The Muslim factor in US elections
Community relations were already in a ferment in the United States even before Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s outrageous assertion that he doubted a Muslim judge could ever be fair to him.
Never mind that trying to disqualify judges based on heritage — ethnicity, religion, (may be ginger-hair even?) — is anathema to the foundational principles of the US judicial system.
What effect might a potential US president’s bigotry have on, say, Americans who come up in the New York civil court of Carolyn Walker-Diallo? She placed her hand on the Quran as she took oath as a judge in December. What about those whose case is heard by Halim Dhanidina, California’s first Muslim judge? Will the plaintiffs and defendants who come up before Sohail Mohammed and Hani Mawla, Muslim judges in New Jersey, be satisfied they were guided by the US Constitution rather than anything else?
Will Americans henceforth believe that justice is done no matter the creed of the judge? Or will Trump have thrown a Molotov cocktail at the American way?
Judge from the stories that follow but, just for the record, when a video of Walker-Diallo’s swearing-in was posted online, some of Trump’s most virulently anti-Muslim supporters said that those who “liked” it should be deported after their man gets into the Oval Office.
The brutal truth is that Trump is having a subliminal effect on America’s attitude to and the response from the country’s Muslims. There is a bad Trump effect and, hard though it may be to believe, an unwittingly good one, too.
Two stories from two different parts of the United States seem to underline this.
In Lubbock, Texas, residents protested against their weather service’s description of a dust storm as haboob, a particular natural phenomenon in which a collapsing thunderstorm exhales a burst of wind that collects dust and can grow into a dark cloud. To some Lubbock locals, the term was a Middle Eastern imposition that signalled an Arab takeover of the skies. “In Texas, nimrod (sic), this is called a sandstorm,” wrote one irate Lubbock resident. “We’ve had them for years! If you would like to move to the Middle East you can call this a haboob. While you reside here, call it a sandstorm.”
In Chicago, Muslim Americans have come together in a project called Forward Humanity that provides food deliveries to the hungry and homeless of all faiths or none. The effort was to escalate throughout Ramadan and its founder, Sanah Khan, describes it as a way of broadening Muslim charity and redefining Muslims within the wider community.
Launched in 2015 right after Trump’s initial attacks on Muslims, Khan said she took the Republican presidential hopeful’s bigotry “in a very positive way”. “I am actually very thankful,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “because he gave us reasons to stand up and say we can do better… People need to see the normal Muslims.”
Do Lubbock and Chicago speak to the push-me-pull-you forces currently at work in a famously diverse country that constitutionally enshrines religious liberty but is in the throes of an ugly election campaign dominated by an outspoken Islamophobe?
Yes. As the San Diego Union- Tribune, a conservative California newspaper, editorialised: “Trump is the great excommunicator. He wants Muslims banned from the country; a wall built around our southern border, global deals ripped up.”
The divisive and insular forces described by the publication will only intensify in the next five months as Trump seeks to solidify his support by playing on ordinary Americans’ fear and ignorance of Muslims and Arabs.
Make no mistake, the ignorance is simply world-class. This column has previously covered the more ludicrous recent examples of the spreading paranoia about the Arabic language and its perceived link to imaginary terrorist threats. In April, there was Iraqi University of California, Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi’s humiliation by a domestic US airline for the offence of speaking Arabic on the phone. In May, olive-skinned Italian economist Guido Menzio was questioned for writing mathematical equations as he waited for his flight to leave Philadelphia. A fellow passenger reported the academic’s scribblings as suspiciously foreign, perhaps even Arabic.
In Lubbock, the paranoia escalated into utter lunacy. To those who know these things or have read Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful novel The English Patient, a haboob is a very particular kind of dust storm. It is more localised and is common in America’s desert south-west and in the Middle East, where the term originated. Weathermen use it as they refer to the aajej, southern Morocco’s whirlwind, the hot, dry ghibli from Tunis, the datoo out of Gibraltar, the nafliat out of Arabia — to denote the specificity of natural conditions. To see a haboob warning as a threat mendaciously and dangerously imported into America is idiocy.
But there will be more Lubbocks and Makhzoomis in the run up to the November 8th US election. And there may be more examples like Chicago’s Forward Humanity as well. Philosophers have often spoken of the greater good that can come from the bad. So, too, Trump’s anti-Muslim stance. It may force Muslim Americans to stand up and more deliberately ask to be counted — as ordinary Americans who just happen to espouse the Islamic faith. This American election year of great divides may become one of greater unity.
One can but hope.