Joe Biden will help shape a better perception of Muslim-Americans

ANDREW FAVAKEH | ASSOCIATE SPORTS EDITOR | dfavakeh@butler.edu

Content Warning: Mention of racist violence and Islamophobia in article below. 

In May 2011, a 13-year old Umayr Shaikh was asked by his history teacher to lead a class-long discussion about Islam before their test the next week. Shaikh, a proud Muslim, graciously accepted. Standing tall at the front of the class, he taught the class about Islam and how to write in Arabic.

After class, Shaikh walked back to his locker to retrieve some notebooks. Turning around, he saw two of his peers towering over him, fists cuffed. They proceeded to beat him incessantly while hurling racial slurs at him. This racist act happened shortly after the United States Special Forces killing of Osama Bin Laden.

“The physical thing was overshadowed by the emotional part of it,” Shaikh, now a senior Spanish major, said. “I sort of lost respect for my religion. Before then, I never thought anyone could harbor that much hate or resentment towards something and that really changed the way I viewed Islam in the States, that people actually hate Muslims, and people don’t respect them, and people want them to get out, they don’t see them as equals, or as people, and that was very, very harmful for me.”

While the physical scars on Shaikh’s body eventually faded, the emotional scars lingered. He used to take solace in reading his Quran every day and attending Sunday school, but after the bullying incident he stopped doing both activities. He “lost passion” for his religion, and for years, he kept his feelings bottled up — Islamic culture largely sees vulnerability as a weakness. Shaikh dreaded being seen as weak.

“I became a lot more distant,” Shaikh said. “I’m a very outgoing person and I just became very introverted, very isolated, and a lot of people didn’t know what happened; like, my parents knew, a few other people knew, but for the majority, they just saw this kid that was totally different than he was a couple weeks ago, and they didn’t totally know why, and that pushed a lot of people away from me, so that was very damaging, too.”

Although bits of his passion for his religion slowly returned — evident in his creation of Brebeuf Catholic High School’s Muslim Student Association and his membership in the Butler Muslim Student Association — the memory of the bullying incident still hovers over him like a dark cloud.

What Shaikh experienced on that day represents what the estimated 3.45 million Muslims living in America likely experience daily: Islamophobia, or the intense dislike or fear of Islam, especially as a political force, and hostility or prejudice towards Muslims. For Shaikh and other Muslim-Americans, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 has only worsened hostile conditions, even in Indianapolis.

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When biology major Manahil Nadeem’s family moved to Carmel, they were surprised to find how far they had to travel to go to the mosque every day; it was 25 minutes away, in downtown Indianapolis. As such, they, along with the other Muslims in the community, made a motion to the city to implement a mosque in downtown Carmel in 2017.

The Carmel zoning meeting was held on Feb. 26, 2018. The gym was packed, half of it with Muslims, other half with white people. It was stiflingly crowded, even after moving the event to a bigger gymnasium. 

The question at hand: should there be a mosque in Carmel?

Slowly but surely, white person after white person took to the podium and provided reasons as to why Carmel should not implement a mosque.

“Lines and lines of people came up to the mic, and they would cite different reasons,” Nadeem said. “They were like: this isn’t about race, this isn’t about religion, but I think that a mosque would create sound pollution, just like the most crazy reasoning, like the lights will shine into my house, they were just like the weirdest things they brought up that obviously wouldn’t even be a problem, you know. Sound pollution? No one has ever thought that would be a problem before.”

Until that moment, Nadeem felt like the Carmel community embraced her. Having moved away from a small town in rural West Virginia in fifth grade, she had met more Muslims in a new, seemingly tight-knit community. While she had known from a young age that she was different from her blonde-haired, blue-eyed peers, it was the board meeting that officially sparked an epiphany for Nadeem: she was an outsider, and therefore, she was unwelcome.

After the Muslim community won the board meeting 3-2, the residential neighborhood appealed it, suing the city on the grounds that it was an unfair decision and sending the case to a higher court. In the end, the Muslim community prevailed, but for Nadeem, the victory was almost beside the point.

“It’s still gonna be a point of tension, you know, even if that mosque does get built, there’s always gonna be, like, ‘oh, the people in that neighborhood really don’t like us,’” Nadeem said. “Feeling unwelcome, especially where your mosque is, it’s not really gonna be a great feeling. At the end of the day, justice won, but I also noticed that a lot of people moved out of that neighborhood once the approval came in, they were like: ‘This isn’t for us,’ kind of thing, which is blatant discrimination and racism.”

Discrimination cases like Nadeem won’t happen as often with Democratic nominee Joe Biden as president. But for Muslim-Americans to be treated even more fairly, he needs to improve his mixed track record.

