“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” — Donald Trump, Dec. 7, at a rally in Mount Pleasant, S.C.
The Boy Scouts of Troop 1576, from Sterling, Va., hauled their gear up a short path onto a moonlit field. They unfolded tents, assembled poles, pounded pegs. They rigged a kitchen and stacked provisions. Headlamps illuminated the bowlines and square knots they tied.
The older Scouts, at 15 or 17, passed on lore and tips to the younger ones, 11 to 13:
“No, see, look, you have to put the stakes in at the opposite angle, tilted away from the tent.”
“Keep your clothes for tomorrow in the sleeping bag with you. I put my shoes in, too, so they’ll be warm when I wake up.”
It was 34 degrees. The moon highlighted patches of snow like smears of paint among the trees on the hill.
At every meeting back in Sterling, in ringing voices, the Scouts would come to attention and recite the creeds of Scouting and America:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America ...”
“On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country ...”
“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”
“As an American, I will do my best to be clean in my outdoor manners, be careful with fire, be considerate in the outdoors, be conservation-minded.”
Their parents believed that those values came alive when a Scout practiced them, so out here on the frozen tundra of the Blue Ridge foothills, the dads of Troop 1576 stood by purposefully unhelpful, observing the earnest swirl of their sons making camp.
Eventually the adult leader stepped forward. His name was Ahsan Ullah.
“I’m so proud of you guys,” he said. “May Allah bless you guys. May Allah make you leaders of the country.”
“With the Muslim thing, I think it’s a serious problem. ... I mean, there’s tremendous hatred. ... There’s a serious, serious problem with the Muslims, and it’s got to be addressed.” — Trump to The Washington Post editorial board, March 21
Sometimes being a Scout and a Muslim in the age of Trump has been like building a campsite on unsteady ground.
This winter and spring, as the 400 Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts based at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society — the ADAMS Center, in Sterling — pursued service projects, earned merit badges, carved Pinewood Derby cars and sold cookies to raise money, a troubling conversation with deep national implications rumbled in the near distance. A Scout knows what to do at the sound of thunder, but this atmospheric disturbance was different.
Spooked by terrorist attacks, goaded by dark campaign rhetoric, huge numbers of Americans seemed willing to condemn an entire religion. In Virginia, 63 percent of Republican primary voters told exit pollsters they supported a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. Opinions that had hovered at the fringe of public debate after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — registering Muslims residents, patrolling their neighborhoods — now were voiced by top political figures on mainstream television.
It all seemed so disconnected from the lives and aspirations of the Scouts.
Scouting embodies a tradition of self-reliance and social improvement that migrated from Britain more than a century ago. Norman Rockwell certified Scouting as all-American by painting dozens of scenes of apple-cheeked Scouts doing their good turns daily for the nation. As Scouting grew more diverse, it remained a place where words such as “character,” “citizenship” and “patriotism” were spoken without a blush. (Scouting has been slower to evolve on the issue of sexual orientation, lifting bans on gay Scouts in 2014 and gay Scout leaders last year.)
To Muslim American parents, tapping into the patriotic tradition meant as much as the other incentives for putting kids in Scouts: getting them off the couch, offline and outdoors. The parents also thought Scouting complemented lessons of service, charity, good deeds and upright character taught in the Koran.
Yet the wave of Islamophobia had brought on a new level of introspection in the Muslim American community about what the country was becoming, and what growing up in this political climate would mean for their children. Weren’t their sons and daughters honoring the same American ideals as the Scout troops in Liberty, Mo., and New Freedom, Pa.?
They shared a motto: “Be prepared.” Certainly Scouting was teaching these youths from Sterling to be prepared in the wilderness. Did they also need to be prepared for life in their schools, their neighborhoods and their nation?
“I’ll tell you this story and it happened in the Philippines around 1918. They had tremendous Muslim terrorism. ... They caught 50 terrorists, and they have a thing about pigs’ blood and pigs. ... They shot each man with a bullet that was covered with pigs’ blood. But they didn’t shoot the 50th person. ... They said, ‘You take this bullet, you take it to your home and you show and you explain what just happened.’ For 28 years, they had no terrorism. ... We are going to have to get tough.” — Trump at a rally Feb. 29 in Radford, Va., repeating a discredited story about an American general executing prisoners
An energetic sales team was demonstrating the art of the deal in front of a Safeway in Reston.
