By: Kira Margoshes
WASHINGTON, D.C.-American Muslim communities nationwide are feeling the backlash of negative rhetoric and Islamophobia. The upcoming presidential election and its candidates in particular, have proved to be the initiator of this negativity. This vote could mean the difference between a tentative continuation of the status quo, and an increasingly violent climate for Muslim Americans. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and fellow candidate Ted Cruz have turned Islamophobic comments into a contest, each proposing more radical measures than the other. To counter these comments, Muslim Americans are doing all they can to get to the ballot box and make their voices heard. With the Islamic Circle of North America(ICNA) and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) the goal to register a million American Muslim citizens for the upcoming presidential election is underway.
“I do plan on voting,” said Aqsa Arain, 21, an American University senior and member of American University Muslim Students Association. “I will be voting for whoever the Democratic candidate is. It’s a responsibility as a citizen and as a Muslim and it’s important to be represented and it won’t really happen if the Republican party wins. I find it very important, definitely more so because of the issues of the negative rhetoric toward Muslims.”
Arain is just one of thousands of Muslim students who are now dealing with an ever-tense and increasingly Islamophobia climate that has taken become a catalyst in the political campaigns, and has become a seemingly accepted way to treat fellow citizens.
“It’s not the world attacks that have not led to the backlash, but it’s really the rhetoric that increases the hate crimes and because of this rhetoric I do think it’s been the cause. I personally have felt a lot more prejudice in the DC area which I never felt before,” she said. “This campaign has really effected a lot of Muslims in the community which is kind of like how it was after 9/11. It’s back to the 9/11 sentiment if not worse. I think that now a lot of Muslim communities feel like they need to step up and do something about it.”
Both the ICNA and CAIR along with other organizations aimed at maintaining the safety and rights of Muslim Americans have joined together to begin a massive national voting movement.
Patrick Burnett, Program Coordinator of Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University concurred with the gravity of the situation, as well as the importance of the opportunity presented.
“This hasn’t been on the line before,” said Waqas Syed, International Circle of North America deputy secretary general.
The idea for the mobilization in voter registration was conceived right after a summit in December. According to Syed, it was one of a handful of action ideas pooled together by over 100 different local and national organizations in the fight against the growing Islamophobia in America. One month later, the idea of voter mobilization had turned into the project in motion, it is today. Throughout this process, the organizations have remained committed to reaching the goal of a million registered Muslim American voters before the presidential election, to give a voice, to ensure a fair voice for this minority population.
“There isn’t any obstacle to Muslim American voter registration,” Syed said. “They are very aware. They understand the importance and the significance of this.”
But it’s not just Muslim Americans who could potentially be affected by various candidates’ proposed legislation policies. Non- Muslim minority communities such as Hispanics, Asians and African Americans are equally important, come voting day.
“What needs to be done is accessibility,” Arain said. “Being more politically active, for those who are not and a lot of what I’ve been hearing through the supportive groups is uniting with the other groups, the Black groups, Hispanic groups and even the majority white community just need to stand together. I think that’s the best way, for everyone to speak together so it unites as one voice, as an equal voice, as the minority joins together, we can stand with the majority.”
(Photograph taken by Kira Margoshes, December 6, 2015 outside of the Islamic Center in Washington, DC. People begin to gather at the mosque for prayer.)
Muslims make up about one percent of the population, but have the numbers where it counts.
“There are districts and communities already where American Muslims form the political balance between Democrat and Republican for the campaign even without the registration effort,” said Syed. “Already there are many areas (Oregon, Iowa, etc.) now with additional voters that would not just be Muslims, but as many people as possible. We are very confident that we can reach our goal and surpass it.”
Jeta Luboteni,20, of Springfield VA and SIS major at American University, isn’t convinced that participation in this election should be the only political event that draws people out. Both they and their brother have voted in the primary, coming from a family that is “quite involved” with the political situation.
