Quickly after sharing this post, I received a text message from a friend insisting that Christianity wasn’t linked to the Capitol insurrection.
I explained to her, as a Muslim American, that any time there is an attack committed by a fellow Muslim, our leaders are called to address radicalization, violence and terrorism within our community. She replied that Muslims were responsible for 9/11 and the casualties that took place. Then, she questioned whether my family and I were a threat to her because “as Muslims we are allowed to kill Christians and Jews.”
It was surreal ― but not unexpected.
As a Houston transplant, and a Muslim homeschool mom in a state where homeschooling is popular among the alt-right, I had expected to find myself at its epicenter, but that hadn’t been the case until this year. Prior to 2020, I worked in academia and existed in circles that mimicked my own views. Even my Republican colleagues were shocked that Donald Trump won the 2016 election. As my adviser said the day after the election, “Well, it seems like I’ve been sittin’ in the Ivory Tower too long to know what’s goin’ on out there.” It should also be noted, Houston is a very “blue” city and extremely diverse.
But, when I joined the homeschool group in my Houston suburb, I came into touch with a different reality.
After quitting a Ph.D. program in the fall, I wanted to meet other moms and help my kids make friends. I eventually joined a local playgroup of fellow homeschool moms that I was introduced to by another mom friend. My children and I were warmly welcomed to the group and my kids formed some friendships. Initially, the group’s conversations were solely about nearby hiking locations, family-friendly activities and vacations, healthy snacks and other mom-ish topics.
I knew most of the moms were more conservative than me, but it wasn’t until the onset of COVID-19 and the 2020 presidential election that it became apparent most of my new friends were either Trump supporters and/or entangled in QAnon conspiracy theories.
The first glimpse into some of their distorted realities came in the form of Facebook and Instagram posts and stories propagating popular conspiracy theories, like one that claimed Bill Gates co-created COVID-19 to microchip members of society. By late May, I began seeing a host of different “views” appear on my feeds, including how mask mandates are a violation of our personal rights, references to COVID-19 being a “plandemic,” and that 5G cellphone networks contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Slowly, posts and conversations began migrating from medical misinformation to election misinformation, with thoughts ranging from election fraud to the “deep state” working to limit our freedoms as Americans.
One afternoon, I met a friend at a local park where she went on to tell me children in America were no longer safe due to the prevalence of sex trafficking. She mentioned a few moms I should follow to learn more about sex trafficking in the United States, and for a while I thought #savethechildren was a hashtag campaign for the nonprofit organization Save the Children.
It wasn’t until a few months later that I learned about QAnon, and that the far-right conspiracy theory movement propelled theories that Trump was secretly fighting an underground child sex-trafficking scheme run by Democratic leaders like Hillary Clinton and other elites. I also learned that these infamous QAnon conspiracy theories were often propagated through the mommy blogging community on social media.
All of this was confusing as a visibly Muslim mom. I had spent the past four years listening to the former president belittle my faith and call for travel bans on my fellow community members across the globe. So, I questioned, how could these women accept me and my children, yet stand alongside folks who openly hate us because of our religious creed?
I approached a fellow liberal mother from the group about everything we were witnessing and she was completely unfazed. I expressed how I felt conflicted about remaining friends with the moms who were actively posting QAnon theories on their Instagram and Facebook feeds (which at this point was our main form of communication because I was in social isolation due to COVID-19). She replied along the lines of, “I wouldn’t have any friends if I vetted folks out because of QAnon-linked conspiracy theories.”
I cannot attest whether these fellow mothers are QAnon followers or if they merely believe in one of the many “big tent conspiracy theories” propelled by QAnon, which are ever shifting and evolving. Either way, the realization that my new friends support and believe QAnon conspiracy theories unfortunately led to the dissolution of many of these friendships.
Over the summer, I cut ties with the playgroup because the leader “had prayed and been enlightened that moving forward their group would not wear masks and/or follow social distancing protocols.” A few months later she sent a group email to everyone alerting them she and her family had tested positive for COVID-19 and that everyone should take appropriate public health measures. But I still remained in contact with a few of the moms.
The moms I continued to talk to on a regular basis hold far-out beliefs; it cannot be denied. They believe Bill Gates is trying to geotag us. A few believe COVID-19 is a government-orchestrated campaign to create a surveillance society. Some believe the presidential election was fraudulent.
And yet, despite all this, I haven’t cut my ties with all of them over their beliefs. I thought about it. In my heart, I wanted to run the other way because as a liberal, Muslim American, I found their views alarming and scary. But, I resisted the urge to cancel them from my network.
I am even still in contact with the mom who asked if we were a threat to their safety. After she asked me whether we were a threat to her family because of our faith, we had some difficult conversations. She voiced her concerns about our faith based on information she had obtained through her religious community. I provided information based on my religious creed. In the end, we arrived at a common ground based on a mutual respect for each other.
Ultimately, I have learned two things from this experience. First and foremost, we have to keep having conversations and connecting with folks who look, think, worship and vote differently. I regret cutting ties with a few friends upon the realization they were Trump and QAnon supporters, because I believe we have to keep finding our commonalities and discussing our differences.
I do not know if these dialogues will matter. My hope is it will. I hope by providing an opposing viewpoint and having a conversation about my own perspectives, they will question the narratives they find on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and apps like Parler.
A lot of these women feel frustrated with social media censorship. Some feel their voices are lost and the media constantly lies to them. But I hope by sharing my news sources, knowledge and information, they too will do more research.
I am not sure we will ever meet at a common ground of understanding or even see the world from the same vantage point. But, I do know for our democracy to work, we have to keep having these hard conversations. We have to keep showing up in circles that do not look like our own. And, we have to keep working together to find a common ground.
My hope is that enough of us on both sides of the spectrum will have these meaningful connections, for ourselves, our families and our democracy.