“Would you like some Girl Scout cookies?” asked Faateha Syed, 12, wearing a Scout vest and a hijab, or headscarf. “They’re really good.”
A customer considered. “What do you ladies recommend?”
“Thin Mints and Samoas are the top sellers.”
The buyer settled on a box of Tagalongs.
As the customer headed into the store, Zahra Syeed, 12, turned to her fellow Scouts: “We are so rocking this, guys!”
In a brief celebration, Inaya Mir, 13, gave a piggyback ride to Layla El-Hamalawy, 12.
As the girls made more sales, their parents talked off to the side.
“What we’re trying to teach our children is, there is no dichotomy between being Muslim and being American,” Kouthar Muttardy said. “A lot of people who hold these [negative] opinions have never met a Muslim. You should use every opportunity when you interact with others to set the record straight.”
She said she reminds her children of the unique position they occupy: “As a Muslim, you have many amazing things to contribute to American society. As an American, you have more opportunities than most Muslims around the world.”
Just then the parents looked up and beheld a scene that could have been painted by Rockwell: Faateha was helping a senior shopper load her groceries into a car.
The parents smiled, pleased yet not surprised. Being a Scout meant you did good deeds for people.
“I think Islam hates us. ... We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.” — Trump to CNN, March 9
“Reverent” is the last but not least quality listed in the Boy Scout Law. From the beginning, Scouting has presumed the existence of a Creator whose name was up to a Scout’s religious tradition. Muslim Scouts can earn emblems particular to their faith, just as Scouts of other faiths can — though the bulk of Scouting achievements are common to all.
About 2,500 boys are members of 79 mosque-based troops and packs nationwide, according to the Boy Scouts. Roughly 2,500 more Muslim boys are members of units at other religious or civic institutions, according to Syed Ehtesham Naqvi, chairman of the National Islamic Committee on Scouting. (Girl Scouts of the USA could not provide statistics.)
The largest faith-based Boy Scouts organization is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with 437,000 Scouts, followed by the United Methodist Church (350,000) and the Catholic Church (259,000). A Scout may join any unit regardless of religion.
This summer in Pocono Summit, Pa., the first national Muslim Boy Scout Jamboree will be held.
Scouting at the ADAMS Center mosque has grown into one of the more robust programs in the region, in parallel with the mosque’s redoubled efforts to be a vital member of the greater community after 9/11. Most ADAMS Scouts were born in the United States. Their parents hail from this country as well as Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Egypt, Malaysia and elsewhere.
“Scouting is about love of country and love of God,” said ADAMS Chairman Rizwan Jaka, a former Scout born in Chicago and raised in Texas. “That correlates perfectly with what ADAMS’s vision was: creating that firm American — and I stress American — Muslim identity.”
ADAMS is one of the largest Muslim communities in the country, with several prayer centers and 25,000 congregants. At the recent groundbreaking of a $6 million expansion of the main mosque in Sterling, Scouts helped turn the earth with ceremonial shovels. The emcee was Hidayah Martinez Jaka, an 18-year-old Venture Scout. She wore her favorite hijab, the one printed with an American flag.
“I would have problems with somebody who embraced all the doctrines associated with Islam [becoming president]. ... I’m assuming that if you accept all the tenets of Islam that you would have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States.” — Ben Carson to CNN, Sept. 27
Scouts working on their citizenship merit badge met in the basement of the mosque. Today’s assignment was to discuss both sides of a topic in the news. One boy presented the carbon tax. Another, the case of a teenager who posed as a medical doctor. A third, the candidacy of Donald Trump — setting off the most animated discussion of all.
Rahiq Syed expected as much. He was an assistant scoutmaster guiding the boys through the badge requirements. He had seen how the Scouts’ fascination with Trump was irrepressible and complex. To them, Trump was a figure of fear but also amusement and awe. A cartoon bogeyman and an American success story.
