The day after Donald J. Trump was elected president, Alia Ali, a Muslim woman who lives in New York City, felt great unease.
“Half of America voted one way, and half of America voted the other, and you’re like, ‘Which half am I looking at?’” Ali, a secretary in the public school system, told the Associated Press. “You become almost like strangers to the people you’ve worked with. Is this person racist? Do they like me? Do they not like me? Because that’s what this election has done.”
Ali wasn’t the only one feeling a sense of dread over Trump’s surprise victory. Across the country, Muslims braced themselves for a new wave of Islamophobia and possibly even legislative proposals that could affect their religious liberty.
American Muslims may have good reason to be worried. Trump, a bombastic real estate developer and reality TV figure, frequently lapsed into what critics noted were Islamophobic attacks while on the campaign trail.
In December of 2015, for example, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” This controversial policy remained on his campaign website even after the election. He also suggested subjecting refugees and immigrants from majority-Muslim nations to heightened forms of scrutiny.
At one point in 2015, Trump was asked how such a policy would differ from laws in Nazi Germany that required Jews to register. His reply was a flip, “You tell me.”
During the debates, Trump baited Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, asserting that she was afraid even to utter the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” American Muslims number about 3.3 million, the vast majority law-abiding. Trump’s words, some felt, were an effort to smear a large population with the acts of a small number of violent zealots.
In the wake of his election, Trump did nothing to allay Muslim concerns. In fact, he escalated them. During a visit to Capitol Hill, a reporter asked Trump if he still backed barring Muslims from coming to America. Trump ignored the question. A few days later, a Trump insider told Reuters news service that the president-elect is considering creating a national registry of immigrants who come from Muslim-majority nations.
Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state whose name was floated as a candidate for attorney general before Trump settled on U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said the registry would be modeled on a monitoring system that was in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks but was later dropped amid allegations that it had been ineffective.
Kobach insisted that Trump could create such a registry without congressional approval.
A few days after the election, a Trump surrogate named Carl Higbie appeared on Fox News Channel’s “Kelly File” and insisted that precedent for such a registry exists. Remarkably, he cited the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, an act human rights activists consider one of the most shameful periods of American history.
“Yeah, well, we’ve done it in the past,” Higbie, a former Navy SEAL, told Kelly. “We’ve done it based on race. We’ve done it based on religion. … We did it in World War II with Japanese.”
When Kelly challenged Higbie to stop defending internment, saying it “gets people scared,” Higbie replied, “I’m just saying there is precedent for it. … Look, the president needs to protect America first. If that means having people not protected under our Constitution, have some sort of registry to understand, until we can identify the true threat and where they are coming from, I support it.”
As The Washington Post noted in an editorial, “If the president-elect’s camp is trying to scare the bejeezus out of America’s 3.3 million Muslims, it’s doing a fine job.”
In an attempt at a legislative preemptive strike, U.S. Rep. Suzane DelBene (D-Wash.) has introduced the No Religious Registry Act. The proposed legislation would ban the creation of any kind of registry based on religion.
A press release from DelBene’s office asserted, “[The] bill would prohibit the Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security and any United States government official from establishing or utilizing a registry for the purposes of classifying individuals on the basis of religious affiliation. The legislation would cover U.S. nationals, U.S. visa applicants and aliens lawfully present in the United States.”
Observed DelBene, “President-elect Donald Trump is breaking his promise to be a President for all Americans by supporting the creation of a Muslim registry. This kind of xenophobic and hateful rhetoric has no place in our government.”
Such ideas – barring Muslims from the country, subjecting them to “extreme vetting” or even putting them in camps – didn’t originate with Trump. The Washington Post reported in November that fringe figures on the far right have for years been suggesting that Muslims be subjected to surveillance and denied basic rights. Some have even recommended barring the construction of mosques.
“We are asking for the immediate halting of all Muslim immigration and the removal of all illegal aliens from the United States.” Terry Jones, a far-right Florida pastor, said in 2011. “We are asking for the monitoring of all mosques in America.” (Jones is notorious for his penchant for burning Qurans.)
The Post’s Abigail Hauslohner noted that these ideas were considered fringe at the time, but that Trump “has become the first and only major-party presidential candidate to accept these ideas as his own.”
Trump tapped into a seething undercurrent of Islamophobia that has percolated among the American right for years. It takes many forms. In some communities, people have tried to block the construction of mosques. Some extremists have even argued that Islam is a political ideology, not a religion, and thus doesn’t deserve protection under the First Amendment.
Anti-Muslim sentiment finds a welcome in some Christian fundamentalist churches. In late October, Minnesota Public Radio (MNPR) aired a report about a bevy of anti-Muslim speakers who make the rounds in conservative churches, often in small towns and in rural areas.
Many of these speakers claim to be experts on Islam, but in most cases their knowledge of the faith is slim, and they usually just end up spreading hysteria.
One man, Usama Dakdok, spoke in Minnesota 20 times over a period of a year and a half. Dakdok, an Egyptian Christian, tells crowds that Islam has no legal right to exist.
“Islam is not a religion,” Dakdok told MNPR. “It’s a savage cult. Therefore, it is unconstitutional for a Muslim to practice Islam in America.”
Dakdok and other speakers portray urban areas, where many Muslim immigrants tend to settle, as being on the verge of falling to Islamic law.
