After historic midterm election wins, Muslims struggle a little less with their American identity

by Imam Omar Suleiman, Opinion contributor, USA Today

Muslims watched the midterm elections with a new sense of belonging. Finally, we don’t have to choose between our American and Muslim identities.
“Assalamu Alaikum”, meaning “peace be unto you”, is how I start my greetings and sermons. It’s also how Congresswoman-elect Ilhan Omar started her victory speech. The Quran is the sacred scripture that I recite in my prayer. It’s also the book that the first two Muslim women to ever be elected to the United States Congress will likely use to take the oath of office.

Muhammad is the name of the prophet of Islam. It’s also the name of Mujtaba Mohammed, who was newly elected to the North Carolina State Senate. Palestine is where my parents came from before I was born in New Orleans. It’s also where Congresswoman-elect Rashida Tlaib’s parents came from before she was born in Detroit.

There is something special about seeing yourself in your leaders, especially when your community is targeted by the highest leader of the land. To be clear, Islamophobia is not unique to the Donald Trump era. Since 9/11, the Muslim community in this country has struggled to articulate how it sees itself authentic both to it’s Muslim and American identities.

The burden of being Muslim in America

A little over a decade ago, Keith Ellison and Andre Carson became the first two Muslim congressmen in the history of the United States. Shortly after, Barack Hussein Obama ran for president with many trying to delegitimize him by suggesting that he was a secret Muslim. The insinuation was that he would not be loyal to the country if he were indeed a Muslim. While those attempts ultimately failed at halting his road to the presidency, they succeeded in further alienating a Muslim community that was already feeling the brunt of the collective guilt assigned to it after 9/11.

According to a 2017 report by The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), 60 percent of American Muslims report experiencing religious discrimination — more than any other faith group in America. In 2017, 42 percent of Muslim families with kids in grade school said their child was bullied. Tragically, 1-in-4 of the incidents involved a teacher or administrator as the bully. But hate doesn’t stop at just name calling. According to the FBI, hate crimes targeting Muslims went up by 67 percent in 2015 and again by another 19 percent in 2016. .

Beyond the hate crimes that compromise the safety of Muslim Americans are the paralyzing psychological messages young Muslims constantly receive. Most young Muslims were either not yet born when 9/11 took place, or are too young to remember it in any meaningful way. Yet they have been tasked with not only proving their own innocence, but their religion’s innocence of terror as a whole.

That burden weighs heavily as politicians are willing to exploit irrational fears about the Muslim community to win elections and stay in power.

Muslims making history, not just witnessing it

Through my organization, the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, a non-profit research organization dedicated to Muslim identity formation, I talk with young Muslims about the harmful effects of Islamophobia and how it leaves them unsure about both their national and religious identities. Most Muslim youth we talk to feel overwhelmed from the exhaustion of having to be hyper-focused on embracing their American identity to prove that they aren’t foreign foes. At the same time, many are convinced that the only way to excel is to relinquish their Muslim identity, or at least obscure it from the public.

So it means something to see Ibtihaj Muhammad triumphing to become the first American Muslim woman in hijab to win an Olympic medal. Or Tahera Rahman becoming the first on-air TV reporter to wear hijab in the United States after years of privately struggling against those who told her she would never get ahead with a veil on her head. Or even a Dagestani fighter named Khabib Nurmagomedov hoisting the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title in Las Vegas after being taunted because of his religion. And all of us still live a little through the legend of Muhammad Ali.

But this is different. Before she was elected, Rashida Tlaib was dragged out of a Trump rally for challenging the president. If Ilhan Omar was still a Somali refugee seeking asylum, she would have had the door shut in her face by Trump’s travel ban against predominantly-Muslim countries. Now she can directly challenge the Trump administration’s refugee policies from within the halls of Congress.

For many years, Muslims have watched elections be about us, without us. Candidates spoke either in favor of or against us, but we were never the candidates ourselves. That is changing, and young Muslim Americans are watching with not only a renewed sense of belonging, but with a distinctive spirit of courage.

Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research and an adjunct professor of Islamic studies at Southern Methodist University. Follow him on Twitter @omarsuleiman504.

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