What It’s Like to Protest Trump as a Muslim

It's a lot more complicated when you aren't in the majority.

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Feb 2 2017, 5:00am

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A crowd of mostly white protesters in a parking lot at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport offers a chorus of thanks when a police officer announces a bus will soon take them to a "no ban, no wall" demonstration. But Fatima Din is keeping her head down.

"Even though it's strange," she acknowledges when we meet at the protest Sunday, her first thought is that the bus might head somewhere else entirely—to divert people from the demonstration.

Din's default mode of skepticism is one shared by many Muslims in America, a community comprised largely of people of color who have historically faced mass surveillance, persistent stereotyping as terrorists, a rising tide of hate crimes, and yes, exclusionary immigration policies. All this paired with, in many cases, roots in dictatorial regimes where protests are often met with violent crackdowns is keeping some Muslims on the sidelines despite the latest wave of activism sweeping America. The fear is especially potent for those most directly targeted by the executive order President Donald Trump signed on Friday to bar travel from seven Muslim-majority countries and at least temporarily halt the entry of refugees from abroad.

But one of the most prominent voices against the ban—and Trump generally—has been that of New York City–based Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour. A co-organizer of the Women's March on Washington, Sarsour is lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit challenging Trump's executive order.

"We believe that the 'Muslim ban' is unconstitutional," Sarsour said this week. "We also believe that [the ban shows] some preference of one religion over another, which also violates the Constitution." Proponents of the ban, including former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, however, have defended the measure as one focused on "danger," not religion.

Advocacy organizations point to Trump's campaign trail call for "a complete and total shut down" of Muslim immigration as one reason Muslim Americans registered to vote in record numbers ahead of this past presidential election. Yet even if Trump's rise has compelled many Muslims to get more politically engaged, some remain guarded about taking their views to the streets, a testament to the enduring question of just how confrontational Muslims feel they can be in the United States.

For Din, exclusionary policies towards Muslim-majority countries reinforce suspicion between the powers that be and people like her. That makes her cautious when stepping out to protest. "There's definitely a lack of trust between [us] and the authorities or people who are supposed to be 'helping us,'" she says.

Her husband, Zain Shamoon, agrees. "When matters of safety, when threats to your family [aren't] at play, it's a lot easier to show up to a protest," he says. There's a heightened fear of arrests among people of color, and many Muslims would rather not be "another example of an aggressive person."

While the "no ban, no wall" demonstrations at major airports and public spaces that thronged more than 30 cities over the weekend remained peaceful and saw relatively few arrests, for some Muslims, the fear is that protesting in large numbers might be used to present people of their faith as angry mobs who warrant official scrutiny.

"You know, all these old memories just come to your brain all at once."—Nala Jewech, Syrian immigrant

Some also hesitate to criticize the policies of a country they're grateful to have made their home.

"That's the frame that our parents put on us," Shamoon says. "When your pretense is that this place is safer than the one you came from and that you came here for opportunity," you aren't necessarily going to be very a vocal opponent of it. That can change across generations, of course, and Shamoon says he's been involved in activism for the past 15 years.

"It's a pattern you see over and over again in these groups," explains Smith College professor Lauren Duncan, who researches why some people become politically active and others don't. Immigrants "often have this reaction of keep your nose clean, stay out of trouble, and show [others] that if we dress nicely, and we're polite and we're good neighbors, then we're gonna defy stereotypes. By the [next] generation, the kids [of immigrants] are like, Wait a minute, my parents are actually being discriminated against, and there's no good reason for that."

When I ask if she initially hesitated to attend out of fear the Detroit demonstration might become dangerous, 19-year-old Jeanon Jewech replies, "I did not, no," before looking over at her mother, a Syrian immigrant.

Nala Jewech immigrated to the United States long before Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad's violent crackdown of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 that exploded into all-out war. But she's traumatized by memories of being forced to participate in state-run rallies in support of his father and predecessor, Hafez al Assad.

"The government prepared everything from A to Z. It wasn't free for us. We couldn't choose the time or the words we were going to say," she recalls. "You know, all these old memories just come to your brain all at once."

Check out the VICE News short about Muslim fashion going mainstream.

If difficult memories of political repression made Jewech hesitant to attend, they also helped convince her to take a stand. Having immigrated 20 years ago, she worries that America is now on a course toward the political repression she thought she'd left behind. "I remember this bad experience in my country, and I wish this country would stay as it is with freedom and justice," she says.

Likewise, Meral Ebrahem, a 40-year-old immigrant from Egypt, sees in Trump shades of political repression—some potential and some already realized.

"We escaped [that] and came here because there is more freedom and more opportunity, more justice," she says over chants of "let them in!" "So why did we come over here? To face the same situation? Of course not."

Ebrahem, a full-time student and mother of four who works as a pharmacy technician, looks around at the crowd dotted with headscarves and cloaks similar to her own. Moments earlier, a group of Muslim men and women lined up behind a baggage claim carousel to pray.

"I'm so proud of them," Ebrahem says of those who did come to the demonstration, noting she was excited—if not surprised—to see such a diverse group of people stand up against a policy she believes squarely targets Muslims. "Anytime I have the chance to stand here, why not?" she adds, her moon-shaped face turning into an easy smile.

"One of the things that keeps people away from protests it that they often get hijacked and romanticized by white liberals."—Zain Shamoon

A majority of Muslims in America are immigrants, and some may be too focused on trying to make ends meet and settling into their new lives to get involved in political action. And for those who do not have permanent legal status in the US, protesting may be too much of a risk "when deportation is something that's a real threat," according to Anjali Dutt, a professor of social psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

She cites one of her own students on an education visa. "She's terrified of being deported, and it's incredibly frustrating for her to feel as though she's part of the community that's being targeted and yet she can't go to these events," Dutt says.

Mass demonstrations aren't the only way to engage in political protest, of course. In fact, they can sometimes feel not just taxing, but also ineffective, to marginalized groups. Since white men are generally at the helm of this country, Dutt notes, people of color can feel like they aren't as equipped to take on the system. "I think it's very rational for a person to think… my voice already doesn't matter, so using it louder might not make a difference."

"It might not just be that a person feels too depressed or too demoralized to engage, but also that they might seek to create change in ways where they actually feel that they have the skills to do so," Dutt adds.

Not showing up can result in another problem, however.

"One of the things that keeps people away from protests is that they often get hijacked and romanticized by white liberals" who may not understand the stakes as clearly as the groups most affected, argues Zain Shamoon just before getting onto a bus that eventually does drop him and his wife off at the scene of the demonstration.

But having those white liberals present at protests "can be a good thing because [they can offer] safety" based on their relatively privileged place in American society, according to Duncan, the Smith professor.

And the participation of majority America may help protesters reach their ultimate goal. 

"Social movements only succeed when the… dominant group is on the minority group's side," Duncan says. "It's good for people with privilege to use it for good."

Follow Beenish Ahmed on Twitter.

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