Muslims Near Detroit, Mich. On Faith And Politics, Part 1

Jan 31, 2020
Originally published on January 31, 2020 8:15 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Even before he was elected, candidate Trump had harsh words for Muslims.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

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TRUMP: Whether we like it or not, there is a problem. And we have to be sure that Muslims come in and report when they see something going on.

KELLY: So when one of his first actions in office was to issue a travel ban that barred visitors from several majority Muslim countries...

AMER ZAHR: No Arab American or Muslim American was surprised that Trump said any of these things are that he actually implemented it into policy.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That's Amer Zahr, a 42-year-old comedian and law professor and Palestinian American living in Michigan. President Trump gave a speech there this week which coincides with the anniversary of that executive order. He expanded the order today to curb immigration from an additional handful of countries. That original order sparked protests at Detroit's airport and many others around the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Refugees are welcome here. Hey, hey, hey...

KELLY: Amer Zahr joined our co-host Audie Cornish in a conversation about faith and politics - something we've been doing with different communities over the past few months.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I sat down with Amer Zahr and other American Muslim voters at a small community center in Dearborn, Mich. And we started with how he felt in the aftermath of that travel ban.

ZAHR: It was nice that we finally got some allyship from other communities, finally, instead of being sidelined by every other community for decades.

CORNISH: How'd you see that support?

ZAHR: I mean that Arab and Muslim Americans have been fighting to be thought of as a minority alongside other minorities for years, and it never happened. And then Trump came along, and, in a weird way, we got included in the discussion, finally, as part of the fabric of America. We've always been seen as perpetually foreign and not American enough, ever. And Trump created a bond with other communities with us for the longest time.

KHADEGA MOHAMMED: Khadega Mohammed - my family and I immigrated to this country in 2007. We are originally Sudanese, but we lived in Saudi Arabia. So my parents weren't necessarily very much so politically engaged in the American election process, nor did they really care for it. And unfortunately, it wasn't until that Trump passed the Muslim ban and Sudan was on the Muslim ban that my family finally started to care about this. They're like, yo, like, he's actually coming for our community. We got to do something about it.

CORNISH: Did they actually say it that way?

MOHAMMED: Yeah. They didn't say yo.

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MOHAMMED: But they were like - in Arabic, they were like, (speaking Arabic). Now I got to switch back to English. All right. So my family, like, finally decided to, like, get involved and voting. And my dad was like, Trump can't win.

WISSAM CHARAFEDDINE: Wissam Charafeddine - so Arabs and Muslims have been portrayed in the media for the longest time. We've suffered from that stereotyping, which now we call Islamophobia. We always thought that this is just some sort of ignorance that perpetuates in society. Our worst fear has come into - where a person that usually we could describe as an ignorant person saying these things is now actually speaking as the president of the land, perpetuating and encouraging the narrative of Islamophobia and stereotyping.

The conversation - our dinner table is that those elders in my family that have never voted before because they always trusted that, you know, whoever is the president, things are going - well, it's not really necessary for us to vote. Now they're for sure voting.

CORNISH: Forty-one-year-old Wissam Charafeddine and 20-year-old Khadega Mohammed reflect the trends and data on American Muslims, which find their voter registration lags behind other faith groups. But between 2016 and 2019, their registration jumped - around 10%, according to the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. That's a think tank focused on Muslim Americans. Wissam Charafeddine says the travel ban and other U.S. foreign policy interest American Muslims because many have a personal stake in what's happening.

So I asked the group about one of the big news stories this week - President Trump's proposed Mideast peace deal. Under that plan, Israel would maintain security control over a demilitarized state of Palestine, and it could annex parts of what is now the occupied West Bank.

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TRUMP: Under this vision, Jerusalem will remain Israel's undivided - very important - undivided capital.

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ZEINA NASSEREDDINE: Hi. Zeina here.

CORNISH: She's a 28-year-old professor and singer with the National Arab Orchestra.

NASSEREDDINE: I'm glad you brought up the issue of the deal that Trump is striking with Netanyahu. Let me make something clear. For something to be a deal, both sides have to be involved, and they have to agree on something. Unfortunately, in Trump's deal, only one side is represented. And, I mean, I'm Lebanese myself, but I feel incredibly strongly about the Palestinian cause only because if we're not standing up for injustice all over the world, then how are we going to stand up for injustice anywhere? The Gaza Strip is the biggest open-air prison in the world. No one is talking about that.

CORNISH: This is where 49-year-old Iltefat Hamzavi jumps in. He describes himself as more moderate, believes in Republican ideas about the values of private enterprise. He says he's hearing different dinner-table conversations around these issues.

ILTEFAT HAMZAVI: Just to add just to the diversity, I'm of South Asian descent; my parents are Indian and Pakistani. And the biggest open-air prison right now is Kashmir. The Uighurs in China are probably the most surveilled people in the world right now. The Rohingya Muslims have suffered the greatest proportional deficits of life and limb. But those are things that we don't talk about because we might come from a South Asia, we might come from an Arab, we might came from an African American background. And so environment, ethnicity does inform our decision-making, and there is a diversity of perspectives here.

MICHAEL FAWAZ: Michael Fawaz - the conversation that I would like to have that I'm not having at the dinner table or anywhere in this country as a Muslim American - how can one ethically vote for a president who is, no doubt, going to be the commander in chief of an army that is going to continue a policy of assassination, drone strikes which kill civilians, all over the Middle East? To our brothers and sisters there, how do we as Muslims continue to make more and more and more money and pay more and more and more taxes to pay for this militarism?

CORNISH: Do you want to answer that?

HAMZAVI: Iltefat Hamzavi - Michael, we got to have dinner, maybe a little coffee, too. America has a war on the world - yeah, you're right. There's a military machine - you're right. America also has a war on cancer. America also has a war on HIV. America's both those things. And the hardest thing about America is that you have to constantly wake up in the morning and say, gosh, it's beautiful outside, and it smells like sulfur downriver.

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HAMZAVI: And it's got lead in the water in Flint, and we have some of the worst schools in Detroit. But you also have to look at the Constitution and the initial ideas led by white men who had slaves and saying, tomorrow can be a better day. And I think that's the only way I can wake up in the morning, saying, yep, we've got these issues, but I'm a child of two events. I'm the child of the end of colonialism and Gandhi and his ability to get rid of the British perspective. Secondly, I am a child of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Civil rights allowed my parents to come to this country, and those are two positive things. And if Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, the mother of Emmett Till can wake up in the morning and say, this is a country to fight for, who am I to say I'm not?

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CORNISH: The voices of American Muslim voters in Dearborn, Mich.

KELLY: That is our co-host Audie Cornish. She'll have more from this conversation on faith and politics with Muslim voters on Monday, when we'll hear how they feel about high-profile Muslim women in Congress and friends and family who voted for Trump.

HAMZAVI: I've been at many dinner tables where somebody voted for Trump. And you're like, that's like chickens voting for Chick-fil-A.

(SOUNDBITE OF LCD SOUNDSYSTEM'S "OH BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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