Marginalized and underrepresented communities across America will remember four years of the Trump presidency as ones of hopelessness and despair.
A 2018 study has found clear correlation between Trump campaign events and a spike in hate crimes. Victims of those hate crimes were targeted for their religion, color of skin and gender. Among many policies that challenged the American ideals of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, the Muslim Ban, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump stands distinct. It not only restricted a specific group of people from entering the United States because they came from Muslim-majority countries such as Somalia and Syria, but also led to the stigmatization of Muslims living peacefully in the United States. In the presidential election of 2020, Muslim voters spoke in an historic turnout, with almost 80% of the eligible Muslim voters making their voice heard. According to an exit poll conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations [CAIR], a large share of this Muslim vote, almost 70%, went to the Democrats.
American Muslims, as a community, have struggled over the years to set their voting priorities.
In the past, conservative religious values, exemplified by the Republican party, claimed the majority of the Muslim vote. However, over the years, the Democrats won the Muslim vote by aligning themselves with causes, such as social justice, immigration and Black Lives Matter movement — issues that American Muslims hold close to heart. The swing in the Muslim vote from Republican to Democrat significantly changed during the presidential election of 2016, when only 15% Muslims thought favorably of Trump. For this story, I surveyed Muslim voters with ties to the Pittsburgh area to explore what living through four years of Trump presidency looked like and what this important voting bloc expect from its elected representatives.
What did Muslims vote for in the 2020 election?
The Pittsburgh area is home to an estimated 10,000 Muslims. “We are a small percentage of the population, less than 1% nationally, but in some very important swing states, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Virginia, North Carolina to some degree, we are 2-3% of population,” said Dalia Mogahed, research director for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding [ISPU]. According to Mogahed, “the Muslim community can’t be ignored,” considering the fact that the margin to win electoral votes in some battleground states is a fraction of a percentage.
For the past five years, Mogahed has been the author of a national poll at ISPU that studies Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans in comparison to the rest of the American population. “What we get is how Muslim Americans are so ordinary,” said Mogahed, while highlighting that Muslim Americans prioritize the same economic and social issues as the rest of the Americans. However, she notes that Muslim Americans are more likely than average Americans to name civil rights, racism and civil liberties as priorities in their voting decision.
Pittsburgh-area Muslims agree. Saad Mahmood is an emergency room physician who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and has lived in the region since 1987. He said that he would like to stress to Americans of faiths other than Islam that “a lot of what we want is what they want.”
Mahmood believes that Muslim voters in particular are looking for elected officials who respect their religion and culture and do not otherize them. “When you are a parent and you are looking at your children and you know that they are going to grow up in this country, knowing that they will have a place is important,” said Mahmood, alluding to his one-year-old son. He believes that the Democrats are not hesitant or “afraid” in aligning with Muslims, and that makes a difference for the Muslim community.
Mogahed, who is currently based in the Washington, D.C. area, has a strong connection to Pittsburgh. Her family relocated from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh in September 2001 for her husband’s work and her graduate work at the University of Pittsburgh. The couple had a one-year-old son at the time. “We arrived on the day after the world changed and America changed. I experienced a post-9/11 America in Pittsburgh,” Mogahed said. During her time in Pittsburgh, she served as the outreach director for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh [ICP]. In this role, she spearheaded a robust educational program to fill in the growing need for accurate information regarding Muslims and Islam. The outreach at ICP branched from Pittsburgh to the entire region.
Dealing with hate, looking ahead
According to Christine Mohamed, executive director for the Pittsburgh chapter of CAIR, the Pittsburgh area has seen hate crimes against Muslims in its own backyard.
“Looking over from 2016, there has definitely been an influx of people facing discrimination,” said Mohamed.
As part of an organization that focuses on the protection of civil rights and advocacy, Mohamed’s work has involved working on and helping provide mediation for cases regarding discrimination against Muslims. not only in Pittsburgh but across the region. As an example, she brought up a recent incident that took place in King of Prussia in Montgomery County, where a Muslim man, Farrukh Abbas Hashmi, was physically and verbally assaulted by his neighbor, whom he asked to leash a dog that attacked him. Hashmi, who caught the incident on video, approached CAIR-Pittsburgh once he felt that the response of the law enforcement was a “slow go.” But once CAIR was involved, the case received some media attention and the man alleged to have assaulted Hashmi was identified and charged.
Mohamed has been part of CAIR-Pittsburgh for one year, but she is aware of the many uphill battles that CAIR-Pittsburgh has fought on behalf of Muslims during the last four years. One of the cases included an assault on a man of Indian descent mistaken for a Muslim and an attack on a 14-year-old Muslim girl at Chartiers Valley School District.
