Fifteen years ago, I attended my first presidential rally. I arrived early as a student volunteer and was happy with the spot I had secured for myself — right in front of the stage. As the venue filled up, I felt myself, and my maroon hijab, stand out in the crowd. It was the reality of being Muslim in a small town in Iowa.
As I waited for the rally to start, I noticed a young man wearing a headset pointing and motioning to me. He clearly wanted to talk. Afraid to lose my perfect spot in front of the stage but curious to find out what he wanted, I approached him. “Will you join us on stage?” he asked. He whisked me away and directed me to my new seat before I could answer. Who would say no?
I sat directly behind a row of local elected officials, next to some community members. The stage was far more diverse than the crowd, and I knew that was the reason I was invited to sit there. I was asked to sit on stage with a presidential candidate because I’m visibly Muslim.
Fast-forward to the current presidential election.
The GOP is imploding with bigotry. Presidential candidate Ben Carson said weeks ago that he would not support the United States having a Muslim president. Donald Trump’s Islamophobia and hate rhetoric is unprecedented. His proposals are reminiscent of horrific events led by fear and bigotry: Japanese internment camps, genocide of the Jewish people by the Nazis, McCarthyism, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism against African-Americans.
As president, Trump said he would shut down mosques, create special IDs and a database for Muslims, and bar all Muslims from entering the United States. His bigotry comes with real consequences. With backlash from Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims in America escalated an already-hostile environment.
In the past few weeks, the American Muslim community has experienced mosque arsons, vandalism of Muslim homes, pig heads being thrown at places of worship, Muslim women shot at, a Muslim store owner assaulted, harassment and verbal abuse in public places, school bullying, and other acts of hate and discrimination. Many American Muslims are feeling nervous and have legitimate concerns for their safety.
When I posted on Facebook asking people to share their experiences, a Fridley resident wrote the following: “My brother was leaving [Life Time Fitness] in Fridley Saturday evening. He entered his car and was waiting for his car to get warm when a white man approached his … vehicle and tapped on his window asking my brother to lower it, presumably to speak with him. My brother complied, and the man proceeded to lift his shirt to reveal a gun and with a look of what my brother calls pure hatred, asked my brother if he was Muslim. My brother was terrified and replied that he was. Trying to diffuse the tension, my brother replied that he was just trying to go home without any problems. The man eventually walked away.”
A New York Times article in December — “The rise of hate search” — featured Minnesota resident Asma Mohammed Nizami, a 23-year-old Muslim woman who wears the hijab. “Last Saturday, driving home from an event, [Nizami] stopped at a traffic light, where she saw a man in the next car over glaring at her. He rolled down his window and called her a ‘Muslim bitch.’ When Ms. Nizami started to drive away, he trailed her and then tried to run her off the road with his red Chevy Impala.”
While Trump brings out the worst in some people, we also see, as evidenced in the responses to my Facebook post, the best in others:
• “I was in line at Starbucks and the young woman in front of me turned around and asked me if I were Muslim. I swear I did not have the ‘f* you Trump’ look on and was not wearing my fresh off the boat shalwar kamiz or the strong Dubai cologne. I answered, yes Alhamdulellah I am Muslim. She immediately proceeded and paid for my order. I awkwardly said thank you and asked for the reason. She said ‘this is my small gesture to express my apologies for all the stupid things Trump says about Muslims. Happy holidays, my Muslim brother.’ ” — Qais
• “Two women came to Masjid As-Salam in Maplewood at the time of Friday prayers and gave the congregation beautiful flowers. They said that they love their Muslim neighbors. It was a very touching scene. I am glad I was there to witness this beautiful gesture.” — Zafar
• “As I walked out of Herberger’s today, a lady came up to me and asked if she can talk to me. She told me, ‘I just want to let you know that with all of the hate out there, just know that there are people like us who do not hate you or your religion. We have nothing against you and I’m sorry for anything that you had to go through.’ I did not expect this at all and would lie if I say that I didn’t tear up. There are a lot of ignorant people out there, but there are also many that really care. She truly made my day.” — Amenah
• “We see our restaurant [Common Roots Café] as a community gathering place. In the face of the xenophobic, hate-filled rhetoric that has entered the mainstream, we put up a sign to make it clear to Muslims, immigrants and refugees in our community that they are welcome in our place of business and that we stand by their side. We have been honored to receive such positive feedback to this gesture, and hope that it spreads widely. Please feel free to download and print this sign and put it in your place of business, of worship, or in the window of your home. We are also pleased that the national organization The Main Street Alliance has picked up our sign and turned it into a national campaign. Please visit their site, sign the petition and help spread the word!” — Elana and Danny, Common Roots Café, in a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page
• “Janet, a cashier at Lund’s, came up to me and apologized for Trump. She told me that is not American. She said Islam has nothing to do with what is going on in the world. I told her she doesn’t have to apologize and that I don’t blame her for his behavior. I gave her a hug and she had tears in her eyes. As I was leaving the store, she said to me, ‘You are welcome anytime and please come back.’ It is nice to have that connection with others who feel that racism is killing this country and we will not tolerate it anymore.” — Aida
• “The president at my university [University of St. Thomas] issued a statement of solidarity with Muslims. It was sent to all students, faculty and staff. There is a powerful poster in our main Anderson Student Center where students sign in agreement, with the president’s message in the middle.” — Ayan
• “It was my first visit to this quaint coffee shop [Bru House] near my son’s school. The owner stopped over and said, ‘I am so happy to see women in hijab in our coffee shop, in light of what’s happening all around us. Thank you for coming in.’ And then she gave me a gift card to come back. My faith in humanity has been restored. Humbled by the good people in Minnesota.” — Nausheena
• “I am extremely humbled by an anonymous act of kindness that happened yesterday while enjoying a meal with my [friend]. While sitting, a lady came up to us with a sweet smile and said ‘I know this is random, but I wanted to wish you a good night. Make sure to enjoy your night.’ It was random, but extremely sweet. She just left and caught up with the man she was with. A little while later, we were surprised when the waitress informed us that someone took care of our bill. They told the waitress that we’ve been having it hard lately and deserve a break. We were both at loss of words and extremely humbled. Surely, at times of hardship, good people emerge. These acts of kindness make things 100 times better. I wish that couple never ending happiness and joy! Thank you for making my day, and restoring hope as it seemed to shatter.” — Abrara
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These acts of kindness speak to who we are as Americans and as individuals with integrity. Just as we challenge the hate and extremism of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, we must challenge the hate and extremism taking place in our own country right now. “The ultimate measure of a man,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
It is unlikely that during post-9/11 and Trump-era America, presidential candidates are going to actively invite Muslims, especially Muslim women in hijab, to sit behind them at rallies. But there is hope that the voices of courage and compassion will prevail over hate and fear.
Lori Saroya is a second-generation American Muslim, civil-rights activist, nonprofit leader and writer. She received her undergraduate degree in English from St. Catherine University, law degree from the Hamline University School of Law and nonprofit management certificate from Georgetown University. She lives in Blaine.