American Muslims and the Politics of Division

For years, Asuman Antepli, a nurse at a hospital in North Carolina , said people mostly just ignored the head-covering hijab she wears as a mark of her Muslim faith.

Occasionally, a patient might make an insulting comment, but she would put that down to ignorance. Once, after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, men in the street made obscene gestures and cursed at her as she drove home.

But in the past year, as Donald J. Trump began his dizzying political ascent, things got markedly worse for Ms. Antepli. Some patients, or their relatives, openly recoiled at the sight of her. Others wore Trump hats and T-shirts, as if to prove a point. A handful have flat-out refused to allow her to treat them, even though she worked in the emergency room.

“It’s been very painful,” said her husband, Abdullah Antepli, who teaches Islamic studies at Duke University and has heard similar accounts of casual discrimination from his students.

So the couple broke into tears recently as they watched another immigrant, Khizr Khan, deliver a stunning rebuke to Mr. Trump at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia. Mr. Khan’s electrifying speech, in which he described the death of his soldier son, Humayun, in Iraq in 2004, jolted the American political landscape and, after an ugly response from Mr. Trump, precipitated a steep plunge in the Republican nominee’s polling numbers that the he is still struggling to recover from.

For American Muslims like Mr. Antepli, the speech arrived with lifesaving urgency — a perfect riposte to Mr. Trump in an election where Muslims have been, at times, portrayed as disloyal, untrustworthy and dangerous. “It felt like divine intervention,” said Mr. Antepli. “They were undeniably Muslim, undeniably immigrant and undeniably American. This was the mirror that we need to hold up to American society.”

The intense focus on Muslims is one part of a broader identity crisis — spanning race, religion and sexuality — that this polarizing election has brought on. Driven by Mr. Trump’s scattershot statements, the divisive politics has drawn battle lines, of sorts, drawing supporters as well as detractors. Unpredictable things happen.
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In February, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of two Muslim members of Congress, took out a full-page newspaper advertisement in his home city of Minneapolis, appealing to Americans to stand against the tide of bigotry and hate. “Every intolerant social post, every prejudiced comment aimed at Muslims needs a response,” it said.

Although Mr. Ellison is a Democrat, the advertisement was paid for by a local Republican businessman. “The real story is that folks aren’t taking it sitting down,” Mr. Ellison said. “It’s not just Muslims. Americans of all faiths — Jews, Christians and others — are stepping up to the plate.”

Mr. Khan — a Gold Star father, with a son buried at Arlington National Cemetery — seemed the perfect figure to lead the moral assault on Mr. Trump. Yet, the manner in which Mr. Khan was lionized in the American media also aroused discomfort and debate among other American Muslims. Some say it has resurrected the specter of the “good Muslim” — the idea, born of the febrile post-2001 era, that Muslim-American patriotism can be measured only by the yardstick of terrorism and foreign policy.

That raised a question: Did Mr. Khan’s testimony, determined and powerful as it was, show that it takes the death of a son, in a disputed war in a Muslim land, to prove you are a good American?
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Abroad in America
Declan Walsh, the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, is reporting on the 2016 American presidential campaign for a global audience in much the same way he would cover an event overseas.

Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @declanwalsh, and on Instagram @declanjwalsh.

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The debate “led to an internal moral dilemma,” said Dalia Mogahed, a former adviser to President Obama on faith issues, and now a research director at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. “Finally, here was someone with the moral authority to stand up and challenge Trump on his rhetoric. On the other hand, there was a point of view that we were glorifying military service — or condoning a war that was misguided and unjust.”

The charged argument, she said, mostly took place online, pointing to an old problem among the estimated 3.3 million Muslims in America. Many of them oppose the American foreign policies in Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet they feel their ability to openly contest those policies is compromised by politicians and media coverage that equates Islam with terrorism, and a fear they will be accused of being fifth columnists.

The debate is complicated by recent extremist violence inside the United States, such as the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., by a Muslim couple who claimed to fight for the Islamic State, or the deadly assault on an Orlando, Fla., nightclub by Omar Mateen, the son of an Afghan immigrant.

“It’s all become very politicized,” said Hafsa Kanjwal, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. “We have Humayan Khan as the ‘good Muslim’ at one end, and Omar Mateen as the ‘bad Muslim’ at the other end. Islam is being played up in both instances.”

For others, though, it is a matter of pragmatic politics at time when fringe ideas have soaked into the mainstream. As well as calling for Muslim migrants to be barred from entering the United States, Mr. Trump has proposed shutting down certain mosques, issuing special ID cards to Muslims and creating a federal database to track and monitor all Muslim residents.

Some of those ideas appeal to voters, and has appeared to incite violence against Muslims: A recent report by Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding found that the campaign has coincided with a rise in anti-Muslim violence across the country, including attacks on people and mosques.

Mostly, though, the political tensions are percolating into daily life through smaller aggressions, a dozen Muslims from across America said in interviews: casual comments from colleagues, children being bullied at school or hostile stares directed at women who wear head scarves. In April, an Iraqi student was removed from a flight in California after another passenger became alarmed after hearing him speaking in Arabic.

Hassan Minhaj, a comedian on “The Daily Show,” said that the Republican convention, which he attended, “felt like a racist Comic-Con.” But, he added in an interview, “it was only a small minority who were screaming all these terrifying things. The majority were just ignorant — they didn’t know any better.”

Paradoxically, the darkening political clouds come at a time when Muslim voices in America are more prominent, sometimes away from the straitjacketed debate on terrorism. Muslim characters in popular culture, such as television shows, are less stereotyped. Muslim leaders, even those critical of American foreign policy, flocked in June to a Ramadan dinner hosted by President Obama at the White House.

One lonely Muslim voice of late, however, has been that of Sajid Tarar — one of the few Muslims to speak out in Mr. Trump’s defense.

In an interview, Mr. Tarar, who was born in Pakistan, said he had received voluminous hate mail from other Muslims which accused him of being a traitor. He echoed Mr. Trump’s talking points about the dangers of “political correctness” and Syrian refugees.

“Why are they running from their country to come here?” he said. “Why don’t they go to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon? Europe is already burning.”

He said that his organization, American Muslims for Trump, had 500 members.

“I’m part of angry America,” Mr. Tarar said, reeling off a list of Hillary Clinton’s failings. “As Muslims, we have to show that not all of us are terrorists — only a certain percentage are troublemakers.”