The last time I had worn a hijab, a headscarf, on the street was 11 years ago, when I was a practicing public interest attorney in Philadelphia. I’ve worn it for prayers since then, but this time I wore it to go to the grocery store near the small town on the Delaware River where I am raising my two young children. It was several days after our country elected Donald Trump, and I wanted to reassure myself that my world was still full of goodness and light. I wanted to watch others see past what I was wearing on my head. And because my local Trader Joe’s is in true-blue New Jersey, I got what I came for. It’s been important to remember that people are still mostly good and kind.
As with practices in every faith tradition, wearing hijab is meant to clear the excess away, to allow for some surrender of the stuff of this world, and to re-center the essential being-ness that abides in each of us. I have to admit, practice has been difficult for me of late. It’s been hard to find my way to the prayer mat. Everything feels a little off-kilter, and my priorities are not an exception. So while I am far more balanced when I am observing the ritual of prayer for a few minutes five times each day, it’s not been easy to rid myself of the mind chatter or to pull my focus away from the news cycle that always seems more pressing.
But practice is more important than ever. It’s in practice that we, from each of our faith traditions, learn to recognize ourselves in the other and to nourish our own capacities for discernment. And in this era of fake news and a president-elect who contradicts himself with alarming regularity, discernment is critical.
I am an American Muslim, born to Pakistani immigrants. During my childhood, my parents practiced Islam the way that fish swim in water. It was as unstudied as the air they breathed. But I grew up in conflict with the mix of religion and culture that they offered. In time, though, I found the element I had been missing in Sufi Muslim spirituality. I would only later learn that Sufism figured deeply in the original Islamic tradition of my family for generations, as it has for many millions of Muslims around the world. While Sufism is popularly understood to be a mystic branch of Islam, in truth it is not a branch but the very heart of Islam. It is that kernel of light at the heart of faith; the breath of wisdom and understanding without which practice feels empty. It looks like the spinning of the whirling dervish or the sound of zikr (chanting the names of the Divine), but for a devotee, it is ultimately the polishing of the inner self, the spirit.
And so, it is through practice that I am finding a way to both see and survive the ongoing drama of this presidential election. Sometimes, that practice is with the zikr circle to which my family belongs; sometimes it is in the constant test of patience that is parenting my two young children; sometimes it is in the act of prostrating in prayer. And I can see that this spiritual maintenance will be essential in the coming months and years. Before even taking office, Donald Trump has shaped public discourse in America so that it is now acceptable to publicly assert the malevolence of Muslims and the illegitimacy of Islam as a faith.
I once comforted myself that anti-Muslim bigotry was on the margins of our society, along with anti-Semitism and overt racism and misogyny. Both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush were careful to draw a distinction between the tiny minority of violent extremists who claim Islam as their own and Islam’s 1.6 billion peaceful adherents around the world. I, along with the vast majority of American Muslims, found shelter in the space they created to acknowledge us and our faith.
But that space has narrowed painfully, and American Muslims now ironically find themselves having to defend their humanity and their goodness in a country that was founded on the ideal of religious freedom.
It was just about a year ago that I wrote an open letter on Facebook that began “Dear Non Muslim Allies . . .”, which spoke of the threat presented by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and tied it to prescient warnings given to me, in the brief time that I knew him, by the late Herbert Brun, a Jewish composer and professor who fled Nazi Germany at the age of 15. In writing, I wanted to help minimize the effects of a vitriolic election season. I was appalled by the media’s willingness to cover, and the Republican establishment’s willingness to enable, Trump’s anti-Muslim policy proposals. I did not anticipate that my letter, which was initially written to a small, private group of friends, would go viral. And I had no idea that Trump would eventually become the president-elect.
On the night I wrote that letter, I had done some research. I wanted to understand more about the unique position of Muslims in America. I wondered why Professor Brun seemed to single me out from other students—none of them Muslim—with the repeated warning, “Be sure that your passport is in order.” I learned that American Muslims make up a little less than 1 percent of the U.S. adult population, and that this was the approximate proportion of Jews in Germany in 1933. I also learned that American Muslims are mostly concentrated in a handful of large urban areas and in only 10 states, making us, like both the Jewish population of 1930s Germany and the ethnically Japanese population on America’s West Coast in the 1940s, very identifiable and very vulnerable.
