At the height of his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper, “I think Islam hates us” — a cynical, calculated declaration in the perpetual war of words over the dubious question whether Islam, writ large, is “at war” with the West.
That line communicated two different things to two different audiences: It energized Trump’s voting base, primed to view terrorist violence as an existential struggle, rather than a global security challenge to be addressed rationally; and helped inspire the uptick in hate violence targeting Muslims that followed. It also made clear to Muslim Americans that during Trump’s tenure, outward expressions of Muslim identity would draw backlash from hatemongers and heightened surveillance from the government. In the same interview, Trump said “it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”
He said Islam “hates us,” but may as well have said that if, and when, he became president, it would officially be open season on Muslims.
The risks associated with “acting Muslim” have been considerable during every phase of the War on Terror’s more than 16-year stretch. As I wrote last year, “Muslim identity is, by law, tethered to terror suspicion.” To the extent that Trump’s words isolate Muslims because of their faith, he has chilled Muslim Americans’ First Amendment freedom regarding faith expression. The president has retweeted anti-Muslim propaganda and explicitly Islamophobic statements pepper his rhetoric. That rhetoric also steers many of his signature policy proposals and actions, including the infamous travel ban, the third version of which the Supreme Court recently cleared to move forward. Islamophobia is, on one hand, fear and hatred held by individuals but now also a driver of formal state policy. This is manifested by the different iterations of the travel ban, which lists several Muslim-majority countries in a way that doesn’t correlate with terror fears, and the Trump administration’s proposed renaming of standing surveillance programming as “Countering Islamic Extremism.” Policy that endorses animus against Muslims, evidenced through the rise in hate crimes, manifests in the way some Muslims are responding: by negotiating the ways that we present and perform a religious identity thoroughly demonized by the state.
These negotiations are unfolding within the private confines and minds of Muslims, largely under the radar of media coverage and frequently unseen by the public eye. Muslims are being forced to choose between confirming their Muslim identities in line with their religious belief and, in turn, leaving themselves vulnerable to hate violence and state suspicion. Or concealing their Muslim identities, conforming and, at least in theory, trading their rights for safety.
Alaa Basatneh chose to cover her Muslim identity by uncovering. In 2016, she wrote for Splinter that “Immediately after Donald Trump was elected president, I decided to stop wearing my hijab.” She was motivated to try to find safe haven from the wave of violence targeting covered Muslim women — the most readily identifiable Muslims — who wind up as primary targets of Islamophobic violence.
For Hussein, an engineer working in a Detroit suburb, his long beard became the subject of increasingly frequent stares and questioning from strangers following Trump’s victory. A devout Muslim, he wore his beard as a “badge of piety and belonging,” signifying his status to his community and the broader public. At his job, his beard drew more than one comparison to terrorists, isolating him and, in his estimation, limiting his ability to advance within the company. He ultimately shaved it, conforming to a more assimilated look instead of a more traditionally pious one.
Last year, a high school student had her hijab ripped off her head by her teacher; a spate of fires were reported at American mosques. In 2015, in the months before Trump’s rapid political rise, there was the tragedy where being Muslim was believed by many to be a motive in the killing of three Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Strategic concealment of stigmatized identity is not exclusive to Muslim communities. For instance, otherwise devout Sikh men may remove their turbans or shave their beards to fend off discrimination, and black men and women may avoid specific hairstyles or attire to deflect stereotyping or mitigate the prospect of police profiling.
“Everybody works their identity,” write law professors Devon Carbado and Mitu Gulati in their 2000 Cornell Law Review paper, “Working Identity,” examining the ways that professionals of color negotiate their racial identities within the employment context. They argue that the “working identity phenomenon … is a form of employment discrimination,” because concealment or modification of identity in ways that lessen racial, gender and intersectional stereotypes facilitate acceptance and upward mobility in the employment context. When you extend that perspective to the acting Muslim phenomenon, we can see it as a form of religious discrimination.
For Muslims navigating how to present themselves and practice their faith in a society where Islamophobia is both percolating from the bottom and reigning at the very top, the stakes are more than getting and holding a coveted job or breaking through glass ceilings. It is a matter of weathering the immediate threat posed by the Trump administration, which will undoubtedly continue to peddle hateful rhetoric and push more damaging policy.
Hate crime reports and statistics don’t capture the full scope of hostility toward Muslims in our country. And if the law is too limited to enable redress for Muslims suppressing their religious identity to mitigate backlash and rebut suspicion, it may be time to rethink it. If one of the touchstones of American citizenship is the free exercise of religion, and Muslims are unable to fully practice that liberty in a context of trumped-up Islamophobia, then the law serves to maintain the second-class citizenship of Muslims in America.