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Muslims Not Only Survived, We Thrived

The last four years saw unprecedented civic participation by and social acceptance of American Muslims

by
Zaid Jilani
November 12, 2020
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Muslims participate in an outdoor prayer event at Masjid Aqsa-Salam mosque, Manhattan’s oldest West African mosque, to mark the end of Ramadan, on June 15, 2018Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Muslims participate in an outdoor prayer event at Masjid Aqsa-Salam mosque, Manhattan’s oldest West African mosque, to mark the end of Ramadan, on June 15, 2018Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Osama Bin Laden brought down the Twin Towers in 2001, he instantly changed things for Muslims in America. Suddenly, it was insufficient for me to live my life as an awkward middle schooler, I also had to be an ambassador for the billion people who practiced Islam. What made my new position more difficult was a renewed wave of suspicion and animosity aimed at Muslims. Hate crimes surged after the Sept. 11 attacks, and some Muslims were victimized by bigoted acts of violence.

This bigotry was on my mind one day shortly after Sept. 11 when my dad recounted a story. A man he knew from our hometown in Georgia came up to him and told him sternly that if anyone threatened our family, we should alert him and he would take care of it personally. That might not be what you’d expect, but alongside the wave of hate crimes and animosity, millions of Muslims experienced the solidarity and compassion of their friends and neighbors.

But in the run-up to the 2016 election, you could hardly blame many Muslim Americans for fearing America’s darkest impulses. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that year utilized anti-Muslim sentiments in a way not seen in modern American history. “I think Islam hates us,” Trump declared in March 2016, one of many comments he made that year that suggested Muslims would soon be unwelcome in America.

But in the four years that marked Trump’s first term of office, Muslim Americans have not only survived—in many ways, we’ve thrived. Americans have grown increasingly accepting of Islam, and Muslim civic participation has skyrocketed. Therein lies a larger story that explains at least some of the poll results showing considerable increases in support for Donald Trump among supposedly victimized minority groups. Most Muslim Americans remained firmly in the Biden camp, with an estimated 69% voting for the Democratic candidate, according to a preliminary exit poll. But so far it also looks like Trump’s support grew by 4 percentage points among Muslims. That is part of the larger trend that is also observable among Latinos, Blacks, and gays, and which has been causing shock and disbelief within progressive and media circles where members of “marginalized groups” are expected to be radicals who view themselves primarily in terms of their victimhood. The flipside of the media skew is not that all of a sudden Muslims, or any other group, are throwing in their lot with Trump or the GOP—rather, it’s that they are assimilating ever more fully into an American culture in which they feel freer to define themselves.

Shortly after Trump took office, University of Maryland academic Shibley Telhami released a series of polls that were administered during election season. Those polls showed what he called “extraordinary” and “unexpected” shifts in American public opinion toward Muslims—in a more favorable direction.

In November 2015, 53% of Americans said they had somewhat or very favorable attitudes toward Muslims. By October 2016, that number surged to 70%. Views toward Islam itself saw a similar shift, with 37% having somewhat or very favorable views of Islam in November 2015 and 49% sharing those views in October 2016, which Telhami notes was the highest favorability level since 9/11.

In an interview, Telhami suggested that this increasing warmth toward Muslims was the product of polarization. “I have done polling on American public attitudes towards Islam and Muslims starting with the 2016 campaign and since, in multiple separate polls, all of which showed a progressive increase in the number of Americans who have positive views of both Islam and Muslims, even immediately after violent attacks on American soil that President Trump attributed to ‘Islamic terrorism,’” he noted. “The reason for this is primarily the intense partisan polarization we have witnessed and the rising anti-Trump sentiment. In fact, the increase in positive views came principally from Democrats and independents; in a way, those who intensely disliked Trump, partly rallied behind Muslims because Muslims were targeted by Trump.”

A Public Religion Research Institute survey released shortly before this year’s election showed similar movement. A majority of Americans (54%) said they disagreed with the statement that the values of Islam are at odds with American values, the “first time in PRRI polling that a majority have disagreed.” This marks a significant reversal from 2015, when 56% of Americans believed Islam was incompatible with American values. The same study finds that Republicans’ attitudes have not changed since 2015, with 77% reporting that they view Islam as being “at odds with American values.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the reported biases of Trump supporters, a poll from earlier this year found that the approval rating for the president had nearly doubled over the past four years to 30%, based on results from some 800 Muslim respondents. A survey conducted by AP VoteCast in the lead-up to the 2020 election suggested that Trump’s Muslim support could have gone as high as 35%.

Another reason for warming attitudes toward Muslim Americans may be less fear of terrorism. The percentage of Americans who say terrorism is the most important problem in America fell from 16% in December 2015 in Gallup’s polling to 1% in February 2020.

Meanwhile, a 2019 poll of Americans by Pew found that 89% of Americans said they would accept a Muslim as a neighbor and 79% would accept one as a family member; in Western Europe, the median percentage for both questions was 83% and 66%, respectively.