During the past year, many journalists and activists have commented upon the alarmingly xenophobic elements of Trump’s campaign platform. Several of these, like deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants and building a wall on the border with Mexico, could not likely be delivered, and could certainly not be delivered efficiently. On the other hand, the registration of non-citizen Muslims may be low-hanging fruit, especially since the regulations implementing the Bush Administration’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration Program program have never been rescinded (though the program itself was suspended in 2011).
Trump’s Cabinet selections suggest that anti-Muslim sentiment will now drive policy at the highest levels of our government. Trump has selected retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to be his new national security advisor, Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo to be his C.I.A. director, and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. Each of these men is overtly hostile to Muslims. Flynn has asserted that Islam is an ideology rather than a religion, a distinction that seems aimed at stripping Muslims of the constitutional right to practice their faith freely. He has also called Islam a cancer. Senator Jeff Sessions received awards from two known anti-Muslim extremist organizations, the Center for Security Policy, whose founder has suggested the re-establishment of a House Un-American Activities Committee to vet Muslims, and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, known for advancing the view that mainstream Muslim civic organizations have nefarious intentions. Pompeo, meanwhile, has falsely asserted that Muslim leaders have failed to condemn terrorist acts and that Muslims thereby have collective responsibility for such acts.
The Trump administration’s apparent strategy of creating or grossly exaggerating a threat to consolidate and maintain power has precedent in the most painful chapters of the 20th century. Milton Mayer wrote in his 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45:
The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. . . . Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and “crises” and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the “national enemies,” without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.
But, truthfully, we need only go back as far as the Iraq War to see that national defense is an effective rallying cry in modern America. Still reeling from the attacks of 9/11, many Americans who might otherwise have pointed out Iraq’s lack of culpability for 9/11 or the brutality of bombing vast areas of Afghanistan in the attempt to kill one man were silent. The pressure to fall into line in a show of patriotism was overwhelming. Our best collective defense in the face of such pressure in the future is our moral clarity, our capacity for discernment.
There was a moment in our recent history when I felt that interfaith outreach and education could turn the rising tide of Islamophobia. I did a great deal of that kind of work. There was a time when it seemed worth introducing myself to the least receptive strangers in an effort to demonstrate that Muslims are human, with hearts and hopes and a moral compass more familiar than different to the rest of humanity. I’m afraid that the time for persuasion has passed. It is instead the time to ask my friends of all faiths to simply recognize the humanity of Muslims as they would members of their own faith community.
Likewise, it is my opportunity to turn slightly deeper into the inner life, and to weed out the divisive thinking that resides in my own heart. For this, I return to zikr, both a remembrance of and an inculcation of divine attributes in ourselves: The Merciful, The Just, The Equitable, The Aware, The Watchful, The Witness, The Unifier, The Peace. Many groups have been scapegoated alongside Muslims, and many more will suffer quietly as their healthcare or their disability benefits are rescinded. Unless we all begin by recognizing, with certainty, the humanity of the other, we will fail to be present in the moment that matters.
To that end, there are a great many things that any of us can do in times such as these:
- If you have neighbors who are Muslim or members of other targeted groups, keep an eye out for them. If you’re walking your kids home from the bus stop, invite their kids to walk with you.
- Talk to your kids. They are inevitably picking up on the racism and the sexism pervasive in our political rhetoric and in society since the election. Make sure they know how you feel and talk to them about what they can do when they see bullying or hear hate speech at school.
- Call out hate speech whenever and wherever you hear it—in your living room, at work, with friends, in public, and especially among folks who may not know people who don’t look or love or pray like they do.
- Write op-eds and articles saying that we aren’t a society that scapegoats people on the basis of religion, sexuality, or immigration status and voice your support for tolerance and inclusion in whatever way you can.
- Call your state and local representatives and let them know that you are concerned about your own community or your friends and neighbors. Tell them that discrimination and persecution are unacceptable to you. Tell them you want them to make a public statement that they represent all of their constituents, regardless of race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation.
These are unusual times, to be sure. Now is the moment to recognize that Trump represents a change in our politics not just in degree but in kind. It is a moment that demands what author Masha Gessen calls “moral reasoning,” in which we commit to see and to do what is right, without compromise. This is the moment to return to whichever practice reinforces our moral clarity, so that we do not wake up one day to find it eroded beyond recognition.
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