Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is an editor on leave from Foreign Policy magazine.
Two weeks ago, Sarah Cochran awoke to an inbox full of panicked emails.
The night before, Reuters had reported that President Trump would soon sign an executive order blocking visas for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa. The move, an expression of the “Muslim ban” that Trump touted during his campaign, marooned Muslims legally working or studying in the United States and threatens to divide families who have relatives in their home countries.
Cochran is director of the Virginia chapter of Emerge USA, an organization founded in 2006 to help Muslims get involved in local politics across five states. It’s one of many organizations that American Muslims created in the aftermath of 9/11 to protect and advocate for their embattled community. That very morning, she was already set to travel to Richmond to meet with state lawmakers to communicate the concerns of Muslim Virginians.
If Trump keeps his campaign promises — and so far there’s every indication he will — the country may see a return to the excesses of the Bush era that saw American Muslims profiled, surveilled, harassed and marginalized. Trump’s administration is more openly anti-Muslim than any in history. Trump himself has stated that “Islam hates us”; his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has called Islamism a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people”; his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, once operated Breitbart, an alt-right news site known for anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Sixteen years ago, many American Muslims didn’t know where to turn for help. There was no Emerge USA for them to email. They had almost no political, social or cultural capital. Now they are far better prepared. That’s because American Muslims have learned to arm themselves, not with weapons but with the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. In the crucible of American society after 2001, Muslims have fully embraced the democratic ideals, expansive religious freedom and rich civil society that truly make America great.
On the eve of 9/11, there were no Muslims in U.S. Congress. There were no Muslim-focused think tanks, few well-known Muslim journalists or comedians, and only a handful of national organizations to represent them. Most Muslims lived quiet lives, studied and worked hard, and provided for their families; they didn’t understand how American political organizing worked.
When 9/11 came, the community paid a heavy price. As Muslims and Muslim charities were targeted in terrorism investigations, they had to scramble to mount a legal defense. Mosques often had no idea how to respond to media requests. As a result, those labeling Islam a religion of violence spoke far louder than Muslims themselves, and hate crimes against Muslims spiked — according to FBI data, there were 481 incidents in 2001 alone. In September 2002, a special registration system was quietly implemented to track many Muslim and Arab immigrants from more than 20 Muslim-majority countries. It lasted until 2011. Most Americans didn’t know this “Muslim registry” existed, because Muslims at the time didn’t have the means to mobilize or publicize the issue.
But 16 years later, Muslim society in the United States has undergone a stunning transformation. There are now two Muslim members in the U.S. House of Representatives, Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and André Carson (D-Ind.). There are Muslim staffers on Capitol Hill and numerous Muslim elected officials at the state and local levels. There are dozens of new Muslim nonprofits aimed at community outreach, political engagement, interfaith ties, research and legal aid. Emerge USA, where Cochran works, is just one of many, such as the Muslim Legal Fund of America, the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America, the Alliance for an Indivisible America 2020, WORDE, the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Michigan, Ta’leef Collective in California, the Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation and many others. After 2001, the nation’s premier Muslim civil rights advocacy organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), vastly expanded its footprint and now operates 30 offices nationwide.
Mosques in Northern Virginia have banded together to take advantage of their proximity to the nation’s lawmakers. “In the past, the results that the community thought were a win were having a representative showing up at your mosque or having a meeting with them,” said Colin Christopher, deputy director of government affairs at Dar Al-Hijrah in Fairfax County. “We hope to usher in a new style of policy engagement. It involves holding our officials publicly accountable. When they make promises and they don’t keep them, we will call them out.”
As pop-culture-savvy Muslims raised in the West have reached adulthood, they have beefed up their social presence as well. Aziz Ansari and Aasif Mandvi, formerly of “The Daily Show,” have satirized anti-Muslim bigotry for an audience of millions. Columnists such as Wajahat Ali for the New York Times and Haroon Moghul for CNN offer commentary whenever Islam makes headlines.
The increased visibility has paid off, as many Americans have come to know and embrace their Muslim neighbors. In contrast to the 2002 registry, implemented with hardly a peep, Trump’s executive order on visas and refugees sparked a massive backlash. On Feb. 3, a federal judge in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order blocking the travel ban nationwide. The Department of Homeland Security has reverted to pre-ban immigration policies for now.
But there’s another threat on the horizon. Lawmakers have introduced a measure that calls for the Muslim Brotherhood, a loosely organized multinational Islamist party, to be designated as a terrorist organization. Such a designation could be used to launch investigations into a swath of influential Muslim organizations, charities and individuals that, even if later found to be without merit, could cripple Islamic civil society in the United States.
As one speaker at CAIR’s annual banquet in December remarked, “A nightmare that we have been fighting in this country for the past 15 years is now in the White House.” Muslims may have to harness every bit of influence at their command to protect themselves from what may be an unprecedented challenge.