Clad in yoga pants and a tight denim jacket, Layal Orra sits cross-legged on her couch, watching a Sunday evening NFL matchup. Every once in a while, she readjusts her glasses and the burgundy hijab tied loosely around her hair. The third-generation Lebanese-American, born and brought up in Toledo, Ohio, works as a beautician at a local salon and cares more about sports than politics. She confesses that she didn’t vote in the recent presidential election. “But my family did,” she adds with a smile. “And they all voted for [Donald] Trump.”
Although Trump won the election, that is still a surprising thing to hear from a Muslim—especially one like Orra. A hijab-wrapped woman of Arab descent, Orra, 29, embodies everything that Trump’s year-and-a-half long Islamophobic and misogynistic campaign ridiculed and vilified. In December last year, Trump demanded “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” on the grounds that Muslims were “terrorists.” Calls for mass deportations of immigrants, made all through his campaign, particularly targeted people from Muslim-majority countries, along with Mexicans.
The tone did not change after his November 8 victory. The president-elect has picked well-known Muslim baiters such as Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn for his cabinet. Bannon, expected to be Trump’s chief strategist, once called for “a global war against Islamic fascism.” Flynn, who could become the next national security adviser, has compared Islam with “cancer.” Hate crimes against Muslims also appear to have surged. A Muslim man was firebombed while driving on a Texas highway; he survived but suffered severe burns on his face, arms and neck. A Muslim sophomore at San Jose State University in California told the local press someone pulled her hijab from behind before physically assaulting her in a parking garage. Scores of such incidents have been reported by the Southern Poverty Law Center in the aftermath of the Republican victory.
“Trump’s election and campaign have made Islamophobia worse,” says Mohammad Abuljadail, 33, who studies and teaches at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. A Saudi national, Abuljadail has spent nearly eight years living in the south, west and midwest US. He says even Americans who personally know peaceful Muslims like him support Trump and his Islamophobic plans. “They talk to me as though I’m an exception. This is really disappointing since there are about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and most acts of terrorism are committed by non-Muslims.”
Talk of a “Muslim registry” has especially raised the hackles of Muslims like Abuljadail. Kris Kobach, a member of Trump’s transition team, has said the new administration could reinstate a national registry for immigrants from countries with active terrorist groups – a euphemism for Muslim-majority countries. Other Trump supporters have echoed the sentiment. Speaking on Fox News, Carl Higbie, a high-profile fundraiser, compared the idea of the Muslim registry with internment camps for the Japanese living in the US during World War II.
But one needn’t look that far back in time for a precedent. President George W. Bush instituted a National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) in 2002—a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks—requiring all males aged 16 or above from a list of 25 countries to register when they entered the US and regularly check in with immigration officials. Those who violated the terms could face arrest and deportation. Its purpose was to identify and capture terrorists. Twenty-four of the 25 countries on the list were Muslim-majority nations; the only exception was North Korea. The programme became defunct in 2011 when President Barack Obama removed all the countries from the list—but he did not repeal the provision itself, which means it could be easily revived.
“I believe the new system Trump wants to implement might include Muslim-Americans,” says Abuljadail, who had to be registered under NSEERS every time he came to the US and again at specific intervals. “Everything is possible.”
But Orra uses the same example to explain her family’s vote for Trump, arguing that there is nothing new about Islamophobia in the US. “Ever since 9/11, terrorism became synonymous with Muslims. Nothing has changed from that day,” she says.
Orra is especially critical of Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, former senator and former secretary of state who was heavily favoured to win the presidential election as the Democratic candidate but eventually lost to Trump. Orra blames her for doing little to reduce anti-Muslim hostility in American society. As senator, Hillary voted for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003; as secretary of state to President Obama, she helped launch wars and drone strikes in Muslim-majority countries like Libya, Yemen and Pakistan—actions that claimed thousands of lives as “collateral damage” and are widely regarded to have fuelled Muslim extremism.
“She lies a lot,” says Orra. “She has been in office for 15-20 years. I honestly see no good in her. Donald Trump, I feel like he says it out. He just says it as it is.”
Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Islamic studies and international relations at the University of Delaware, says he is deeply distraught by Trump’s election but also agrees with Orra’s criticism of Democrats. A native of Hyderabad, India, who moved to the US 24 years ago, Khan remembers a speech by former Democratic president Bill Clinton during his wife Hillary’s election campaign. Clinton said Muslims who love freedom and hate terrorism are welcome in this country. “Such conditions are not imposed on any other community,” Khan points out, explaining why he thinks there is little substantive difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to attitude towards Muslims.
But he also draws attention to the groundswell of support for Muslims from various sections of American society since Trump’s election. “The chief of Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said he would register as a Muslim if a Muslim registry was created,” Khan says, referring to a statement by Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of ADL, an organisation dedicated to combating anti-Semitism.
Greenblatt said at a conference in New York that “if one day Muslim-Americans are forced to register their identities, that is the day this proud Jew will register as Muslim,” according to press reports. He is not the only one. Hashtags such as #RegisterMeFirst and #IWillRegister started trending on social media as droves of Americans expressed solidarity with Muslims.
Khan, who also delivers sermons at mosques and Islamic centres around the US, says Muslims must not go overboard with paranoia. Instead, they should look to engage broadly with the rest of the country. “The more Muslims engage and develop relations with people, especially locally with their police chief, public prosecutor, congressman, rabbi and important Christian and secular leaders, the better it will be for them. They will be your shield.”
Both Orra and Abuljadail agree that Muslims need to be more socially and politically active. “While half the population voted for Trump, the other half is showing even stronger solidarity with Muslims and other minority groups than before,” says Abuljadail. “The Muslim-American community should be more involved in policy and legislation. We don’t have enough representation and maybe if more Muslim figures spoke out and ran for public offices, we could change the attitude of more people.”
That will not be an easy task by any means. Polls repeatedly show that unfavourable views of Islam are more prevalent today than after 9/11. But if that is the legacy of eight years of Obama’s liberal rule, perhaps the evident peril of Trump’s far-right presidency will prick Muslims and civil rights advocates out of their self-induced complacency and prove eventually to be a blessing in disguise.
By Saif Shahin in Ohio