“A lot of people are wondering why, even though so many are against him, a lot of people like him,” said Osman Syed, 14, Rahiq’s son.
“People like how aggressive he is — an upfront, in-your-face kind of guy,” said another Scout.
“He uses fear,” said a third.
“Is it right to play with people’s fears?” Rahiq asked.
“Jeb Bush dropped out because Donald Trump called him a big fat loser,” said Ammar Muhammad, 15.
Ammar then whipped out his cellphone and demonstrated how, at the time, if you went to loser.com, you were redirected to the Wikipedia page for Trump.
The Scouts cracked up.
Rahiq called for attention and asked them to write summaries of their news stories.
“I want to figure out why he’s so successful even though the media doesn’t support him much,” Osman said. On his paper, he wrote: “Donald Trump pros and cons. Pros: 1/ aggressive. 2/ businessman. Cons: 1/ too aggressive. 2/ plays on fear, anger and emotion. 3/ disrespectful.”
“Since I am Muslim and my family is also Muslim, if Donald Trump becomes president or gets the nomination, then my family is potentially threatened.”
Farooq Syed, another Scout leader and Osman’s uncle, was sitting next to Osman and saw what he wrote.
“The nation is not one person,” Farooq said. “The Constitution protects you as a Muslim.”
“Okay,” Osman said.
He then wrote: “However, due to the democratic system of government in America, one man cannot make drastic change. Because of the checks-and-balance system in place, one branch cannot have all the power. Because America protects me and my family’s rights, I am positive we will be all right regardless of the presidential election outcome.”
Closing the discussion, Rahiq Syed said that, compared with other countries, “America is one of the safest places ever for Muslims, really.”
After the meeting, he was still thinking about the Scouts’ Trump fixation: “Muslim families all over are very anxious. You can see that in the kids.”
He had an idea for a lesson. The merit badge required them to visit a historic landmark. They would visit the National Archives to look at the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the Old Post Office Pavilion, where the Scouts would get a big surprise.
“We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” — Ted Cruz in a statement after the Brussels attacks, March 22
The Scouts emerged from a Metro station, consulted a map for the Old Post Office and began filing down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Wait, where was it? All they saw was scaffolding and construction fencing.
“Okay, this is the post office, guys,” Rahiq Syed said.
The Scouts came to a sudden halt, jostling into one another.
“Where that Trump sign is?” asked one.
Osman read the smaller print on the billboard: “Coming 2016.”
“Is this Trump’s Old Post Office?” asked another Scout.
“He’s converting it into a hotel,” Syed said.
The Scouts went silent as they absorbed an unexpected dose of Trump. They had expected to see the marble statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of the building. Yet even the Founding Father had disappeared behind Trump’s fence.
“You did this on purpose!” Areeb Baig, 14, said to Syed. The Scouts clapped in appreciation of their assistant scoutmaster’s sly orchestration. But what did it mean?
During the walk to their next destination, the Scouts mulled it over.
“I think it’s okay,” Osman said. Trump’s critics “shouldn’t mix politics and business. If you’re doing something good for D.C., if you’re doing something good for the community; I think it’s okay.”
Ammar said: “It doesn’t matter if he makes money that way. It’s better than making money some other ways.”
“He’s said some stuff that may not be nice, but it’s his opinion,” said Safwan Khan, 14. “I respect his freedom of speech. And he should respect my freedom of speech.”
Syed looked pleased at the Scouts’ commentary.
“The underlying theme is how to react and respect other people’s opinions and at the same time disagree,” he said. “Trump is not going away, and we are not going away, either.”
“We have to look very seriously at the mosques. Lots of things happening in the mosques, that’s been proven. ... In a sense, this is a war.” — Trump during a CNN town hall, March 29
The Girl Scouts met at the mosque in a Sunday-school classroom with colorful posters on the walls: “Be a good listener.” “Say please and thank you.”
They opened the meeting by reciting verses from the Koran, the Girl Scout Promise and the Girl Scout Law. Then the call to prayer filtered into the room. The girls spread a tarp flecked with old paint to kneel upon.
