For American Muslims, Donald Trump’s presidency has been demoralizing but not a shock. It can be easy to forget that his administration is far from the first threat to the civil rights of Muslims in America and probably won’t be the last. Trump’s election horrified me, but my father said, “They are all the same.” I reminded him of Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, of the white nationalism that fed off his candidacy. “It’s just a puppet show,” he insisted. I’m nowhere near as relaxed about the potential damage Trump can do to Muslim Americans, but I see the point that he’s making. My father doesn’t expect things to get worse, mainly because things for us haven’t ever really been good.
For years starting in the mid-2000s, the New York Police Department carried out an extensive, covert surveillance program in Muslim communities, including the one I grew up in. With no suspicion of wrongdoing, the department declared mosques “terrorism enterprises” in order to justify monitoring anyone who passed through their doors, following people to restaurants, shops, and their homes. If they wanted to know what was going on inside the community, they could have just asked. In the secret report they produced about my hometown, Newark, New Jersey, I recognized many places my family and I frequented. They’d been watching the mosque my father brought me to on Fridays before taking me to out for Chinese food at a restaurant also included in the NYPD’s report. At the time I’d occasionally felt as if I was being spied on. It didn’t feel good to be proven right.
After the program was exposed, there were a few prominent voices of disapproval, and after taking office, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio disbanded the covert unit. The program resulted in zero leads. But the NYPD has hardly been made to answer for its actions, definitely not in the public eye. There were no major marches by Americans—or even just New Yorkers—in solidarity with my community. No clever protest signs with puns popped into my social media feeds. I didn’t expect outrage, and none came. I learned long ago that we can’t depend on our government to always protect us. It was just as disheartening to realize no one else would come to our aid, either.
But in Trump’s America, that is no longer true. And this is what has surprised me the most since he took office. Obama failed on his promise to close Guantánamo, dramatically increased our government’s domestic surveillance capabilities, and conducted a drone war in the Middle East. Bush signed the Patriot Act and launched the two wars that allowed terrorist groups like ISIS to rise. None of those prompted the outpouring of support for Muslim rights and sympathy for the Muslim American experience that I’ve seen and felt since Jan. 20.
It’s hard to trust whether it means something has seriously changed, especially when I’ve spent my life feeling like a foreigner who will never be accepted as a true-blooded American. My older sister still warns me to be cautious. She knows that as a journalist I like to put myself in contentious situations. On election night she asked me to stay home instead of going to report at Trump Tower. My sister, who wears a hijab, has been on the receiving end of enough random hate to be wary. But the older generation in my family seems desensitized. Life under Trump can’t be worse than living under an actual dictator, as in Egypt, they say. “Don’t let him bother you,” my father tells me. He calls all the Trump figures actors performing in their soap opera. Still, there’s no denying that daily life under Trump is different—and not just in bad ways.
Before this year, I associated John F. Kennedy Airport only with having to steel myself for extra screening. When I went to JFK to report on the protests to the first travel ban, I was floored at the massive show of support for Muslims. It was emotional for me to see one person shout, “When Muslims are under attack …” and for hundreds of others to answer, “Stand up, fight back!” For most of my life I dreaded going to JFK. Now I’ll remember it as where I came to finally feel American.
This may sound like a strange statement to those who haven’t had their identity constantly under siege. Why should I let others dictate who I am? But at some point, after being told enough times you are the enemy, it’s hard not to feel constantly suspected of being one. This is why witnessing a crowd of people who did not all look like me, or like one another, put their bodies on the line to express their support and sympathy for my right to be here was something I’d conditioned myself never to expect. In the past 100 days, I’ve never felt so much pride to be an American. This doesn’t discount the real attack on Islam happening in some media outlets and government halls, in the misconceptions being spread about the religion and the danger it poses to American life. But for what feels like the first time since 9/11, Muslim rights in America are being treated by the public like a civil rights issue and not a national security one. And that sense of inclusion might be our best weapon in preventing the homegrown terrorism we are so warned about.
I hate thinking about Trump, talking about Trump, and watching the news now that it’s dominated by Trump. If I had a choice, I’d keep my identity to myself and spend time doing what I love with friends and family. But I feel I don’t have a choice, and as much as it has been reaffirming to feel more recognized as an American, I also regret how outward-facing my identity has become. I need to defend Islam because protecting Islam means protecting myself.
Islam is constantly reminding me to be calm and trust that God has a plan. I’m no longer as pessimistic about what four years of a Trump regime will mean for me and for American Muslims. He needs to keep people afraid, but I’ve seen people refuse to be afraid. One thing I’ve been reminded of since Trump won is that identity is especially complicated in the West. I view myself as a young man who grew up in Newark, who is obsessed with music and art, and is always wearing big headphones. Trump wants me to think of myself as just a Muslim. He wants others to see me as just a Muslim. But I know now that most people won’t see me the way he intends.