February issue 2016
How Safe Am I?
Normally when I’m in Pakistan during summer or winter breaks, people ask me about college life, how I survive the cold weather, and, most often, what I plan to do with my life once I graduate. This winter, however, I was asked repeatedly: “So how are things there?” The question was almost always accompanied by a grave look and the voice lowered — a moment of genuine concern, and not just an extension of small talk. Although phrased vaguely, the question couldn’t be more pointed. “How are things there” clearly meant: “How are Muslims being treated?” “Is there a rise in Islamophobia?” and, ultimately, “Do you feel safe?”
The concern isn’t surprising. Just days before I landed in Karachi, Republican candidate Donald Trump released a bombastic statement in which he offered to solve terrorism-related problems in the country by banning Muslims from travelling to America. A week or so before he released this statement, a Muslim couple in San Bernardino killed 14 people and injured another 22 in a mass shooting. And barely two weeks before that, sitting in my apartment in Baltimore, I was reading live updates on the internet about the IS attack in Paris — an attack which left the world reeling and, unsurprisingly, served as fuel for Trump and other rightwing politicians in America to gain traction through textbook fear-mongering.
So, how are things there?
Hard to say.
My first question is, to whom is the question addressed? Or, on whose behalf am I to answer?
Muslims make up one per cent of the American population. That’s just under three-and-a-half million in real figures. There are Muslims who are originally from Pakistan and there are Muslims who wouldn’t be considered Muslims if they were living in Pakistan (according to recent estimates there are around 15,000 Ahmadis in America).
And what’s “there?” For some Muslims, including myself (I’m not officially a citizen but when it comes to paying taxes, Uncle Sam says I’m as much of a resident as a true-blue American), “there” is a campus town in the East Coast where liberal politics dominate and the non-Muslims you engage with are more worried about being politically incorrect than about living amidst someone who shares nationality with terrorists. For others, “there” could be downtown New York where paying rent on time unites people of all ethnicities and religions. “There” could be Dearborn, Michigan where one in five residents are of Arab origin and you’ll find street signs in Arabic, or “there” could be a Anchorage, Alaska which, according to alaskamasjid.com, is home to a couple thousand Muslims.
There are two ways to answer the question. The first would be with numbers.
According to a tally by a professor at California State University San Bernardino, there have been 38 recorded hate crimes against Muslims since the Paris attack on November 13 (the number was reported by NBC news mid-December). A recently published listicle on The Huffington Post cited that Americans are more likely to be killed by toddlers than by Muslims (did I mention that the post was titled ‘10 Reasons You Should Not Fear Muslims’ and began, absurdly enough, with the Muslim author using his childhood fear of ladybugs as an analogy for the suspicion and fear Americans may have towards Muslims). A Pew study conducted in 2014 reveals that people who lean towards the Republican Party tend to have more negative views of Muslims than people who lean towards the Democratic Party, which goes to show that sometimes polls only confirm what people already know to be true. After all, a 2011 Pew survey revealed that 48 per cent of Muslims in America view the Republican party as “unfriendly” towards their community (compared to seven per cent finding the Democratic Party to be unfriendly). I could cite more statistics. But would that really answer the question of “how are things there?” I don’t think so.
So let’s try the anecdotal route.
I’ll start with myself. I’ve spent roughly six years in America but my experiences have been limited to the world of the liberal campus. The Americans I interact with are highly educated and usually sensitive to issues of race and religion. Sure, when I first came to America as an undergraduate student, my then-roommate (a Republican who felt more isolated on campus than I did as a Muslim) once insisted that Pakistan was in the Middle East (and not South Asia, which is what I repeatedly tried telling her) and that Middle Eastern countries belonged to no continent. When I countered that the most recent Asian Games then had been held in Doha, she shrugged it off and, moments later, informed me that she has a better perspective on Asian geography since she was on the outside looking in, whereas I was inside and clearly had no idea where I was living. That’s as bad as things got for me, which, admittedly, wasn’t that bad at all. Sure there was that one time I was “randomly selected” at JFK for screening in 2012, but the woman behind the counter at immigration prefaced it by saying repeatedly, “You have done nothing wrong. There’s nothing you need to worry about. This is just procedure.”
