I was riding the New York City subway on a hot summer day with a friend last week when a man in a traditional shalwar qameez and topi perched himself on the seat across us. After exchanging cursory glances with the gentleman, my friend whispered in my ear, “I don’t understand how people can still dress like that. Don’t they feel scared?” Had it been any other day, I would have launched into a tirade about individuality, multiculturalism and owning your choices, but unfortunately, in that moment I found myself agreeing with her.
Just a day ago, an imam and an associate had been shot in cold blood while walking back from their afternoon prayer in Queens. There had been 78 recorded incidents against mosques in 2015, according to a report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and University of California, Berkeley. Another report published by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding showed an increase in hate crimes against Muslims towards the end of 2015, citing 180 reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence between March 2015 and March 2016. Owning your Muslim identity was no longer a matter of choice or pride but a question of safety, even in a melting pot like New York City where cultures and ethnicities are worn like badges of honour.
The sharp rise in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence since late last year coincides with the anti-Muslim rhetoric that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump mainstreamed during his election campaign. Right in the initial stages of his campaign, Trump called for an outright ban on Muslims, suggested screening them and went on to verbally attack an American-Muslim Gold Star family after they spoke in support of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Putting aside the audacity of Trump’s suggestions, especially given that he was vying to run for office in a country that prides itself on its religious, economic and social liberties, the more dangerous trend was the floodgates of venom and hatred that he unlocked for thousands of his supporters though his campaign. Remarks that were previously whispered by those on the fringes of xenophobia and Islamophobia were now openly chanted and cheered at rallies. In the past, those who thought twice before discriminating on the basis of religious and ethnic backgrounds now had a voice that encouraged them to do so, loudly and brazenly. By using racially charged statements as political currency, Trump normalised transactions of hate, and all of a sudden, everything and everyone was on the market.
For instance, Muslims were not Trump’s only target. During his campaign, he called to build a wall around Mexico to keep the “killers and rapists” from all over from entering the United States. He also repeatedly made derogatory comments about women, homosexuals and the disabled. In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that Trump’s entire campaign has been built on hatred and fear of the other. So much so, that many senior Republicans also distanced themselves from their party’s nominee given his extremist positions and outrageous statements about sensitive issues like immigration, terrorism and same-sex marriage.
Being an immigrant Muslim woman of colour in America, it has been hard not to feel singled out and personally attacked every time Trump rips into one or all facets of my identity, making generalisations that are far from the truth. It is also equally heartwarming to witness people from all walks of life push back against his discourse and reaffirm tolerance, plurality and acceptance as the cornerstone of American values. Come November, America will see if sanity can ‘trump’ fear and paranoia. Because the choice that faces voters is not between a Democrat and a Republican but between a candidate who promises to make America great by erasing its differences and one that acknowledges it is already great because of them.
Sarah Munir is a freelance multimedia journalist.