Culture » March 1, 2016
Why Donald Trump Sends a Chill Through My Muslim-American Body
Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is even more dangerous than it seems
Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims doesn’t bother me, because I don't think it will ever happen. ... But it makes casual bigotry against Muslims okay, and that has violent consequences.
The Huffington Post adds a disclaimer to nearly all of the articles it publishes about Donald Trump that says:
Editor's note: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims—1.6 billion members of an entire religion—from entering the U.S.
As an American Muslim, I deeply appreciate that disclaimer. Trump thrives on media attention—his entire campaign is based on saying outlandish things that will get him free press coverage—and this disclaimer helps contextualize any coverage the Huffington Post gives him.
But every time I read it, it sends a chill through my body. Every single time. Trump has said many offensive things about Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Asian Americans, women and the LGBTQ community, to name a few. But of all the bigoted statements he has made, the one that hits me the hardest—perhaps the only one that hits me at all any more—is his call for a Muslim ban.
I don't think Trump is spreading bigotry and racism in this country—I think he is unleashing it. He is saying the things that a lot of people already believed but were too polite or afraid to say in public. But there is a flip side to that. He is also telling Muslims something that deep down many of us have long feared but were afraid to say out loud: We don’t belong here. There is something very unsettling about it, like someone peeking into your deepest, most personal insecurity, and shining a bright light on it.
American Muslims are not monolithic, and I cannot claim to speak for everyone. I am an American-born son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants. Like many other people in my boat, I live in between two cultures and don’t feel like I fully belong to either. Navigating that space is a big part of the struggle for many American Muslims as we go through different stages of life—school, college, work, relationships, family.
When I was in elementary school, I was regularly asked about “Gandhi dots.” There was a Pakistani girl in my brother’s class who wore shalwar kameez to school every day. She was teased relentlessly. When the Gulf War broke out, kids at school asked me if my family owned oil wells “back home.” But that struggle was supposed to end with our generation. We told ourselves that it would be easier for our kids.
And then Donald Trump came along.
In December when I saw a story about a sixth-grade Muslim girl who got beat up in school in the Bronx by three boys who hit her because she was Muslim, it tore me to pieces and made me worry about my nieces and nephews.
Trump has popped our bubble. Of course he did not make people racist. Racism and bigotry have a long history in this country, and my personal experiences with bigotry growing up are far from unique and are actually pretty tame compared to those of many other people, Muslim and non-Muslim. Attacks against Muslims were widespread before Trump came along. Hell, our country has been at war with Muslims for nearly half my life. I have heard my share of ignorant, bigoted comments. Some of them have even been written in print, like the time in college when a classmate penned an op-ed in response to something I wrote suggesting that I should smile politely when airport security takes a second look and warning me that I’d have to deal with a lot worse if there were another attack like September 11.
During the Illinois Senate primary in March 2004, then-state Sen. Barack Obama was running in a competitive seven-way race. Home for spring break, I worked with a group of Asian American community organizers on Election Day to turn out voters for Obama from the heavily Pakistani and Indian Devon Avenue neighborhood on Chicago’s far North Side, near where I grew up. When we knocked on Muslim families’ doors, we made a point to tell them that Obama’s grandfather had been Muslim. It wasn’t just a “nudge nudge, wink wink.” It was an important fact, because even that tenuous kinship helped us feel like we belonged here.
Fast forward to November 2008, when I was knocking on doors for Obama in North Carolina. I had to explain to a woman that, “No ma’am, he’s not [Muslim]. I am, but he’s not.” She didn’t immediately respond, but later, as she was about to walk away, she said, “Well you seem nice enough. I’ll think about it.” By then it was already clear that electing Obama wasn’t going to be our redemption in this country.
Vile as he was, even George W. Bush drew a nominal distinction between terrorists who happened to be Muslim and the Muslim people more broadly. But Trump doesn’t even bother with those niceties. He doesn’t just seek to other us; he seeks to get rid of us. And he is giving permission to other people who feel the same way to say so out loud.
CNN reported last December that a 68-year-old military veteran at a Trump rally in South Carolina said, “Islam is not a religion. It’s a violent blood cult. OK?” A February poll by Public Policy Polling found that 56 percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina either believe Islam should be illegal in the United States or are not sure that it should be legal.
As these kinds of ideas become part of the acceptable discourse, people are emboldened to act on them. The reason Trump’s plan to ban all Muslims bothers me is not because I think it will ever happen. It won't. But it makes casual bigotry against Muslims okay, and that has violent consequences.
Just this past weekend, three Muslim men were found dead in Fort Wayne, Indiana. According to Vox, they had been “shot multiple times in what police, on Friday, called ‘execution style’ murders.” Although the motive has not yet been determined, many Muslims fear it was the victims’ religion. Whether or not that’s the case, we now live in an environment in which it very well could have been, and I believe it is reasonable to say that Trump has contributed significantly to that environment.
Trump has condoned violence against people of color by his supporters. After a mob at one of his rallies in Birmingham, Alabama beat up an African American Black Lives Matter activist, Trump remarked, “Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.” When two of his supporters in Boston urinated on and assaulted a homeless Latino man while he was sleeping, he sent a tweet condemning the attack but defended the attackers, saying, “They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are very passionate.”
It has been said that when Trump says, “Make America great again,” he really means “Make America white again.” I don’t think that’s true, because “white” is too inclusive a term for Trump’s America. Trump has already told us he doesn’t want Muslims in his country. He’s talking about getting Mexicans to build a wall to keep themselves out. He is openly flirting with the Ku Klux Klan. It would be an understatement to say that Trump is unwelcoming of people of color. But Trump’s America also has no place for white people who happen to be Jewish and/or LGBTQ. It doesn’t value white women except as objects. In other words, Trump’s America would expel or marginalize an overwhelming majority of Americans. That’s the bad news. The good news is, if most Americans are getting the boot, then maybe I do belong here, with them.
Saqib Bhatti is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Director of the ReFund America Project.