It is critical to call out demagogues and bigots and to hold them accountable to their Islamophobic statements. It is equally critical to highlight the peacemakers and the bridge builders. The latter might sound a bit naïve in the context of this presidential election cycle, but for many American Muslim citizens and communities, public acts of solidarity are profoundly meaningful.
American Muslims have been forced to defend their faith and civil liberties, facing a candle burning at both ends with Islamophobes’ bias and hate speech on one side and violent extremists who claim to represent Islam on the other. They endure near daily assaults on both their religion and their bodies. According to a recent poll released by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), more than half of American Muslims have reported experiencing discrimination within the past year because of their religion. Eighteen percent report that they experience discrimination regularly – the highest of any faith group.
Positive portrayals of Islam and Muslims are needed now more than ever. We need more stories like the one in which little Jack Swanson donated his piggybank savings to a local mosque that had been vandalized, the U.S. Service Members on social media who promised 8-year old Sofia that they will protect her, and Olympic hijabi athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad who will represent Team USA in Rio this summer. Such stories are all testaments to their dignity, equality and rightful place in the American mosaic. They demonstrate and affirm that American Muslims matter, and that the anti-Muslim narrative we see today is unacceptable and un-American.
To that end, what can presidential candidates do to show solidarity with American Muslims?
They can visit American mosques.
Unfortunately, American mosques are already frequently in the headlines: vandalized with graffiti, pig heads, urine and human excrement; arson and property damage in the thousands of dollars; local town forums in which angry residents block the building of mosques; even openly carrying armed protestors. Some presidential candidates themselves have called for mosques to be closed and ‘Muslim neighborhoods’ to be patrolled. This is deeply unsettling because for so many Muslims, mosques are the spiritual and social lynchpins in the community. In fact, the ISPU poll demonstrates that regular mosque attendance correlates with civic engagement, i.e. working with neighbors to solve community problems, registering to vote and planning to vote.
The Bridge Initiative has therefore taken a look at the 2016 presidential candidates who have demonstrated solidarity with the American Muslim community by visiting mosques in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, those who have made this powerful gesture are Democrats (although they have not always been Democrats). Surprisingly, it does not include the Democratic frontrunner.
Governor Martin O’Malley (campaign suspended)
On December 11, 2015, Governor Martin O’Malley attended the Friday congregational services at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center in Sterling, Virginia, and held a press conference with community leaders. After greeting the congregation with the traditional greeting– “Salaam Alaikum” (peace be upon you) – Governor O’Malley shared the following remarks:
“[In] these times I suppose that where fear and division is in the air, it is easy for unscrupulous politicians, for hate preachers…to turn us upon ourselves.”
He continued, “but that sort of language is not the language of America’s future…Together, in sha Allah, we shall overcome these challenges.”
At the press conference that followed, Georgetown University graduate student and U.S. Army veteran Rasheed Hamdan expressed his great disappointment that his faith and commitment to the U.S. has been called into question, that his service has been unjustly demeaned in today’s climate of Islamophobia.
Governor O’Malley took to the podium next and echoed Hamdan’s sentiments, recalling that when he first heard presidential candidate and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, the first thing that came to mind was whether he would start with the patriotic American Muslims serving around the world and keeping us safe, like Rasheed Hamdan.
O’Malley concluded by underscoring the wisdom of the founding motto of the United States:
“This is the time when we need to remember E Pluribus Unum. From many different cultures comes one strong country.”
Senator Bernie Sanders
Five days after Governor O’Malley’s mosque visit in Virginia, Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders participated in an interfaith roundtable at Masjid Muhammad, popularly known as ‘The Nation’s Mosque.’ Situated in the heart of Washington, D.C., Masjid Muhammad has a proud and resilient 80-year history in the community.
Senator Sanders spoke of the danger of demagogues during this election cycle, which he described as preying upon fears and anxieties in our country and seeking to divide us. He reminded us that his own family members were killed in the Holocaust because of a similarly venomous and ‘othering’ ideology that divided people based on religion. Senator Sanders also reminded us of America’s dark chapters in history with the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese American internment camps, and religious double standards and accusations hurled against non-Protestant presidential candidates.
Senator Sanders laid into Donald Trump for his xenophobic and racist vitriol, which he attributed to increases in hate speech and attacks on American Muslims, including death threats against a Muslim member of Congress, André Carson (IN).
Sanders concluded, “It is time to say enough is enough. It is time to end religious bigotry.”
The roundtable continued with brief remarks by Muslim U.S. Representative Keith Ellison (MN), who shared that his son is currently on active duty serving as an Army medic, and that Imam Talib Shareef, the President and Imam of Masjid Muhammad, is an Air Force veteran who served on active duty for 30 years.
Like Governor O’Malley, Imam Talib concluded with E Pluribus Unum – from many, one, adding “we can also reverse that – from one, many.”
Secretary Hillary Clinton
And what of the Democratic frontrunner, Secretary Hillary Clinton? Has she visited a mosque yet during this election cycle? Does it really even matter that she does?
No, she has not. And yes, it really does.
Secretary Clinton, American Muslims need you to show strong, public support for their besieged, bullied and maltreated communities. Your fellow Democratic contenders have already done so. As the Democratic frontrunner, the time is now for a #HillaryMosqueVisit.
Show us that like Governor O’Malley and Senator Sanders, you too are a champion of equality and justice in these times of intemperate statements by major presidential candidates and growing Islamophobia.