Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1305, (28 July - 3 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The vote of their lives

They immigrate for better jobs, start families and build steady lives for themselves and their children. From North Carolina, Heidi Elhakeem talks to Muslim-Americans on who they want for their next president

Al-Ahram Weekly

As I waited for the elevator that’s overlooking two ‘out of order’ vending machines in one of North Carolina’s budget hotels, a worker asked me if I were the lucky bride getting married this weekend.

I wasn’t the one getting married. I accompanied my aunt and her husband, the Ibrahims, to the wedding of a friend’s daughter. They all met back in the seventies before immigrating to the US from Egypt. We cut a road trip from neighbouring Northern Virginia, where they reside, 188km from North Carolina.

The next day in the hotel’s lobby, at around 10.30am, over backgammon, Americano coffee and  leftover Eid biscuits, the family and friends of the Egyptian-American bride watched Bernie Sanders announce his endorsement of Hillary Clinton. On the 15-inch television screen placed in the centre of the lobby, Sanders, Clinton’s Democratic Party rival, said “she must become our next president”. Though Sanders was shouting, we could barely hear what he was saying over the lobby’s loud conversations.

As Sanders’ speech continued, the large group occupying the lobby’s table exchanged views on the US presidential nominees. “Hillary is corrupt. She and her husband Bill are thieves,” said Nabil Awad, an Egyptian architect and father of four. Awad, currently residing in New Jersey, immigrated more than 20 years ago. His vote will go to either Trump or (jokingly) himself. “I voted for Obama in 2008 and in 2012 I wrote my own name. Trump is a great businessman. I am sure he will make a great president,” Awad added.

“He insults Muslims. What he says sounds insane, and it’s an indication of his future actions which doesn’t look very promising.” Zeinab Ibrahim was speaking about Donald Trump, whose anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to only be getting worse.

Ibrahim will vote for Clinton because she would like to see a woman president and feels she has been fighting to become president for so long and wants what’s best for Americans. Also part of why Ibrahim will vote for Clinton is that her policy is similar to Barack Obama’s administration. “Obama has done a lot for this country. I’d like to see someone follow in his footsteps and I think Hillary is the most fit candidate to do so.”

Ibrahim is one of the more than 450,000 Egyptian immigrants in the US, and part of the 3.3 million Muslims currently living there. The majority believe Trump will be bad news for them if he becomes president. In turn, Trump’s conviction, shared by a deep swathe of the American population, is that Muslims, American or otherwise, are not to be trusted. Those attitudes were on full and ugly display during the recent Republican National Convention. Messages of anger and hate were coming from almost every speaker on the stage. TV viewers were hit with a relentless stream of the end-is-near messages. Death, danger, blood, murder, fear, helplessness and terror were hyped to make the world look terrifying. It was fear mongering, designed to terrify people, with the exception being of course Donald Trump. He and only he on his white horse had the solutions.

Trump pledged more than once to ban Muslims, who represent 1.6 billion of the entire population, from entering the US. It began with the attacks in Paris in November last year which killed 130 people. At that time Trump called for surveillance against mosques and said he was open to establishing a database for all Muslims living in the US.

When a month later an American-Muslim couple of Pakistani origin gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino, Trump came up with his signature policy: “A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on”.

In May this year Trump backtracked, claiming such a ban “hasn’t been called for yet” and it was “only a suggestion”. But in June, after an Islamic State-inspired gunman shot dead 49 people in Orlando, the Trump message became “I will suspend immigration from areas of the world where there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States.” The wording mostly remained in place in Trump’s speech last week at the Republican convention when he accepted his party’s nomination: “We must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place”.

Reducing his immigration blockade to countries that suffer from terrorism rather than an entire religion might allay the fears of some Muslims living in the US but does not necessarily make life easier for them. In Trump’s world, illegal immigrants are bad; immigrants come a close second. Despite the fact that most Americans do not know a single Muslim (how Americans perceive Muslims is tied more to headlines than personal experiences) and despite the fact that Muslim-Americans are on average better educated and make more money than Americans of other faiths, Muslim-Americans are, to Trump, unassimilated at best and potential terrorists at worst.

