Fifteen years ago, the U.S. was attacked by terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam. America’s response? “United We Stand.” Yet now it feels like Muslims face more hatred in 2016 than on Sept. 11, 2001.
Back then, President George W. Bush, no liberal, visited a mosque in Washington, D.C., just days later to show solidarity with Muslims, saying, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.” People came together in gratitude for those who risked everything rescuing others during the attacks, including Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a 23-year-old first responder who died saving lives in the World Trade Center. He was Muslim. So am I.
Before that day, America’s Muslim community wasn’t the focus of much political discussion. Now, Islam and Muslims are regular topics on talk shows and in headlines, often in a negative light. The political landscape has changed dramatically for America’s Muslim community — for better and for worse. Increased Muslim visibility and engagement in the community are occurring at the same time as an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes, and this is not a coincidence: A recent study by the Bridge Initiative found that anti-Muslim crimes have increased during this election season, with 2015 having the most anti-Muslim violence and vandalism of any year since 9/11. Looking at the data, there is a clear uptick in anti-Muslim crime associated with the rise of Donald Trump. In fact, two Somali Muslim men were recently shot in my own city of Minneapolis because of their faith. For American Muslims, the period since 9/11 has represented both progress and peril — and many fear what may lie ahead.
On the good side, President Obama just nominated America’s first Muslim federal judge, Abid Qureshi. Ibtihaj Muhammad just won an Olympic bronze medal in fencing — hijab and all. Seven Muslims addressed the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, including the electrifying presentation of Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. Ilhan Omar, who lived in a Somali refugee camp from the ages of 8 to 12, is poised to be elected to the Minnesota Legislature on a decidedly progressive platform. And today’s Muslim community is voting, running for office, opening businesses and starting health clinics like never before.
When I first came to Congress after 9/11, I certainly faced challenges: Glenn Beck asked me to prove I wasn’t working with our nation’s enemies; Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., warned his constituents that unless America supported his exclusive vision of immigration, there would be “many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Qur’an.” But I took these things in stride because I expected negative reactions from some people to the first Muslim congressman.
Now, I’m no longer sure those reactions are receding. Indeed, things are still challenging for America’s Muslim community, as we face down lies and fearmongering about our faith — by the presidential nominee for the Republican Party, no less. Anti-Muslim hate speech used to be limited to the fringe. But over time, because of well-financed advocacy, these ugly views have crept into the mainstream.
People like Frank Gaffney and Pam Geller pushed anti-Muslim sentiment during the incessant right-wing media coverage over the so-called “9/11 mosque,” a proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan near the World Trade Center. It morphed into members of Congress advocating for McCarthy-like tactics for Muslims working in our government. And it has culminated with a race for the Republican presidential nomination that included Sen. Ted Cruz appointing Gaffney to be one of his closest advisers, Ben Carson saying a Muslim should never become president and the nomination of a man who said Muslims should not be allowed to enter our country. What used to be whispered through a dog whistle is now being screamed through a bullhorn.
Throughout all of this, the Muslim community has shown an incredible amount of poise and patriotism. So much so that Daesh (known as the Islamic State by some, or as ISIS or ISIL) has put out a list of Muslim-Americans it wants to kill because of their service to our country. I am one of them.
Daesh is right about one thing: American Muslims are serving their country. Muslims are working to make it better every day. After the killing of Michael Brown, I traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to meet with members of the community. During my visit, I went to the Salam Clinic, which is housed in a Christian church. There, two Muslim doctors joined with the pastor to offer free health care to anyone who showed up that weekend. While talking with the doctors, I was surprised to find out that Salam Clinic wasn’t just offering free care in response to the protests over Brown’s death. Salam Clinic has opened its doors every weekend since 2008, and it still gives free care to hundreds of local residents. These doctors and pastor are true public servants.
Like millions of other Muslims in this country, I find peace and comfort in my faith. The Qur’an teaches us that “Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred” (16:91). It inspires leaders such as Omar, the doctors at the Salam Clinic, and Olympic fencer Muhammad, who ignore the hate and serve their communities.
It is also inspiring future generations. During the Republican primary race, 12-year-old Yusuf Dayur responded to Carson’s comment that a Muslim should never be president. In his video, Yusuf said that he will become the first Muslim president. He also promised to reject all forms of hatred: “When I become president,” he said, “I will respect people of all faiths, all colors and all religions.” Go Yusuf!
The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should remind us of lessons learned long ago: The best way to overcome darkness is with light. And despite so much negativity, people are responding. During Ramadan in June, many of my neighbors in the Twin Cities, most of whom were not Muslim, posted yard signs saying, “To our Muslim neighbors, blessed Ramadan.”
Let’s follow their example, and turn to each other, not on each other.
Keith Ellison represents Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District and was the first Muslim elected to Congress. He is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and serves on the House Financial Services Committee. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.