Ibtihaj Muhammad, who became the first female Muslim American to win an Olympic medal for the United States last summer in the Rio Games, said she recently was detained by U.S. Customs officials for two hours with no explanation.
A native of Maplewood, N.J., and a Duke graduate, Muhammad did not say where she had been traveling, stating only that she was held “just a few weeks ago.” Nor did she specifically link the holdup to President Trump’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“I can’t tell you why it happened to me,” she said in an interview with the website Popsugar during the Makers Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., “but I know that I’m Muslim. I have an Arabic name. And even though I represent Team USA and I have that Olympic hardware, it doesn’t change how you look and how people perceive you.”
Muhammad was the first American Olympian to compete while wearing a hijab and won a bronze medal in team sabre in Rio. Her airport experience made her more determined than ever to stay positive, she said.
“My human response is to cry because I was so sad and upset and disheartened — and just disappointed. At the same time, I’m one of those people who feels like I have to be strong for those people who may not be able to find that strength. I feel like I have to speak up for those people whose voices go unheard.
“It was a really hard two hours, but at the same time, I made it home. I try to remember to be positive and to try to leave all these situations, even if they may be very difficult, with love. I think that we will come out on top as women, as people of color, as Muslims, as transgender people, as people who are part of the disabled community — I think that we’ll come out on top.”
The Post has reached out to Muhammad for comment. Representative Donald M. Payne Jr., a congressman serving Muhammad’s home base in Maplewood, N.J., said in a Facebook post Thursday he was “sickened” by the news while taking a swipe at the current administration.
Last summer, Muhammad’s coach, Akhi Spencer-El, described the challenges Muhammad faces in an interview with The Post’s Rick Maese.
“Going through airports, oh man, she’s always the only one in the group that has to go through a ‘random’ check,” Spencer-El said. “Then we get to these tournaments, and you never know when you’re dealing with a person who might have bad feelings toward Muslims. And you think: That’s who’s deciding if you move on to the next round? In the beginning, it was really tough for her. She had to fight her way and prove to the world that she’s just as good, that she should be treated just like anybody else.”
Muhammad has been critical of Trump, pretending in a joking way during the Olympics that she didn’t know who he was, and tweeting once that “Friends don’t let friends like Trump.” In interview with Time, she said: “If Donald Trump had his way, America would be white, and there wouldn’t be any color and there wouldn’t be any diversity.” Shortly after the travel ban was put in place, she tweeted “#NoBanNoWall,” adding that “our diversity makes our country strong.”
Muhammad, 31, explained to The Post that her mission away from athletics is to combat, educate and inspire. A double major in international relations and African studies with a minor in Arabic, she prays five times a day, observes Ramadan and adjusts her training schedule accordingly. She and her siblings have started a line of clothing that features stylish, colorful and modest women’s wear.
“This is my home; this is who I am,” she told The Post. “My family has always been here. We’re American by birth. It’s a part of who I am. This is all that I know. So when I hear someone say something like, ‘We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,’ it’s like, ‘Where am I going to go? I’m an American.’ ”