But then, just like everyone else, I read in the news how in November two men were asked to stand aside during boarding because a fellow passenger had heard them talking in Arabic. Or how in December a mosque in Las Vegas was vandalised and left bacon wrapped around the doorknobs. Or how in January two teenaged boys were arrested in New York City for assaulting a Muslim man while shouting “Isis!” at him. Like everyone else, I watched as Donald Trump proclaimed in the final Republican debate that “They’re not coming to this country if I’m president.” And although Trump is hogging the limelight, we also have Ben Carson who said America shouldn’t have a Muslim president because they would have “different loyalties.” And Ted Cruz who criticised a government official for saying that there should be intervention when anti-Muslim rhetoric turns to violence by twisting her words and saying she wants to muzzle America.
This is, of course, not the first time anti-Muslim jargon has come up during a presidential debate. Usually however, the candidates still exercise some caution. I’m thinking of 2008, when McCain was up against Obama and a woman in a campaign rally told the Republican candidate that she believed Obama was an Arab, to which McCain, trying to get the situation under control, responded saying Obama was a decent man and not an Arab (as if the two were mutually exclusive).
One could say that Trump shouldn’t be taken seriously and his chances of becoming president are slim, if anything (or at least that’s how we like to console ourselves). However, Trump isn’t operating in a vacuum. He makes provocative statements, knowing that that’s the way to grab people’s attention, but not everybody is casting him aside as some sort of clown-candidate whose job is to add colour to the election campaigns. As of January 26, he enjoys 41 per cent support in the GOP race. CNN recently interviewed Trump’s supporters across 31 cities and the common themes are that they believe immigrants are usurping benefits that could be enjoyed by natural citizens, that Obama is either a Muslim or not a natural citizen (or both), that white people suffer from reverse discrimination, and, more importantly, that America is under attack. These are the kinds of sentiments that Trump & co. fuel and capitalise upon.
But there are, naturally, many Americans who are worried about Trump. I spoke to Bobby, a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University.
“We’ve heard this stuff before. Databases. Special IDs. It’s Hitler all over again!,” Bobby said, as we sat down at a coffee shop near campus, hours before winter storm Jonas struck the city.
I chose to meet with Bobby because he doesn’t have the same background as a lot of people I normally meet in college. A native of Maryland, Bobby lived in small towns around Montgomery County and, after graduating from high school, he signed up for the army. He served his five years, of which six months were spent in Iraq and another six in Afghanistan. Once he was done, he went on to college and now is one of the most vocal critics of the war in Iraq that I’ve met.
Until he went to Iraq, Bobby hadn’t really interacted with any Muslims. He vaguely remembers one student in school called Ahmed Mistry, but that’s about it. Bobby grew up in a very Christian household and recalls that after 9/11 there was a real sense of how the country had been attacked, that things were not as they should be and needed to be corrected. In December 2006, Bobby was at an American football game when up on the Jumbotron flashed footage of Saddam Hussein’s capture, accompanied by congratulatory messages from the sports commentators.
“It was like something you’d see in a movie. The people in the audience were chanting ‘USA! USA!’” Bobby explains. Feeding on moments like these, Bobby soon found himself joining the US army after graduating from high school.
By the age of 22, Bobby was interrogating suspects in Iraq and making visits to homes of local Iraqis as part of the “win hearts and minds campaign.”
So what was it like there?
“The problem was that we’d visit these Iraqi homes, but the way we’d been trained, we didn’t see them as homes,” Bobby said. Doors are not doors but “fatal funnels” (in the army, soldiers are trained to get through doorways as fast as possible because if the first soldier entering is attacked they’ll all get stuck.” Roads are not roads but “linear danger areas.” And so on.
“You have fear trained into you,” Bobby said. “And the expectation of violence creates violence.”
Still, there were incidents and relationships that affected Bobby. He remembers one particular incident where he was interrogating a suspect along with the help of a local translator. The suspect was worried about his mother who suffered from some serious lung ailment.
“I was still a Christian back then, so I said to him with some sincerity,” Bobby said, pausing before continuing, “Or maybe I wasn’t so sincere. Maybe I was calculating, to get the guy to open up. But I said I’d pray for his mother. And this guy grabbed my hand and kissed it and started talking. The translator told me he said that I was a good Muslim.”
This was a deeply significant moment for Bobby, one that helped him understand the accident of geography that he grew up in a Christian household as opposed to a Muslim one.
And it wasn’t just the suspects he interrogated who were Muslim. There were, for instance, the local translators who worked for the US army. “There was this one guy…he wanted to be called Tom. We hated him. Not because he was Muslim, but he was an a**hole,” Bobby said. “And then there was this interpreter I met in Afghanistan. He was 19 or 20, and he had family in Pakistan. His name was Rumiallah but he wanted to be called Rambo. He was so fun to be around.”
