WASHINGTON — Four days after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, mental health counselors hosted a webinar on how their fellow American Muslims could cope. They surveyed the political landscape: a White House framing Islam itself as a threat, a surge in anti-Muslim hostility and suspicion of immigrants in general.
The counselors offered tips such as limiting time on social media. And they cautioned against withdrawing in discouragement, worried about losing whatever foothold Muslims have gained in public life since the crucible of Sept. 11.
“It’s very easy to tell a story of victimization, fear, feeling … not welcome in our own home,” said Ben Herzig, a Massachusetts therapist with a specialty in Muslim mental health. “But the narrative of Islam in American can be a positive one.”
While many express alarm at Trump’s statements, Muslim leaders are pushing back. They are organizing protests, hosting elected officials at their mosques, building ties with other faith groups and encouraging Muslims to run for elected office. Many of these initiatives had been planned before the general election, but have taken on a new urgency since then.
Trump signed an executive order Friday setting “new vetting measures” to keep “radical Islamic terrorists” out of the United States.
The order indefinitely stopped Syrian refugee and immigrant entry into the U.S., suspended all refugee entry for four months and suspended refugee admissions for three months from countries with terror concerns, naming majority-Muslim nations including Iraq, Syria and Iran. The new president and his supporters say his measures are needed to strengthen national security.
Farhana Khera, head of the civil rights group Muslim Advocates, said the order “relies on grotesque and bigoted stereotypes of Islam.”
In Texas, a state lawmaker recently sent a provocative survey to local Muslim leaders asking, among other things, their views of Islamic law and whether they would pledge not to harm Muslims who left the faith. On Wednesday, a businessman attacked a Muslim airline employee at New York’s Kennedy Airport, kicking her, shouting obscenities at her and saying that Trump “will get rid of all of you,” authorities said.
“The discourse has shifted from good Muslims and bad Muslims to ‘how bad is the Muslim you’re talking about?'” said attorney Hassan Ahmad, an immigration law specialist in Virginia with many clients from Muslim countries.
Muslim leaders acknowledge they are in a relatively weak position from which to advocate, amid the nation’s inflamed mood over immigration, religion and terrorism.
The U.S. is home to only about 3.3 million Muslims, which means just a small number of Americans actually know a member of the faith. Many U.S. Muslims come from families that only arrived a generation ago. But they have more organizations, charities and cultural clout than ever, built by a post-9/11 generation eager to assert their American identity.
Companies like Amazon, Nabisco and CoverGirl have recently featured Muslims in their advertisements. The night after Trump’s inauguration, comic Aziz Ansari, speaking from one of the most influential platforms in pop culture, as host of “Saturday Night Live,” called out anti-Muslim prejudice, white supremacy and other bias that has come to the forefront.
“It’s very clear that one of the goals of bigoted language is to make the victims feel isolated and make them feel that they have no allies and they have no power to get them to be silent and intimidate them and make them give up,” said Dalia Mogahed, director of research for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, an American Muslim think-tank.
Last month, about 2,600 people filled the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, for an interfaith event expressing support for the community. Among the speakers were U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
This month, Wardah Khalid, a 30-year-old graduate of Texas A&M University, started a Washington organization called Poligon to train American Muslims how to lobby Congress. She got the idea from working as an analyst for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker public policy organization.
“There are other groups visiting (congressional offices) every single day of the year and it makes a difference in terms of policy asks,” Khalid said. She said she’s received a strong response to the launch on Facebook and through her website. “It got a lot of momentum,” Khalid said. “People are finally waking up.”
Muslims for American Progress, a project just launched by Mogahed’s institute, aims to highlight American Muslim contributions to the country in medicine, science, sports, business and other fields. The profiles are based in part on data the institute has collected about Muslim professionals.
“For 15 years American Muslims have been asked to tell the world what they condemn versus what they contribute, and the conversation in this presidential campaign was with one candidate who thought Muslims were a cancer and the other who basically thought that Muslims were benign and useful as an instrument of counterterrorism. But neither of them understood the value of the American Muslim community to our country outside of counterterror,” Mogahed said.
Jerusha Lamptey, a professor of Islam and ministry at Union Theological Seminary, a liberal Christian school in New York, had just wrapped up the school’s first leadership training program for Muslim women when details emerged over the last week of Trump’s plan to sharply restrict refugee flow.
“The scheduling turned out to be very important because it created something for us to do that was constructive and somewhat hopeful,” Lamptey said. “This anxiety for the American Muslim community is not new. But this last year, it’s been wildly out of control.”
That angst is causing deep fatigue, especially among Muslim college students and parents desperate to protect their children, said Kameelah Rashad, founder of the Philadelphia-based Muslim Wellness Foundation, which educates Muslims on mental health issues. Rashad’s son, who is in sixth grade, heard one of his teachers say people upset by Trump’s election “should just get over it.” Rashad said
“We are such a small minority in the country overall, so it will really just take more than us standing up and saying, ‘This is inexcusable,'” Rashad said. “We’re very resilient, but we also have to comfort our children. We have to figure out if my place of worship is safe on Friday. How will I be treated at work? There’s an emotional exhaustion.”
Surveying Trump’s first week in office, she said: “I think it will get worse before it gets better.”
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