Spotlight Elections: Muslim Americans at the Crossroads


The ‘FES Spotlight Elections’ is a series that presents short opinion pieces on social and economic policy topics that are playing a role in the debates and campaigns leading up to the U.S. Presidential elections of 2016. By presenting views from authors from the African American and Latino communities, from female authors, labor representatives and young people, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, from religious groups, and the working poor, the series aims to offer a voice to segments of the U.S. population and shed light on policy issues that do not get adequate coverage in the mainstream media.


Driving a monstrous white truck, a murderous psychopath plows through revelers enjoying liberty, equality and fraternity, both literally and figuratively, in a seaside town, killing close to a hundred people and wounding many more, before the police is finally able to kill him.

The event took place in Nice, France, on Bastille Day, July 14, about six thousand miles from San Jose, California, where I live. As happened before when terrorism reared its hideous head, my first reaction was a prayer: ‘O God, please don’t let this be a Muslim.’ Moments later, I realized that my prayer was in vain because the killer turned out to be a French Muslim of Tunisian origin. The Nice carnage and its paralyzing effect on me and my fellow Muslim Americans reflect our frustration and fear in the ISIS-inspired terror threatening to engulf America and the world today.

First, the frustration.

Pew Research Center estimates that there are currently about 3 million Muslims in America, approximately 1% of the U.S. population of about 323 million. (In contrast, Muslims constitute about 10% of France’s population of 64 million – Europe’s largest - and 5% of Germany’s population of 80 million.) Until 9/11, Muslims were a curiosity for most Americans. They were aware of the faith through sports figures like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and neighbors and co-workers who fasted from dawn to dusk in a lunar Islamic month called Ramadan. 9/11 changed all that. Overnight, Muslim Americans found themselves maligned and attacked because of the horrific acts of a few. We became not only the barbarians at the gate but inside the barricades as well, painted with a broad brush that did not differentiate Muhammad Ali from Muhammad Ata.

This is frustrating because no matter how unequivocally we condemn the terrorists, who base their legitimacy on a militant interpretation of Islam rejected by the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, the label of terrorist or terrorist sympathizer persists for us and the suspicion grows. “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak out against Islamic terrorism?” is a refrain we hear all the time, in spite of voluminous evidences to the contrary.

A demoralizing effect of labeling is that our fellow Americans often treat us as a monolith, as if we all think and act alike. Nothing could be further from the truth. We can be as contentious as Christians, Jews and people of other faiths. Shias have their own mosques, Sunnis theirs, and rarely do the twain meet, the only difference being that there is no violence between the two, unlike, say, in Pakistan. There are conservative mosques, liberal mosques and mosques of every shade in between, led by Imams who can barely communicate in English to those who are fluent in the language, and whose knowledge of Islam can vary on a scale from 1 to 10.

Our frustration has grown exponentially with the ascendance of Donald Trump. The Republican nominee has 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.” Not to be outdone, Texas Senator Ted Cruz warned that “we need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” After the Nice attack, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said that "Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in Sharia they should be deported."

Another source of frustration, more subtle and insidious, is Muslim Americans themselves.

Just as we are victims of stereotyping, many of us are also guilty of stereotyping some of our fellow Americans. We become reflexively defensive when they question us as to why, for instance, it is mostly malcontent Muslims (San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice) who resort to violence while there are thousands of malcontents in the general population who do not. We either deny it outright, or attribute it to mental illness (which may very well be one of the reasons), or claim with self-righteous indignation that there are terrorists in every religion (as if that rationalizes mass killings), or demand that jihadists be psychologically analyzed to find out why they turn into monsters.

This mindset is unjust and unacceptable. We must develop the self-assurance to acknowledge that there are deranged Muslims planning to commit terrorist acts. Even if there is only one, that’s one too many. Think of the mass killings by Major Nidal Malik Hasan at Fort Hood, Texas (2009), Tsarnaev Brothers at Boston (2013), Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez at Chattanooga, Tennessee (2015), the Muslim Bonnie-and-Clyde-duo of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik at San Bernardino, California (2015), and Omar Mateen at Orlando, Florida (2016).

Facing existential threats from zealots, Americans have every right to ask whether they are safe in our presence. This does not make them bigots, as some of us are quick to conclude. We have to honestly and proactively engage with them at different levels to remove their concern, and convince them that we are as committed to rooting out terrorism as they are.

Next, the fear.

Islamophobia in America is real and we are fearful of the consequences. Women wearing hijab have been spat upon, kicked and punched, Muslim students are often bullied and called terrorists. The problem is particularly acute in New York where 10 percent of the students who attend public schools are Muslim. “Your father is ISIS. Are you ISIS?” a boy was recently taunted by classmates. There have been several cases of Muslims being pulled off flights because of their faith. Mosques have been fire-bombed and splattered with pig-blood.

We are also frightened by the connection between ISIS-led terrorism and the possibility of a Trump presidency. Terrorist acts are always followed by a surge in Trump’s poll numbers. Nothing will help ISIS more than a President Trump because that will give it the justification to kindle a clash of civilizations. Likewise, nothing will sate the Republican demagogue more than to tell his followers in the wake of any terrorist act that he already knew about Muslims being terrorists and to expel them to “Make America great again.”

Yet our frustration and fear cannot and do not completely define our mindset. These negative emotions are to some extent offset by the security of our constitutional rights and by the fundamental fairness we expect as Americans from elected officials.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Presidential nominee, said of Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from the United States in the aftermath of the Orlando killings: “Not one of Donald Trump’s reckless ideas would have saved a single life in Orlando. A ban on Muslims would not have stopped this attack.” President Obama responded to the ‘religious test’ proposal of Newt Gingrich by saying that “the very suggestion is repugnant and an affront to everything that we stand for as Americans.”

These voices of sanity give us hope. Most Muslim Americans are expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, although I have come across Muslims in the San Francisco Bay Area who are set to vote for Trump. Asked to explain, they said “only Trump can keep terrorists from entering America.”

There is no doubt that we look at Hillary Clinton as being inclusive and Trump as being exclusive, the main reason why she is the candidate of choice for most Muslim Americans.


Hasan Zillur Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College and in the board of the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose. He writes essays on Islamic issues, published in numerous newspapers.


The views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung or of the organization for which the author works.

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