“Are my mom and dad terrorists?”
A seven year-old Muslim boy raised his hand and asked this question at a public town hall in Houston following the presidential election. He sought some reassurance because his classmates had convinced him that his parents might be terrorists simply because they are Muslim.
Afshan Jilani told me this story while we were discussing the Know Your Neighbor: Multifaith Encounters campaign, a national coalition of over 40 interfaith organizations. I’ve gotten to know Afshan and her daughter Saira through my work with the Islamic Networks Group, which directs the campaign. Asfhan and Saira have a long history of interfaith work in the Houston area.
Afshan and I discussed the challenges facing Muslim youth in our current political climate. I told her about ING’s Muslim youth program, which includes a workshop to help students learn ways to stand up against bullying, and then connected her with our youth coordinator, Ishaq Pathan, who set up a workshop in their area. Afshan and Saira invited youth from other religious backgrounds to the workshop as well, putting her belief into action that bullying is not something unique to Muslim students, and I was lucky enough to tag along.
President Trump’s first Executive Order restricting refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries was issued Friday at 12:30 PST, just as my colleagues and I were boarding our flight to Houston.
Our staff had heard about the order several days before and had planned our response accordingly, but that made the news no less difficult for me: how would this ramp up the already widespread fear of Muslims? Fighting feelings of helplessness about what this order would mean for my friends and colleagues, I was excited and eager to land in Houston and have the opportunity to give students the tools to respond to bullying. I hoped to walk away feeling that I had impacted their lives and made at least a dent in the bigotry that confronts them.
We arrived at the workshop and noted fewer students in attendance than we had expected, but we still had a good turnout and began the workshop.
I walked into that workshop confidently, thinking I had the answers and tools that could positively impact these students, but as the day went on, I began to feel useless. While encouraging students to talk about bullying, I found that they kept circling back to larger issues—their fears of deportation despite their legal status as US citizens and concern for their families, friends, and communities in relation to increasing hate crimes.
One girl showed me a picture of a mosque in flames and told me her best friend worshiped there—the mosque was completely destroyed. I wasn’t prepared to respond to such a horrific incident, beyond the scope of planned responses I had in relation to bullying. I somehow found the words to share with her how some twenty-five years ago my family’s church was burned down as well. I hoped that she could find solace in what I believed to be a similar experience.
What I didn’t realize when she told me the news was that this mosque was just thirty minutes away from the Houston Islamic Center where we were holding the workshop.
Several of the youth missing belonged to the burned down mosque. The youth who couldn’t attend this workshop—and those who could—were facing something far more dangerous than a schoolyard bully.
It wasn’t until my four-hour plane ride back to California that the weight of this situation hit me—that we were sent to help youth and parents understand bullying in schools, while the issue confronting them is much larger and more terrifying: that Muslims in America are at far greater risk of being victimized by crimes of hate than they are of committing them.
Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence report counters President Trump’s claims that citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries pose an increased terror threat.
Yet many Americans are so blinded by “alternative facts” that they cannot see what is right in front of them. We live in a nation that is so fearful of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims that we are ignorant of the overwhelming challenges faced by the Muslim community.
The number of anti-Muslim groups in the United States tripled between 2015 and 2016.
That’s why President Trump’s executive order hit me so hard. The issue with this executive order is larger than its effect on Muslim immigrants and refugees, terrible though that can be and in some cases already has been. It’s that this action reinforces the irrational fear of Muslims so many Americans already feel.
The period following the election of President Trump was a time of fear and uncertainty for our minority communities, leading many Americans to feel unwelcome in their own homes or to question their status as citizens. Furthermore, the period following the initial Executive Order was marked by chaos and anger, with hate crimes against several faith communities hitting unprecedented numbers.
But out of that hate and anger came solidarity. There are countless stories of faith communities coming together to lift one another out of the despair created by these acts of hate. Muslim Americans have reacted to the hate crimes against the Jewish community by sending letters of love and support to the Jewish centers and schools receiving bomb threats and by raising funds to repair Jewish cemeteries destroyed through acts of hate. Many leaders of different faiths led a service following the horrific murder of a Sikh man whose murder is suspected to be a hate crime. A synagogue gave their keys to the Muslim community following the burning of the Texas mosque, allowing them a safe place to pray.
This week President Trump announced a revised Executive Order, although the intent is the same as the first: finding a legal way to deliver on his campaign promise of a Muslim ban.
This executive order will serve to reinforce and magnify the fear of many Americans—if our government is banning a group based on their religion, this makes those holding anti-Muslim sentiments feel justified in their stance—but only if we allow it.
There will always be those in our society who commit hate crimes or promote bigotry, but I believe the vast majority of people in the country are more like those who donated to the burnt down mosque. They’re the people I encounter everyday working with Islamic Network Groups. They won’t stand for religious-based discrimination, and I hope you won’t either.
Find out more about Islamic Networks Group: https://ing.org