Through the 1980s, Biden supported immigration laws and voted for many bills in favor of immigrants, but after the mid-1990s, he repeatedly helped pass legislation that weakened immigrants’ rights, both documented and undocumented, while giving increased power and resources to authorities for finding and deporting undocumented people. As vice president to then-president Barack Obama from 2008 to 2016, Biden championed policies that funded border militarization and deportation to respond to a growing migration crisis, and allowed Obama to actively engage in drone warfare throughout the Middle East, killing civilians and American citizens.

Recently, as part of his response to a question about Trump’s tax returns during the 2020 presidential debate on Sept. 29, Biden uttered “Inshallah” — meaning “god willing” in Arabic. His comment tore apart the Muslim community, with some finding it endearing and others, disrespectful.

All that said, Trump has inflicted more damage in four years in politics than Biden has in 50 years as it relates to Muslim-American relations. A vote for Biden, while not a panacea, represents a step towards America and the Muslim community finding a middle ground. A presidential change, if nothing else, will improve the perception of Muslims living in America. If Trump is re-elected, then, Muslim-Americans will be subject to unforeseen levels of abuse, violence and danger.

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When the Nov. 2015 Paris Attacks occurred — in which three suicide bombers connected to ISIL killed 130 people — first-year biology major Rami Daas, then in eighth grade at Fall Creek Junior High School in Fishers, Indiana, was berated by insults from his classmates.

Daas had experienced racism before, having emigrated from Jordan to Canada, then to Indiana. On his first day in America, while attending third-grade class at Lantern Road Elementary school in Fishers, Indiana, he couldn’t help but notice the other kids donning the latest Nikes, while he dressed in worn-down soccer cleats and ripped t-shirts.

What Daas dreaded most was his third period music class. He would try and try, but for the life of him, he could not pronounce the word guitar. Gee-tar. Gee-tar. Gee-tar. His classmates made fun of him. At first, he wondered why he couldn’t be like everyone else, but over time, he grew used to it. So, when 2015 rolled around — and his classmates asked him how his trip to Paris last weekend was — Daas remained mostly unbothered, desensitized to Islamophobic remarks. Daas said the bullies didn’t even know him.

“By that time, I saw that as I got older, I got more comfortable being in my own skin,” Daas said. “I feel that, especially as I got older, I really got comfortable with the idea of being different. But as a little kid, you’re not necessarily ready to take on that challenge, because no kid should have to feel different for being the way that they are.”

62% of Americans have never met a Muslim, according to PewResearch, leaving them to piece together their own image out of second-hand experience, often through the mainstream media — like Daas’ bullies likely did. Mainstream media has always warped the image of Muslim-Americans as diametrically-opposed to the West. Hollywood, in particular, largely frames Muslims as “small-minded, “evil,” “demonic” and “fanatical” terrorists.

As anti-media as Trump presents himself, he ironically echoes their Islamophobic sentiment, mostly through his avid use of Twitter. 37 of Trump’s tweets leading up the 2016 presidential election contained anti-Islam, anti-Muslim or anti-Middle Eastern refugee rhetoric, misinformation, and pure hatred. In a statement posted on Twitter, Trump wrote that Muslims have “great hatred towards Americans” and “believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life.”

In 2011, Trump, then a mere reality TV show star, accused Barack Obama of worshipping Allah, demanded he release his birth certificate, and when he didn’t, threatened to send investigators to Hawaii to unearth the truth — as though it was a crime for a Muslim to be president. At a 2015 campaign rally, Trump said “I think Islam hates us.” Quite the opposite, really. 

At a later campaign rally, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” He announced he would “look into” surveilling mosques and potentially going after the families of domestic terrorists in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting — never mind the privacy laws that legally restricted him from doing so.

It is no coincidence that, when Trump announced his intent to run for election, from 2014 to 2015, Anti-Arab hate crimes increased more than 200%.

After winning the 2016 election, Trump swiftly enacted order 13769 — more commonly known as the Muslim ban — which placed stringent restrictions on travel to the United States for citizens of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all of which are largely-Muslim countries. This spurred his ardent supporters beyond just spewing hateful words; they were galvanized to act, in the form of plotting to blow up an apartment housing 120 Somali immigrants.

At a recent campaign rally in Pennsylvania on Sep. 22, Trump fired a racist attack at Democratic Minnesota Senator representative Ilhan Omar, saying she “truly hates our country” — despite the fact that she has been a U.S. citizen for 20 years after emigrating from Somalia to the United States as a child — which led to death threats against Omar.