By any measure, Americans had not closed their hearts to Muslims in the Trump era. If anything, they grew closer to Muslims, wanting to shield them from anti-Muslim animus. One Pew poll of Muslim Americans released in 2017 found that 49% of Muslims said someone has “expressed support” for them because they are Muslim. Fifty-five percent said Americans are generally friendly toward Muslim Americans, while only 14% said they were unfriendly. Eighty percent said they were satisfied with how things are going in their life, while 92% said they were proud to be American. Thirty percent of Muslims even told one pollster they plan to support Trump this year.

Even within the GOP, some began to vigorously challenge anti-Muslim animus. In late 2018, Muslim Texas GOP official Shahid Shafi faced an Islamophobic campaign aimed at unseating him from his position. Many of the state party’s elders, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, pushed back, and Shafi retained his position. “I remain optimistic about our country and our party,” Shafi told me when I reached out to him for this article. “We are a nation of immigrants, and we continue to believe in liberty and justice for all. We are far from perfect, but we continue to strive for perfection. That’s what makes America exceptional.”

If nothing else, President Trump is a salesperson. In 2016, one of his featured products was Islamophobia. But in the 2020 campaign, anti-Muslim rhetoric was noticeably rare in campaigns. “Trump is facing a different set of challenges in energizing his base,” Telhami said, pointing at the pandemic and racial protests as more prominent issues. It is clear that Islamophobia isn’t selling anymore.

Muslims are not nearly as feeble as some corners of progressive discourse would have you believe. When faced with adversity, Muslims dug in our heels and forcefully insisted on our place in the civic fabric of America.

If one lesson of the Trump years is that Americans, by and large, are uninterested in Islamophobia, the other lesson is that Muslims are anything but helpless victims. Across the United States, Muslim Americans turned out in large numbers to participate in the civic and political process in ways that they hadn’t before.

Mohamed Gula, the Virginia executive director and national organizing director of the Muslim American advocacy organization Emgage, explained the change in Muslim attitudes in an interview. “Before four years ago I had so many more musajids [mosques] telling me that voting is haram [the word Muslims use for forbidden],” Gula said, laughing. “That’s no longer the case. So even just in the four years we’ve come a long way.”

Emgage’s data shows that Muslim American voting turnout during the 2018 midterm elections in four key states—Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—was up 25 points over where it was in 2014, outpacing the general population’s increase in voter turnout the same year. Meanwhile, as many as 100 Muslim Americans ran for elected office in 2018, the highest number since 2001.

The Trump years coincided with numerous victories for Muslim candidates. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the number of Muslim Americans in elected office increased from two to three, as Palestinian American Rashida Tlaib was elected in Michigan and Somali American Ilhan Omar took office in Minnesota, joining Indiana’s Andre Carson.

At the local level, many more Muslims took office. In Virginia, the number of Muslims elected to public office increased from one in 2017 to nine today, according to Gula’s statistics. Madinah Wilson-Anton, a public policy analyst at the Biden Institute, won a Delaware primary for state representative, unseating an incumbent by a mere 43 votes.

Meanwhile, Muslims are also advancing in arts and culture. One example can be found in Hollywood. For years, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) has been working through its Hollywood bureau to shape the way the entertainment industry portrays Muslims. Numerous producers, directors, screenwriters, actors, and others have spent their lives trying to boost the Muslim presence in Hollywood. But after the 2016 election, Hollywood producers started proactively seeking out Muslims for roles in ways they hadn’t before.

Alhamdulillah, the gates really opened for us,” Sue Obeidi, MPAC’s director of the Hollywood bureau told me. “We have never been busier than we have been since Trump has been elected president.”

In February of 2017, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim American to win an Oscar for his role in Moonlight. More recently, the Hulu sitcom Ramy made history by becoming the first sitcom about Muslim Americans to earn an Emmy nomination.

The nomination is fitting because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Ramy is fundamentally a show about anti-fragility. Take a scene from the first season where a Muslim diner owner named Mo sees his restaurant defaced by hateful graffiti. “It couldn’t come at a better time!” he says, grinning. “Ramadan and hate crime? My God I couldn’t pay for that kind of publicity. This is great. Look at this place. It’s jammin’!”

Like Mo, Muslims proved themselves to be anti-fragile during the first four years of the Trump administration. Despite living under a president who made our religion a scapegoat to power his campaign to office, we continue to live and work and pray and serve in a country that we are proud to call home.

We were able to do this for two reasons. First, Muslims are not nearly as feeble as some corners of progressive discourse would have you believe. When faced with adversity, Muslims dug in our heels and forcefully insisted on our place in the civic fabric of America.

Second, America is simply a much more thoughtful and humane place than progressives often give it credit for. It’s worth pointing out that not only did Americans grow more tolerant of Muslims during the Trump years, they generally grew more tolerant of everyone. In June 2018, the percentage of Americans who said immigration is a good thing for the country hit a record high. Political scientist Daniel Hopkins has shown that expressed prejudice among white Americans fell during at least the first two years of the Trump administration; America remains the most sought-after destination in the world: As many as 158 million adults would move here if they could, according to one Gallup estimate.

There is no doubt that this country has its fair share of flaws. I’ve spent my entire adult life reporting on them. But it is also the country that welcomed my parents onto its soil, gave me a world-class education, and allowed me to live a middle-class life. Muslims survived the Trump years and even came out stronger because we are fundamentally resilient and Americans are fundamentally tolerant, and no matter what happens in politics over the coming years, we are here to stay.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.

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