“I think they(Muslim communities) should be politically active all the time,” Luboteni said. “Democracy is very compatible with our religious beliefs. Voting rights are very important. I know that the minorities tend to be inter-sectionalized. About one third of Muslims are black, and that has a racial component.”
The presidential campaigns have been anything but conventional, thus far. With threats of deportation and bans on certain individuals, the fear mongering is tangible.
“This Presidential election has garnered a lot of bigotry and hate aggression toward American Muslims and has allowed the slow infiltration of hate of American Muslims in society,” said Syed.
“The rise in Islamophobic rhetoric is misdirected hate and bigotry by politicians.By politicians who have failed on their part to answer the American people. Why are poor people paying more taxes than rich people, why are poor people suffering from race discrimination? Including American Muslims, undocumented migrants, Hispanic populations, women, etc.?”
“This election is pivotal for American Muslims.”
Even those not usually involved with politics are demanding a change.
“I think people are in this election because there are extremes on both sides so the stakes are much higher,” said sophomore Izabella Banka, 19. “I haven’t voted before but will this time because of the stakes. Friends that discuss it are more eager to vote. They’ve never been more vocal or incentivized to vote. I think it’s important for everyone not just the Muslim community. I think even if you’re not directly effected or you don’t feel attacked by the candidates you still have something at stake.”
As the quantity of violent incidents increases and the palpable level of Islamophobia now blatant, it is only a matter of time before it reaches its boiling point.
(Data from FBI Hate Crime Database)
“There were 70 attacks on American Muslims last year,” Syed said. “This year already, that number has been exceeded. This is a direct result of the rhetoric.”
Dealing with Islamophobia on a daily basis has become habitual for some, while others are spared harassment, at least in person. Luboteni’s Albanian heritage has helped shield her from some of the Islamophobic comments in her day to day activities, but when it comes to the Internet, she’s just as at risk as anyone else.
“I don’t appear to be Muslim at first glance, because I have lighter skin and hair. My family is Albanian, so that intersectionality prevents people from engaging in Islamophobia and directing it at me,” she said. “I’ve obviously been hearing it like on Twitter, you see people spewing hateful comments. I think it’s become more acceptable for people to say things they have already been thinking out loud. Most of it is people not having context and not understanding.”
“Oddly enough I have not. My friends tell me stories all the time. I’m really lucky, actually,” said Banka.
While discrimination and aggressions rise, the animosity isn’t going unnoticed by the international community. What many may not realize, is that the fallout by this negative reputation is most keenly felt Americans and American interests abroad.
“This kind of action that causes harm to people is bad for America internationally,” said Syed. “International businesses, armed forces, American overseas, they feel the backlash from theses actions. This is a problem.”
But there is a silver lining. As much as there is a rise in bigotry and targeted attacks against American Muslims, there is also an increase in the number of people trying to help and show solidarity.
“American Muslims are getting a lot of support from both Muslims and non-Muslims. This bigotry and misunderstanding by people is historic in America,” said Syed. “The Catholics were in the exact same spot we are. They faced condemnation in the country, blame for taking jobs, etc. We feel this situation is very similar to that.”
Despite the status quo, Syed is hopeful for the future of American Muslims and their relationships with fellow citizens. The hope that people will recognize that an American is still an American, regardless of what else he/she/they identify with.
“The people will understand American Muslims are just another piece in the puzzle of American society. To help stabilize not cause destruction.”
This presidential election has more than just political implications for the next four years, but will determine if the minority communities, especially Muslim Americans will feel a sense of security for the next four years, or if the worst is yet to come.
“There’s a lot of stuff that is ignored by mainstream media, not just its bias against Muslims. People who just rely on the media have a very skewed idea of what’s going on,” Banka said.
“This isn’t just a problem for the Muslim community. We always say after mass genocides “never again, but I think unfortunately it’s just a human condition where we just hurt each other again and again. We just need to do our best.”
“It’s a societal problem that will eventually effect everyone.”