When a singular aspect of your identity is politicized, how do you cope with Islamophobia in Trump’s America?
March 15, 2018
This past summer, a white woman with pearl earrings on the Upper West Side stared at me and told me that I must be very rich to buy toilet paper from an upscale bodega. She suggested I go to Rite Aid to buy toilet paper and paper towels, but then she looked down at my sweatshirt and flip-flops and hastened to add: “Or your employer is very rich. Must be the person you take care of.”
Just moments earlier, she had said that two white children in front of her in the line, who were there with their Latina babysitter, were “ill-mannered,” and that she would “never trust a Hispanic with my own children.”
I refused to engage with her condescending comments, but I left the store wondering how such micro-aggressions come to be normalized. As someone who has her A-game on per being dressed-up the majority of the time, this inappropriate lack of filters on the day I was not was unappreciated, but it is not uncommon.
My identity has become the site of negotiating my acceptance and admission into America. I have been stopped for “random” checks in 89 airports. Whether in bureaucratic forms, or on the street, listing myself as Muslim is as common in hospital visits as on social media, and this identity, at once discernible from my very Arabic name, has become a politicized site of my identity that could be used for surveillance and monitoring.
“‘New York is not the place to be Islamophobic. Say anything more and I will scream for help.'”
A couple of weeks after my run-in with the racist woman on the Upper East Side, it was Eid, the largest Muslim holiday of the year. I stopped to pick up drinks in Hell’s Kitchen for a party in Briarwood, Queens. A skinhead couple from the Midwest stood by me at the intersection of 57th and 9th. I was dressed in a traditional South Asian selwar kameez, having just dropped off a dysfunctional tea kettle at a store. There were clouds out, but it had not rained that day. My outfit was white, demure, with faint gold thread patterns woven in. The couple glared at my full-on desi Eid garb, and one of them hissed at me to “Go home.”
I turned around, smiled and said Salam and Eid Mubarak to them, before pointing at the police officer on the other side of 57th Street, and added, “New York is not the place to be Islamophobic. Say anything more and I will scream for help.”
As I walked away, however, I pondered how often I have faced instances of Islamophobia and racism in New York City since this past U.S. presidential election.
In 2016, I moved to the United States. The rising furor of intolerance in South Asia was one I thought was behind me, and in New York City, I hoped to find a safe space in a diverse city that would allow me to continue addressing topics ranging from comprehensive education, arts, politics, eradicating HIV stigma, promoting children’s rights, and speaking up about LGBT rights. In 2016, I entered an unraveling country, whose rising far-right rhetoric mirrored the extremism towards annihilating diversity that I had been forced to flee.
Soon after the failed terror attack in December—where the suspect was a Bangladeshi national— friends organized protests in Queens and in front of the United Nations. Their protest signage was simple: “Bangladeshis love peace.” To have to reiterate this simple fact feels repugnant to pacifist sensibilities, because Islam, and those who practice it peacefully, have become so marginalized in western contexts, to the extent that class, citizenship, and racism have become part of the lingua franca of conversations. But when I attended a dinner party in Briarwood soon after, I understood the anxiety. Fahmida Ahmed, an advertising executive, spoke eloquently about how each terror attack is followed by counter-harassment on communities by angry mobs. “My mother, who wears a hijab and lives in the south, is a walking target,” said Ahmed. “Innocent immigrants have to pay the price of those who leave.”
The systemic unraveling – indeed gaslighting, of the American public by the current U.S. federal government, has unleashed white hate crime and hate speech on a level I had hitherto thought impossible in the United States. According to The New York Times, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted nearly 900 instances of hate and bias in the first 10 days after the election, using news reports and witness testimonies to arrive at this number. The SPLC’s tally was 1,094 hate incidents in the first month after the election, and 1,863 between November 9 and March 31.
Since 2016, I found myself subjected to repeated psychotic meltdowns and brutish overtures on social media with increasing fervor; what began last summer with declarations of, “Don’t worry, I won’t deport you,” from strangers on social media.
Islamophobia has become hegemonic across the U.S. political spectrum, particularly since Donald Trump called for a Muslim ban. White supremacists such as Jeremy Joseph Christian, who shouted “Get out of the country,” and other anti-Muslim slurs at two teens in a Portland subway this summer, had publicly used Nazi paraphernalia to support his beliefs. When two men, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Ricky John Best, intervened after Christian harassed the girls, both men were murdered by this self-professed Nazi supremacist. Trump did not bother to berate the attack from his personal “RealDonaldTrump” Twitter account, choosing to do so from his less-frequented POTUS Twitter account, after being pressured by the media to comment on the attacks on the two white men.