“Minneapolis is lost, gone,” one speaker, John Guandolo, a former FBI agent, told a crowd at a church in Warroad, a town of about 1,800 in far northern Minnesota.
Speakers like this do more than appear in churches. Sometimes they are paid with public funds to address police groups or community organizations. Many are sponsored by a group called ACT! For America, a national organization that stokes fears over Islamic influence in America.
Leaders of Muslim organizations look at these types of events with dismay.
“Just think about being a Muslim,” Jaylani Hussein, director of the Minnesota Council on American-Islamic Relations, told MNPR. “To have a speaker come to your community to demonize you, and to make you anti-American. To pretty much turn your neighbors and friends and schoolmates against you. That’s the type of hate that these speakers speak.”
Trump’s victory, many fear, has emboldened anti-Muslim activists – and Trump hasn’t tried to tamp down those concerns. Just days after the election, he named Steve Bannon, the controversial owner of a far-right website called Breitbart News, as his chief strategist.
Breitbart is a home for many in what is called the “alt-right” community. The site is studded with anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and misogynistic content. Although Bannon didn’t write this material, that he gave it a platform is alarming to many.
The Anti-Defamation League, which battles anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry, released a statement strongly condemning Trump’s decision to appoint Bannon.
“It is a sad day when a man who presided over the premier website of the ‘alt-right’ – a loose-knit group of white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists – is slated to be a senior staff member in the ‘people’s house,” read the statement.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) also blasted the Bannon appointment.
CAIR maintains a website that monitors Islamophobic groups. The site reported that Bannon hosted a daily radio show on which many of his guests “instigated fear and loathing of Muslims in America” and promoted “racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim content.”
“The appointment of Stephen Bannon as a top Trump administration strategist sends the disturbing message that anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and White nationalist ideology will be welcome in the White House,” said CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad. “We urge President-elect Trump to reconsider this ill-advised appointment if he truly seeks to unite Americans.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has called Breitbart News a “white ethno-nationalist propaganda mill.” In an editorial, The New York Times described the site’s fans as “a loosely organized group of mostly young men who believe in white supremacy; oppose immigration, feminism and multiculturalism; and delight in harassing Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups by spewing shocking insults on social media.”
Trump has also added Frank Gaffney as an advisor on national security issues. Gaffney, the SPLC has reported, is “gripped by paranoid fantasies about Muslims destroying the West from within, suspicious that Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya, and a proponent of a new version of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee to root out suspected Muslim subversives.”
Trump’s choice of Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser also sounded alarms. Flynn once said that Islam is not a religion but a “political ideology” that hides “behind what we call freedom of religion.” In an infamous tweet, he asserted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” He has also referred to the faith as “a cancer.”
Trump’s election has galvanized advocates of religious freedom. Numerous groups, including Americans United, have issued statements criticizing the proposed Muslim registry and taking Trump to task for the people he has appointed to important positions.
One of the strongest statements came from Cornell William Brooks, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP.
“For over a century, the NAACP has battled against racism to secure equality for all American citizens,” Brooks observed. “President-elect Trump’s proposed registry – a digital ‘stop and frisk’ for Muslim Americans – is the latest threat to the liberty of all Americans. The NAACP stands with our civil rights organization partners in denouncing any ‘Muslim registry’ and in the ongoing fight against the persecution of any Americans.”
Muslims and Jews are also joining forces to speak out. Shortly after Trump announced the Bannon appointment, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) announced the creation of the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which will combat religious bigotry and intolerance.
“We have to show the administration that as American Muslims and Jews – people of the faiths of Abraham – we are uniting to help the administration navigate in the proper constitutional manner, to uphold freedom of religion and constitutional rights for all Americans,” said Eftakhar Alam, senior coordinator of the ISNA’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances.
Robert Silverman, the AJC’s director of Muslim-Jewish relations, added, “The Council’s formation shows that American Muslims and Jewish leadership are now working together, focused on domestic developments. This is a first and is good news for the entire country.”
As Trump prepares to take office this month, the situation remains unsettled. CAIR has issued a steady stream of press releases about instances of harassment of Muslims and vandalism of mosques.
In an incident that captured national headlines, a Muslim woman in a hijab shopping in a grocery store in Albuquerque was attacked by a woman in a baseball hat and sunglasses who screamed at her, “You’re a terrorist! Get out of here!” Other shoppers and store personnel came to the Muslim woman’s aid.
In Georgia, the Islamic Center of Savannah received an anonymous letter that called Muslims “Children of Satan” and “vile and filthy people.” The letter advised Muslims to “pack your bags and get out of dodge” because Trump is “going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.” Three mosques in California received the same letter.
Trump, in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” disavowed such actions. Muslim leaders say that’s a good place to start, but they want more.
Madihha Ahussain, a staff attorney who runs the Program to Counter Anti-Muslim Hate at Muslim Advocates, a national legal and education group, called on Trump to strongly denounce anti-Muslim harassment.
“In the first test of his commitment to be a president for all Americans, families are hoping for the president-elect to do the right thing and strongly denounce bigoted rhetoric, harassment, bullying, and violence against their fellow Americans,” Ahussain said in a press statement. “The nation and the world are watching, Mr. President-elect.”