After prayers they sat in a circle and talked.
“Donald Trump says he’s going to kick Muslims out or stop Muslims from coming,” Faateha Syed said. “As a Muslim American I would like to stay, and as an American girl I would like to stay and have a future in America.”
Faateha said she and her father had attended an interfaith gathering and a man said something mean about kicking out Muslims. “I got very scared at that point,” Faateha said, but her father reassured her, and all the other people at the meeting rejected the man’s opinion.
“We need to make them understand what our religion is,” Faateha said. “There are so many rumors. You have to go tell them this [violence] is not our true religion. What we are is a religion of peace.”
Another girl said she had been called “ISIS” in school.
“If Trump were to actually win — I’m just very scared that that’s a possibility,” Zahra Syeed said. “I’m scared that there is someone who does not like Muslims who would actually do something to us kids.”
Salimah Hagmagid, 13, said: “I think the campaign is really interesting. I’m interested in politics and stuff. My parents get annoyed because I’m always talking about it. I think that despite the things that many candidates might be saying about Muslims, just by watching the debates and by going to the polls and voting, that shows them that we really are American citizens and we really care about our country. ... It’s just as much our country as anybody else’s. And the only way to show them that is to work for it just as much as anyone else does.”
Tamam Hammad, 12, took comfort in thinking that the more extreme proposals were against the Constitution. But Ameera Rashid, 12, wasn’t as sure.
“If the president feels like it threatens national security, like in World War II, what the president did to the Japanese Americans, technically that could apply to us,” Ameera said. “It’s like, God forbid the president says the Muslims are the reason there is terrorism, kick them out or put them in camps.”
“If we continue doing stuff for our community,” Zahra said, “it becomes, in my opinion, increasingly hard for them to find examples where we aren’t helping our community and America in general.”
“I know when I do things for my country or just simply for my neighborhood, it makes me feel good,” Salimah said. “If people think Muslims should go back to where they came from or whatever, it just shows them that Muslims really benefit this country in a lot of different ways and that they’re just as important as any other faith that’s ever been here.”
The Scouts ended their meeting with a friendship circle. They stood and closed their eyes and crossed their arms to hold hands with the girl on either side. One Scout would give the first hand-squeeze, and the next would pass it along, until the squeeze traveled around the circle back to the beginning.
They were giggling girls again.
“Wait, did you start?”
“Ow! That really hurt!”
They raised their hands in unison: “Woooooooo!”
“I hear people act like there’s something that is terrible about [federal agents] going and sitting in and listening to the sermons of a mosque. If Islam is as wonderful and peaceful as its adherents say, shouldn’t they be begging us to all come in and listen to these peaceful sermons ... and bring the FBI, so we’d all want to convert to Islam?” — Mike Huckabee , GOP debate, Dec. 15
Omar Husain, 13, a senior patrol leader for Troop 1576, was first out of his tent before dawn.
The Scouts could tell in which direction Mecca lay by studying the moss on the bark of a tree. But there were no mossy trees handy. Luckily, they had a smartphone app for the purpose.
The night before, Ullah, the adult leader, had walked to an adjacent campsite.
“I wanted to give you a heads up,” he told the neighboring scoutmaster. “We’re going to get up at 6 a.m. and do some praying.”
“That’s fine,” Dimitri Kesari said.
Half a dozen Scout troops from other communities and faiths were also participating in the “Freeze-O-Ree” in western Loudoun County, an annual cold-weather camping adventure.
Now, with dawn about to break, Wahaj Syed, 17, stood in the middle of the frigid campsite, raised his hands to his ears and made the call to prayer. His plaintive, melodic Arabic soared over the campground:
God is the greatest ... Come to prayer ... Come to success ... Prayer is better than sleep ... There is no god but God.
Rauf Khan, 15, led the prayers. He recited verses in Arabic he had memorized from the Koran about the moral duty to help all people in need.
Campers from the other troops began to stir. A blond boy stuck his head out of his tent and saw the members of Troop 1576 kneeling and touching their foreheads to a mat spread on the frozen ground.
“Oh my gosh,” he said.