Based on federal data, the US takes in a quarter of a million Muslim migrants annually, however, neither they nor the ones already living in the US know what to expect if Trump becomes the next president. Abbas Ibrahim hasn’t made up his mind about who he will vote for, but he thinks many Americans won’t vote for Trump. “I don’t want him to win, but if he does, he’ll just be another president,” he said.

In the hotel lobby, as Sanders’ speech came to an end, a 60-year-old watched eagerly while holding a copy of USA Today that mostly had news about Trump and Pokemon Go, occasionally looking over at the large group of Egyptians that mainly consisted of veiled women. They were loud but posed no perceivable danger. And yet, if the man was exposed to Trump’s anti-Muslims remarks, as everyone else in America has, he would probably have said to himself that this group of chit-chatting Muslims was a threat to him and America. But even a Muslim like Awad admits that Muslims “deserve what’s being said about them. They are not setting a good example for themselves.”

Trump is often criticised for not differentiating between terrorist groups like Islamic State and those who choose Islam as their faith. He wants to punish huge numbers of Muslims for the actions of a tiny few. Mona Awad, a teacher from New Jersey, isn’t a fan of what Trump is saying about Muslims. “I feel that because of Trump’s hate remarks, hate crimes around the area I live in has been increasing. Just recently in a nearby supermarket someone attacked a Muslim guy,” she said.

The Arab American community has not been happy about the Islamophobic remarks Republicans continue to make. Islamic community members gathered in Cleveland during the RNC to protest against Islamophobia. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) was passing out  ISLAMOPHOBIN®, a multi-symptom relief for chronic Islamophobia as part of their campaign against Islamophobia. ISLAMOPHOBIN® looks like a pack of nicotine gum. It is in fact a sugar-free chewing gum that promises to cure Islamophobia. The pack advices to “take two and call a Muslim in the morning”.  In a video posted by the Huffington Post, Ishia Samal, a member of CAIR, said “ISLAMOPHOBIN® is funny but Islamophobia isn’t”.

Delegates at the RNC screamed not just at the threat of immigrants being radicalised, but for the head of Clinton -- “lock her up”-- that she was dishonest, a liar and guilty for putting the lives of Americans at risk for hiding top-secret information on her private email account. Nabil Awad agrees that Clinton belongs in prison. “I won’t vote for Hillary. She’s a liar.” He’d rather vote for Trump. “At least he’s not stealing money.”

Awad’s daughter Sara, a 26-year-old saleswoman, will not vote. “I don’t like either candidate. Their campaigns aren’t convincing enough,” she explained.

Like some fellow youngsters, Maram Ibrahim from New Jersey, who emigrated from Palestine, hasn’t made up her mind about who she will vote for. Saleswoman Nada Awad, 24, a New York resident, doesn’t like either candidate. “There’s so much hypocrisy in this election I won’t even bother to vote.”

Nasser Jaber, 32, of Palestinian descent, put out a sign outside his restaurant in New York: “Eat our delicious Arabic food before Trump kicks us out.” Jaber used the dot of the letters ‘i’ in delicious as a visual representation of a peace sign. Still, Nasser won’t vote for Clinton “because she’s a Zionist”.

“If I had to think about the future of my four daughters in this country who go to their schools and out to the streets in their hijab, I’d be worried about them if Trump won,” said Ghada Bashandi, an Egyptian doctor living in Florida.

There are attempts to fight Islamophobia. President Obama recently bemoaned discrimination faced by Muslim-Americans, calling on people in the US to practice tolerance toward their fellow citizens. Obama said Muslim-Americans “are as patriotic, as integrated, as American as any other member of the American family,” and he urged people around the country to ensure that Muslim-Americans do not feel as if they’re “second class citizens”.

And US Muslim leaders hope to register a million voters from within their community to help combat what they say is Trump’s anti-Muslim stance. Muslim voters could have an outsize impact in swing states (states that sometimes vote Democrat, sometimes Republican) that are key to the November general election, such as Virginia and Florida.

The day before the wedding, the soon-to-be bride and groom arrived to meet their wedding guests at the hotel’s lobby. Like most Arab-Muslims, the Egyptian bride hoped Trump doesn’t win.

As the last song came to an end, the second generation of this Muslim-American family were ready to exit the wedding hall and embark on a new journey, with hope that their next president won’t be unwelcoming to them or their children.

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