Trump stokes fear in Arab and Muslim communities
New York - Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election shocked many Americans. But for Muslim and Arab Americans, Trump’s win also has brought fear and uncertainty about a country they thought they could call their own.
“Most people are afraid,” said Ahmed Breizat, 29, a dentist who recently immigrated from Jordan and is working at a law office in the heavily Arab neighbourhood of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in New York City. “The day after the election we received calls all day. They were scared that they were going to be forced to leave.”
“It makes you feel that the future president of the United States is about to abandon the constitution and everything that it stands for,” said an Egyptian resident of Brooklyn. “This is not the America that Muslims knew. It makes me very sad.”
During the election campaign, Trump’s rhetoric was often not taken seriously by a number of Americans, including Muslims. Those who have witnessed US presidential elections have become accustomed to sometimes incendiary comments and broad promises that often are abandoned after the campaign. A prime example was President Barack Obama’s pledge to close the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects captured during the previous administration’s war on terror have languished. Once in office, Obama found that closing Guantanamo was much easier said than done.
“[Trump] actually had some Muslim supporters because they didn’t think anyone could be that manipulative, that bad,” said Sooby Jabir, a Palestinian-American who did not vote because he saw the two major candidates — Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton — as equally unappealing. “I thought it was a joke. I thought it was just a publicity stunt,” Jabir said of Trump’s campaign. That scepticism on the part of many has now turned to trepidation.
“Some people say that Trump won’t be able to keep all his promises, like registering Muslims or deporting millions of [immigrants],” observed Aatif Bokhari, a Pakistani- American. “But there was a lot of fear that he could do it because he said it and nobody had a problem with it. In fact, his ratings went up when he said those things.”
Trump’s initial appointments and nominations have only fuelled Muslims’ fears over what may come. US Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 largely because of racially tinged statements he had made, is Trump’s pick to be attorney-general. Retired US Army Lieutenant-General Michael Flynn, who once called Islam “a cancer”, has been named Trump’s national security adviser. Congressman Mike Pompeo, a right-wing Republican from Kansas, has been tapped as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“The appointments seem to show that Trump doesn’t care what people who are different from him think,” said Bokhari. “That’s very concerning because he is supposed to be bringing the country together. To put these people in who are just going to fan the flames is not a very good sign.”
The spike in hate crimes since the election is of great concern to many Muslims and others. In Bay Ridge alone, residents have reported at least three incidents in which women wearing the hijab were harassed. Some Muslims have suggested that women not wear the hijab in public to avoid harassment.
“The worst is the environment that [Trump] has created,” said Breizat. “He has empowered that part of the community that is racist. Now, they feel that they can do whatever they want.”
Despite the anxiety, many immigrants cling to the belief that brought them to the United States — a country where everyone is accepted, no matter their race, religion or ethnicity.
“I don’t know what to expect from him,” said Ayman Suafin, a Palestinian jeweller in Bay Ridge. “I don’t know if Trump knows what he is going to do. I still believe in the system, in the laws, in the Constitution.”
But Suafin fears that the current climate in the United States echoes what many immigrants to America thought they had left behind in their native countries.
“I watch a lot of Arabic TV,” Suafin said. “A lot of people over there worship their leaders, and Trump supporters are acting the same. If you don’t agree with them, then you are not American. Even whites who do not agree with Trump are not considered by his followers to be Americans or patriots, and that is what happens over there. If you don’t agree with the leaders, you are a traitor and you have to be killed or imprisoned. I am afraid that the same thing will happen here. That is what scares us, not Trump as Trump, but his supporters.”
Somia Elrowmeim, a Yemeni immigrant and women’s advocate with the Arab American Association of New York, expressed a similar concern. “I hope Trump will think hard because if he continues like this, the hate crimes are going to rise.”
Jabir put it more bluntly. “Hopefully, he’s not as crazy as he has made himself seem,” he said. “Hopefully, there is a brain behind his mouth.”