Donald Trump has called for bans on Muslim immigration, demanded that mosques be surveilled, alleged that “Islam hates us,” floated the falsehood that “thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City cheered the attack on the World Trade Center and accused the Muslim community of harboring terrorists.
The reaction from Muslim Americans? More subtlety than backlash.
They’re not sneaking into arenas to interrupt Donald Trump’s speeches. They don’t show up in large numbers to face off against Trump fans outside his rallies around the country. Nor do they stage mass events, like Black Lives Matter protests.
Instead, on a weekday morning last month in Paterson, NJ, several thousand Muslim Americans attended a festival for the holiday Eid. Men bowed on plastic prayer rugs as children waited in line for bouncy castles, pony rides and ice cream trucks. This celebration wasn’t held at a mosque, but in a public park — which was part of the point, attendees and organizers said.
“We’re distinct. We have that unique look. And we’re OK with that,” said Waleed Gabr, a father of three. “Because when people see us they knew we’re Muslim, and we want them to know these are the ones preaching Islam the proper way.”
Trump was not far from anyone’s mind. But there was no call to protest a Trump rally or even write letters to the editor of local papers. Instead, speaker after speaker implored the crowd to simply register to vote and head to the polls in November.
“As we say in politics: Elections have consequences,” said Mohamed Khairullah, the Muslim mayor of Prospect Park, NJ. “Let me repeat this: Elections have consequences.”
Voter registration drives are underway in Muslim communities around the country like never before. In Nashville, they’re taking a page from African American churches and busing Muslims to the polls. And in New Jersey, a group made up of 35 organizations called New Jersey Muslim Voters Project has been canvassing at mosques and community events for months.
At the Eid celebration in Paterson, non-Muslim politicians, with whom this community has quietly cultivated relationships, also took the stage. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is Jewish and a probable gubernatorial candidate next year, wished the crowd as-salamu alaykum, the Arabic for the Muslim greeting “peace be unto you.” Afterward, he said the voter mobilization efforts underway in the Muslim community in the era of Trump was unlike anything he had ever seen.
“There’s a sleeping giant there that has the potential to come out in big numbers as American citizens importantly and vote in massive numbers that they don’t tolerate hate,” Fulop said.
Al Abdel-Aziz, a Democratic activist, made an unsuccessful bid for city council in Paterson this year in a race crowded with Arab and Muslim candidates. He said Trump’s rhetoric has woken up the Muslim community to get more engaged — not as protesters, but as citizens.
“We’re running people for local office, we’re getting people from our community to sit on local boards — because that’s what they care about. They care about property taxes, they care about their education,” Adel-Aziz said. “If you look at my campaign you had two Arabs running, no one talked about Middle Eastern politics. We care about clean streets, safe streets, our education system. That’s what the issues were.”
Trump’s talk, though, has certainly created more immediate issues for the community. Hate crimes against Muslims are up across the country, and so is anecdotal evidence of women in Muslim garb being harassed on the street and Muslim kids bullied at school.
Jim Sues, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New Jersey, said some mosques have brought in psychologists to help answer the question: “How do you talk to your kids about what Donald Trump is saying?”
“It can be frightening for young children,” Sues said.
Some said the lack of a more forceful response to Trump’s indignities may have to do with how the community is still young in America, with roots in undemocratic countries and no decades-long tradition of fighting for civil rights.
But Amaney Jamal, a politics professor at Princeton University who is the director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, pointed to a more counterintuitive reason. She cited the widespread backlash that Trump faced after he suggested the mother of slain Muslim-American soldier, Humayun Khan, was not allowed to speak at the Democratic convention.
“For the Muslim American community, it’s a very proud moment in our history to see that the American society has stepped up and said, ‘enough is enough,'” she said. “And that’s where we feel we’ve been redeemed as a community.”
Muslim Americans don’t need to further highlight what they see as Trump’s bigotry because they’ve recently felt more support from non-Muslims than at any time since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Jamal said. In the wake of Trump’s comments on Muslims, Jamal’s friends have reached out with support, colleagues have offered to walk her to her car if she feels unsafe and police have been on alert for any attacks against mosques.
“It’s been one of the finest moments — I hate to say, it’s so sad to say this — but probably one of the finest moments in Muslim-American history in the last two decades,” she said.
That optimism was reaffirmed in recent weeks when another Muslim from New Jersey — Ibtihaj Muhammad, the fencer — became the first American Olympic athlete ever to compete while wearing a hijab. The Maplewood native has explained to America in regular media appearances about what a hijab head covering is — and about who she is as a Muslim American.
“In our society we have people who have misconceptions about Muslims in particular right now,” she told CBS Late Show’s Stephen Colbert. “And I want to challenge those misconceptions to show that Muslims are productive members of our society, including participating in the Olympics for Team USA.”
Sustained applause from the studio audience followed. It was exactly what Muslim Americans wanted to hear.