More Scouts gathered to watch.
When the prayers were over, a neighboring Scout ventured: “As-salamu alaykum.”
The Scouts from Troop 1576 spun their heads around, surprised to hear the familiar greeting of peace.
It was the day of the presidential primary in South Carolina, where 74 percent of GOP voters would say in exit polls that they supported a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country. While the results didn’t penetrate the community of the campground, no one mistook the camp-out, or Scouting itself, as a permanent refuge from the wider world’s conversation about Muslims. Four of the seven members of the Troop 1576 patrol said that at school they had been bullied or called names because they are Muslim.
“They come up with the craziest things and they say it to you,” said Amaan Rahman, 13. “My mom’s a doctor, so they say, like, your mom’s ISIS and she cuts people’s heads off. My mom worked hard to become a doctor, and now you’re saying she’s cutting — it’s kind of annoying.”
Yet the casual interaction of the Freeze-O-Ree suggested a direction forward, like the needle on the compass that Omar used to teach his patrol point-to-point orienteering.
For dinner, the duty roster called for Omar to cook pasta, but the patrol’s stove gave out. Just when it looked as though dinner would consist of only tangerines, the neighboring troop invited them over to cook on their stove.
Omar lugged over the stew pot. He peered into the neighbors’ pot. Thick chili was bubbling away.
“Look at that,” Omar said in awe. “Professional.”
While the food simmered, the Scouts and dads from two troops talked about upcoming camping trips and gave each other advice on merit badges. Anwar Khan, Rauf’s father and chief executive of Islamic Relief USA, thanked Kesari for inviting the Scouts over.
“That’s what Boy Scouts are all about,” Kesari said. “Everyone working together.”
“Imagine a world where we all had that brotherhood,” Khan said. “Our kids will see the [other Scouts] as brothers who offered their fire without us asking. That was very Islamic what they did. But wasn’t it also Christian and Jewish?”
After dessert it was time to break camp. That’s when Troop 1576 discovered that the trailer attached to their van was stuck in the mud. After several minutes of pushing, they were unable to free it.
Word spread about their predicament, and a dozen Scouts and adults from other troops came to help. They crowded into a flashlit circle, where each hand found a place to grip the hitch on the marooned trailer.
One, two, three — heave! One, two, three — heave!
The van tires spun and spat clods of earth, coating white and brown skin.
“You see the brotherly spirit when you are stuck in the mud,” Khan said after the tires gained traction. “You see the Boy Scout spirit when people with other religions and other colors are helping you.”
“I wonder if President Obama would have attended the funeral of Justice Scalia if it were held in a Mosque?” — Trump’s Twitter feed, Feb. 20, referring to Obama’s decision to skip the funeral but pay respects when the Supreme Court justice’s body lay in repose
A Girl Scout from the ADAMS Center sat down to write a letter to Trump. Her fifth-grade assignment had been to compose a persuasive formal letter to someone.
“My name is Bayan Sabri Hammad,” she began. “I am a 10-year-old girl who feels that it is my duty as a Muslim and a United States citizen to stand up for justice, equality, and freedom of religion. I want to send this letter to you and your followers to say that I disagree with what you are saying about Muslims, and that you are fueling the rage of everyone else’s hatred toward Islam.”
She cited the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. She quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. She described the Muslim “teachers, coaches, volunteer workers and farm owners ... doctors, dentists, computer engineers, mothers and fathers” whom she knows.
“Some immigrants that come here, like your wife,” she wrote to Trump, “dream of a place of safety and equality. To them, and to me, that’s America.”
“I just hope to open his eyes,” Bayan said when she was done. “I guess I just want to inspire him.”
Her letter was a reflection of what it is like to be a Muslim American Scout in the age of Trump. It is to cherish intensely certain ideals that, in less urgent times, might be taken for granted. By pointing out that reality, Bayan Hammad was trying to protect her community from the man who might be president.
She was being prepared.
In April, she mailed her letter to Trump headquarters in New York. Based on everything she has learned from the creeds of her troop, her religion and her country, she knew it would make a difference.
David Montgomery is a Washington Post staff writer.
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