Experts have also discovered that Islamophobia has increased during the Trump presidency, specifically as it relates to social media. Anisah Basagara is a psychology professor at Kennesaw State who was granted a social media content policy fund by Facebook last year to study Islamophobic rhetoric on the platform. She chose to hone her research — which is currently unpublished but under review by the American Psychological Association — on public Facebook pages.

Through looking at mainstream and conservative media pages, comments on Muslim pages of Muslim organizations and major Muslim public figures in America, she discovered three themes that less surprising to her than grossly disturbing.

First, many social media commenters did not view Islam as a religion, but as a political ideology or cult. Second, commenters believe Islam is compatible with neither Western values nor Christianity. Third, they believed that electing Muslims to Congress — most recently the 2018 elections of Muslim women, including Omar and Democratic Sen. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — was antithetical to American values.

These three themes, Basagra said, reflected an “us versus them” attitude between white Americans and Muslim-Americans — a divisive attitude spreading throughout America like the plague.

“Obviously, with the conservative media, there’s a lot more dehumanizing language and imagery, like ‘Muslims are not human, they’re not at the same level,’” Basagra said. “[We found a lot of] language that associates Muslims or Islam with cancer or disease.”

Take, for example, the “punish the Muslim a day,” a series of letters mailed to homes, lawmakers, and businesses in March 2018, which listed a disturbing point system that would award attackers for hate crimes towards Muslims. Shaikh’s aunt, an attorney in Wisconsin, received a similar hateful letter in the mail from an anonymous mailer. The sender threatened to burn her house down and kill her family.

“I think [Trump’s] ideologies, the agenda he is promoting, most definitely encourages people who agree with him, and it empowers them to take actions like this,” Shaikh said. “I guess you could say they are independent events, but to me, there’s a pretty clear correlation, that a majority of these things weren’t happening before he took office. He’s definitely empowering his supporters to do these kinds of things.”

Under a Biden presidency, these events will happen less often. On Oct. 15, Biden told the Civil Rights organization Muslim Advocates that on his first day of presidency, he vows to repeal Trump’s “unconstitutional” Muslim ban, in addition to pushing Congress to pass hate crimes legislation, ending family separation at the border, increasing protections DACA recipients, increasing number of refugees to 125,000 and promoting Muslim-Americans to higher levels of government. 

Over the summer, Biden hosted a virtual meeting with more than 3,000 Muslim leaders through the Engage Action advocacy group, during which he stated his wishes for public schools to do more to educate students about the Muslim faith. On Twitter, he has written “Eid Mubarak” and “Ramadan Mubarak” — celebrating Muslim holidays — and denounced China’s internment of one million Uighur Muslims, calling it “among the worst abuses of human rights in the world today,” and that “the U.S. cannot be silent — we must speak out against this oppression and relentlessly defend human rights around the world.”

***

A day before the 2016 election, Yossra Daiya, a first-year political science and philosophy double major, then a high school freshman, was sitting in her regional world studies class in Normal Community High School in Normal, Illinois when she heard something that shocked her. The substitute teacher, who was hosting a discussion about the divisive election, moved to the topic of the Muslim ban and decided to announce her perspective. 

While all the students agreed that the Muslim ban was unfair, the substitute rebutted: “Trump definitely has the grounds for the Muslim ban.” A lot of students argued back, but the three Muslim-Americans in the class, including Daiya, marched out of the classroom and reported the substitute’s unabashed act to the principal. Although the teacher was restricted from teaching at the school again, Daiya will never forget her religion being so belittled.

Daiya was raised to be a proud Muslim. Born on Sept. 12, 2001, her father named her Yossra, which translates to “with hardship, comes ease” in Arabic. With her father serving as an Imam,  Daiya practically grew up in the local mosque. She started donning a hijab in sixth-grade every day, a physical representation of her unabashed Muslim pride. That her substitute’s argument shook someone so normally proud of Islam, then, speaks volumes about the effects of Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric.

“A lot of times, you can’t come back at people disrespectfully because a lot of times the people making the comments are in more of an authoritative place; a lot of times, it won’t be students coming up to you saying they hate Muslims, a lot of times, sometimes it will just be the way they look at you,” Daiya said.

In the wake of Trump’s election win, assaults in 2016 against Muslim-Americans surpassed the previous high set in 2001.

“We’re seeing people get comfortable engaging in this kind of rhetoric because they see it as sanctioned by the conservative wing of the government and that, of course, is concerning,” Basagra said.

Approaching the 2020 presidential election, Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric has grown exponentially. Just a couple of weeks ago, Shaikh said he was walking with his family in his neighborhood of Carmel, Indiana, when a black truck full of teenagers rolled down their window and shouted: “Go back to your country!” 

Muslim-Americans will continue to be singled out — through the media or in person — until a new president is ushered in, and the direction of national discourse can be changed.

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