There were also the Saudi princes who trained with the US soldiers. Bobby recalls how they were going over grapple techniques once and the Saudi princes, reminding the US soldiers who they were, asked to be hit lightly. “So, naturally, we hit them even harder,” Bobby said.
Small incidents, be they at a Muslim school in South Africa or outside the army camp in Afghanistan, helped Bobby un-see Muslims as a homogenous entity (something, say, Trump’s followers might have a hard time doing) and which is why now that he’s out of the army, he finds all this anti-Muslim rhetoric troubling.
“My parents have become more moderate over time, but my grandfather still thinks that Muslims, tacitly or explicitly, support terrorism,” he said. As regards Trump, Bobby believes that Trump’s words ring true for a sizeable community and that even if Trump isn’t elected, his campaign can be helpful in gauging sentiments against Muslims and immigrants in the country.
But so far, neither Bobby nor I have been able to fully answer the initial question of, “So, how is it there?” And so I got in touch with Muslims in different cities to find out what it’s like for them.
I first spoke to a young Pakistani who recently settled in New York. Falak Ghori, a 27-year-old originally from Karachi, moved to America in October, 2014 as part of the green card process. Prior to coming to New York, Falak studied in London, and I asked her how the two cities compare.
“I felt London was far more inclusive of its immigrant population — obviously this was pre-Syria and before David Cameron called Muslim women ‘naturally subservient,’ she said. “But I honestly don’t think Muslims in America have been portrayed any differently since I moved here, except for the Trump ridiculousness.”
When asked about the green card process and about being ‘randomly selected at airports,’ Falak said, “I’m the permanent owner of the dreaded ‘SSSS’ [secondary security screening selection] stamp on boarding passes, which guarantees special screening in every stopover in America. I’ve never been questioned, but a security woman with gloves pats me down. That’s pretty much the extent of it.”
Perhaps it’s the post 9/11 world we’re living in, but Falak shrugs off most of these things just as many Muslims do. Special screenings, even in my own experience, are more a minor inconvenience than something traumatic. Maybe we shouldn’t be so nonchalant about these things. But I think in cases like Falak’s and mine, what we’ve found is that these incidents are outliers and that generally we don’t have to worry about our Muslimness in everyday life.
The only time Falak grew a little concerned was after the San Bernardino attack. “After the shooting, which was pretty messed up, [my family] knew there would be some kind of backlash. So after that incident, my brother and I told our mother, who goes to the mosque every Friday, to stay home. We didn’t want anything to happen to her.”
The effects of San Bernardino, surely, must have been felt more in California than on the East coast. I spoke to Bushra Faruqi, another Pakistani who has been living in America for a little over a decade.
“I moved to Orange County in 2000 and there were no challenges in assimilating at all. But I think Orange County is like that; there is a lot of diversity and people have more exposure. Even post 9/11 we had no problems here,” Bushra said before adding it may have been a different situation for Muslims in the East Coast or midwest. Bushra has two teenaged children who were born in America, and we discussed everyday life in America before touching upon recent political events.
I specifically asked her if she worried about her children getting targeted for being Muslim, but Bushra didn’t seem overtly concerned. “My children have had a fair shot regardless of their religion, be it at school, extracurricular activities or socially. But that’s not the case all the time. My son was bullied a little after the Boston bombing by a couple of kids, but the school administration stepped in and took care of the matter and the bully was suspended for a few days. One Muslim girl in my kids’ school wears a hijab and there were some hurtful racist words said to her, but her friends stood up for her. In other school districts in other parts of the country things have been really bad for Muslim students, from bullying to threats to actual physical attacks.”
I then asked Bushra about the anti-Muslim rhetoric seen in the Republican debates. “Let’s go a little further back than Trump when we talk about things changing for Muslims. In the last three elections, the Republican Party has campaigned on the platform of Islamophobia,” she said, before describing how in 2014 the Israeli bombing of Gaza brought a change in the perception of Muslims. “It brought people in the US under the age of 40 to sympathise with Palestine, but it creates a lot of hate in others whose beliefs are already concrete.”
And then ISIS appeared on the radar of America.
“Do I blame non-Muslim America? Not really. Most non-Muslim Americans don’t know a single Muslim. They have not socialised together and are afraid of them. And people like Trump who thrive on sensationalism have only been fanning the flames. There are very few Muslims who socialise with their neighbours and in their community with people regardless of their religion. Most live in a bubble only meeting with their Muslim friends.