As a Muslim woman who covers her head with hijab, Mohamed has herself been a victim of hate speech on the streets of Pittsburgh. “I have gotten comments like, ‘Go back to your home country, you don’t belong here,’” said Mohamed, who was born in Pittsburgh to Christian parents and later converted to Islam. Based on her experience, she believes that during the last four years “Islamophobia kind of took a dive into the deep end.” People with racist ideologies were emboldened to pass judgements on people of color and different ethnicities.
For these reasons, the Muslim community received the results of the 2020 election as “more of a celebration of the current administration being removed than the new administration coming in,” observed Nur Iren, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. As a Muslim woman who also covers her head, Nur has found a difference in general perception and understanding of Muslims between the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh where she grew up and the City of Pittsburgh where she now attends college. “It was kind of nicer being here than in the suburbs,” Nur said. Though Nur has seldom experienced anything “hindering” herself, she is familiar with the experiences of other Muslim girls who wear hijab in Pittsburgh suburbs and had to encounter racist comments and remarks especially after the 2016 election.
A first-time voter in a presidential election, Nur said she felt that human rights were at stake. She is excited about the prospect of a female vice president but hopes that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris stays resilient in the face of male patriarchy in Washington, D.C. Nur said she would like to see Harris commit to passing legislation supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, police reform and closing the wage gap between men and women. These efforts, in Nur’s opinion, should also be reflected in the work of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County governments with investment in resources to curb gun violence in addition to supporting small businesses during the current pandemic and continuing efforts as a leader in climate advocacy.
Riffat Chughtai finds hope for future generations in the incoming administration. “It makes me feel so proud of a woman of color who is going to be the vice president because tomorrow my granddaughters might have the chance to be the vice president or president even,” said Chughtai while rejoicing over Harris’s victory. Chughtai, has been a resident of the Pittsburgh area for 37 years and is politically and civically engaged. She has actively campaigned for Democratic platforms for several years and serves as a national board member of PAKPAC, a political engagement forum that represents the interests of Pakistani diaspora in America.
Chughtai believes that incoming Biden-Harris administration has a huge task confronting them, in undoing the climate of discrimination and xenophobia perpetuated by the Trump administration.
Building community and trust
“In Pittsburgh, people don’t come across the river, even within the Muslim community,” said Sarah Jameela Martin, a retired educator, writer, filmmaker and resident of Pittsburgh city for 53 years. Like Nur, she too feels that though her personal experience as a Black Muslim woman in Pittsburgh has mostly been a pleasant one, she is concerned about he city’s history of police brutality against Black and Brown people and gun violence. However, she believes that what Pittsburgh needs the most are “courageous conversations” around race, class, religion and social identities. “Through education and interaction,” she said, “there is less fear and more fact, and when people aren’t as fearful, they can at least be understanding of other people’s positions and perhaps tolerate each other more and truly love them.”
Imam Abdul Aziz Suraqah, serves as imam and director of education and religious programming at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Monroeville. He is also a passionate advocate of building person-to-person relationships as a path to a better community. Imam Suraqah was born in America and converted to Islam at the age of 14. Personally, he is skeptical of both the Republican and Democratic parties and counsels Muslims “not to be bogged down” by either. “The Republican party doesn’t really care for Muslims as a voting bloc, and the Democrat party knows that the majority of Muslims will vote for them anyway, even if they never fulfill a single promise. I know that sounds pessimistic, but it is true of both parties as collectives (not individual members),” Imam Suraqah wrote in an email.
In outreach efforts to the Muslim community, President-elect Joe Biden has committed to undoing the Muslim Ban on his first day in the office. “In the Trump administration, right from the beginning the rhetoric that had come out included things like Muslim Ban,” said Basharat Saleem, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America, a national organization that has provided guidance and support and served needs of the growing Muslim community across North America since 1982. Saleem believes that such verbiage “alienates an entire community. This is unique to us as a community right now. We have to face it in addition to other issues as well.”
Saleem feels that Democrats are “friendlier” towards Muslims than the Republicans. He cites the example of ISNA’s 57th Annual Convention held September 4-7 2020, where Biden shared a positive message with the Muslim community, while the Trump campaign refrained from attending the virtual event.
As the Muslim community in America looks to the incoming administration for betterment and reconciliation, they are willing to play their due part in the process. Mogahed pointed out that the polls conducted by ISPU in 2017 showed “increased levels of civic engagement, increased levels of volunteerism, even donating to organizations that protect the rights of our community.” The political participation by Muslims in the recent election increased by almost 20% than the last presidential election in 2016. In 2020, 57 Muslim candidates have been elected to various constituencies across America.
What would American Muslims like to achieve by ramping up civic and political engagement?
“We hope for a better day,” Saleem said. A better day would look like the end of Muslim Ban in America on the first day of Biden presidency. According to Saad Mahmood, it would also include “politicians who work across the aisle and together to improve things for their constituents.”
Saima Sitwat is an educator and author of her newly published memoir “American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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