Freely speaking with anti-Muslim sentiment has abusive repercussions that reverberate and percolate long after the hate speech acts are completed. President Trump was loath to call the right-wing terrorism in Charlottesville as such, when a car ran over pedestrian protesters, killing one and injuring 19, who were protesting the right-wing march at the University of Virginia.
The hypocrisy is apparent when looking at the NYC terror attack – where, just like Trump’s reaction to the Spanish extremist attack – this summer was the penultimate act of swift, draconian xenophobia towards Muslims, even while he legitimized the racist attack in Charlottesville.
“Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and this country and that is — you can call it terrorism, you can call it murder, you can call it whatever you want,” Trump replied to a reporter who questioned him about Charlottesville.
“There is nothing ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ about barbaric acts committed by extremists in the name of my religion.”
While the Trump White House regularly churns out rhetoric that vilifies Muslims, what chilled me most about Trump’s tweet after the attacks in Spain, is the distinction the current president makes along religious binaries about who gets deemed a terrorist.
In regards to Spain, Trump tweeted: “Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” Philippines-based General John “Black Jack” Pershing is a figure whose life Trump liberally embellished on the campaign trail. Trump said at a rally that in the early 1900s, Pershing killed (Filipino Muslim) rebels by dipping bullets in pigs’ blood, and spared one rebel, to act as a messenger and tell families about Pershing’s mercy.
The tweet aimed to rouse anger in Trump’s voter base towards the United States’ 3.5 million Muslims, who have been touted as the country’s least desirable immigrants ever since Trump decided to run for election. Trump identifies “Islamic” terror as predating modern times. Then he suggests all Muslims are terrorists by insinuating “radical terror” as “Islamic.” And finally, by implying terror within Islam is inherently permissible within our religion, he invokes falsifiable ideas of totalizing vengeance as endemic to something Muslims want.
In conflating Islam with terrorism, Trump is not alone, for the western media has forcefully tried to marry Islam with terrorism post 9/11, as problematic words such as “Islamism,” “Islamist,” and “Muslim terror,” became the lingua franca of counterterrorism practitioners and media pundits, and words like “Islamic” are being used to suggest there is no separation between terrorists and the condition of being Muslim. These terms – once nebulous, have become solidified as part of a western lexicon that internalizes Islam as inseparable from terrorism, and have become the emblematic markers of how my religion has been identified by the western media in the wake of the Twin Tower attacks.
Terrorism does not run on party lines, just as religion does not. There is nothing “Islamic” or “Muslim” about barbaric acts committed by extremists in the name of my religion. To imbue practitioners of an entire religion of over one billion as all being capable of embracing extremism, as incapable of assimilating to their contexts, is a foolish and short-sighted move, incongruous to lived narratives. Using Muslims as the pawns who threaten America’s security, does not take into account our personal stories. How can our movements be such a threat, when we have embraced the cultures of those countries to which we have migrated, when we pay taxes and aid the local economy?
Even in my own family – my ancestors migrated several times in the last five centuries, from Scotland to Iraq to India to Bangladesh, Pakistan to the United Kingdom. They preached Sufism, were judges in India’s highest courts, legislators, doctors, poets, memoirists, and to this day, several work to alleviate the social conditions of wherever they live. Most have humble lives, though some definitely do not.
As someone who grew up listening to Tom Petty and The Beatles, and contemplating the actions of both Holden Caulfield and Jack Kerouac, and Huckleberry Finn, the white male gaze and western literature have showcased to a writer like me that I must seek out other sources to create balances to hear my own culture’s stories. Yet it is also quite clear to me that the distant America of my youth was informed on the promises engraved on the Statue of Liberty – not by the Islamophobic reasoning that perceives my presence, and sheer existence, as an enemy of America when nothing could be further from the truth.
“But in the United States of late, I am reduced to a singular religious aspect of who I am.”
This definition of who is deemed a terrorist must expand to include white supremacists and certainly, diabolical free speech acts must be held in check, if the U.S. is to take the hierarchies in its justice system seriously. According to a study compiled from police data at the Center for Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, “The number of hate crimes in 13 cities with a population of over 250,000 rose to 827 incidents, up 19.9 percent from 690 reported during the same period last year.”
Mental health and psychotic breakdowns have become a race privilege, but psychotic breakdowns that are perpetuated by hateful “free” speech acts deserve to be treated as precursors to terrorism – irrespective of race and religions – if we are to make steps towards redressing extremist violence.
There are many parts to my identity – writer, journalist, communications specialist, fundraiser, human rights advocate, sister, daughter, friend. But in the United States of late, I am reduced to a singular religious aspect of who I am. America made me Muslim, and America continues to perceive this aspect of my identity as though it is a black mark on my character, even though I, and the liberal and secular Muslims I know, are the precise targets of the terrorists who have smuggled our public relations.