“There is a lot of fear in non-Muslim America especially after the San Bernardino killings. They made no sense. This was a guy who grew up here, went to school here, had a steady job and good relationships with his co-workers. The only reason that makes sense here is that he [may have] had some undiagnosed mental issues,” said Bushra, describing how Americans grew more fearful of similar attacks taking place in the future.
“But while all this is said, there are so many positives that are also not mentioned: the number of friends who called me or showed up at my door to tell me they were there for me after San Bernardino has been heart-warming. I took my kids for Friday prayers on Christmas Day and there were some non-Muslim ladies who had come to attend the prayer and stayed and talked to us to offer their support. Christmas is their biggest holiday and they were there at a mosque. Americans are very kind and friendly people in general, but right now they are scared and it is the responsibility of all Muslim Americans to reach out to their neighbors. Many are, but they are the same ones who were already doing that to begin with. We need the ones who have been living in the Muslim bubble to come out and reach out and show people who they are. A lesson in Muslim theology is not what is needed here, showing people their character, their morality and goodness and who we are is what is needed.”
Bushra connected me with her friends in California whose views mirrored hers. Isabel, a college student, is fairly dismissive of Trump. “He’s making those comments to appeal to the common person’s fear of an attack, while completely disregarding an entire community. Well, since my community consists of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, we don’t really listen to him.”
Rachel, another California resident, commented, “After the attacks on San Bernardino, I noticed a lot of my peers and friends on social media defend Muslims and the Muslim community. I think, generally, college students were the ones who were defending the Muslim community by clarifying to other people that the ideals of Islam are not being properly upheld by the people who were involved in these attacks. I think there were people who were definitely fearful of these attacks happening again, but I believe the fear was more as a result of being unsure of who was behind the attacks.”
When asked about Trump, Rachel admitted she hasn’t been following him closely. But she did add, “I do, however, think that Trump should not be underestimated. He has power, that’s certain. If he has more power, then everything will be uncertain.”
Badr, a young resident of Minneapolis, also believes Trump should not be underestimated. “I think Trump is a lot smarter than he appears. He may act like an idiot when it comes to politics and religion…but this is all a charade to play into the insecurities that a growing section of the American public has.”
Badr’s father is Pakistani and his mother is Norwegian-American. He moved to Minnesota as a child and his hometown is host to a significant Somali refugee population. I asked Badr about how people perceive immigrants and Muslims and he said, “I’d describe the attitude as accepting but also as scared — accepting in the sense that Minnesota is known for ‘Minnesota Nice.’ People here tend to be genuinely nice and this extends to how people treat refugees. But I’d also say scared because of what they see in the media, especially regarding terrorism in Muslim countries. And it doesn’t help that some young Somali men from Minnesota went abroad to fight.”
Badr echoed Bushra’s sentiments when he added, “Having Muslim migrant enclaves can foster some of the paranoia, as many Americans feel ‘they’ aren’t trying to assimilate.”
But how did Badr fit into life in America as half-Pakistani?
“I’ve lived in Minnesota since the 5th grade, and can say it has given me as many opportunities as the next person. In these last 15 years or so, I’ve only been singled out a few times. I wouldn’t consider it hatred; rather I’d say it’s people making assumptions based on preconceived notions,” Badr explained. “Around 2001, when I was in school, my teacher asked the class ‘What did you learn today?’ A friend of mine responded, ‘Not all Muslims are terrorists.’ A bunch of kids in the class stared at me and I was caught off-guard. But I know he meant well and being a kid he didn’t know any better. Another incident was when I was coming back from Karachi while visiting my father’s side of the family, I was stopped at the Minneapolis airport and asked a series of questions regarding my trip; it went on for at least a couple of hours. But I will say that the customs agent did treat me with respect.”
But let’s get back to the question that we started with.
So, how are things back there?
Here’s one answer: things may not be perfect for Muslims in America, but they could be even worse if you were a young black male from a poor background living in Baltimore; or if you were a Native American living on a reservation in South Dakota; or if (time travel permitted) you were a Japanese-American in the WWII era, living in an internment camp somewhere in Arizona. Or, dare I add, things are quite alright, especially when compared to how things are for an Ahmadi in Pakistan, a Christian in Pakistan, a Shia in Pakistan, and even sometimes, a Pakistani in Pakistan.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2016 issue.
Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.