When I was 13, two FBI agents knocked on my family’s door. They asked for my younger sister, at the time a 7-year-old in second grade at the school down the street from our home in New Jersey. My older sister, herself a teenager, fielded their questions, as my Pakistani parents, whose first language is Urdu, couldn’t fully comprehend what the agents were asking. They told us that my sister's school had called the FBI to report that my sister may have placed anthrax in a permission slip for a field trip. A teacher assistant’s home had been locked down and scoured by Hazmat teams.
It was a few weeks after the October 2001 anthrax scare, so we knew enough to understand the charge being leveled at us. The agents began with a few questions about our politics and the mosques we attended. They eventually asked my sister to bring her backpack, which she did. She held it open for them, crying, unsure what was happening. They proceeded to question her alone in the kitchen. I stood in the next room, crying. My mother was hysterical. Our family had just moved into the predominantly white suburb, a world apart from the working-class immigrant neighborhood I grew up in. Just a few weeks earlier, several kids on our street launched into a lengthy screed about me being “a fucking terrorist foreigner.”
Of course it wasn’t anthrax; it was pink SandArt, the kind you might find in any second grader’s backpack. The next day, my sister returned to class and pretended everything was fine, as if the school had never accused our family of bioterrorism.
When I was 19, I attended a Friday khutbah, or sermon, at my university, a large state college in Texas. After the service, an unfamiliar man in a suit took the podium. He identified himself as an attorney with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said that recently, the FBI had begun to interview Muslim students on campus on suspicions of engagement with foreign terrorists. He told us how to engage a federal agent, how to avoid entrapment, how to handle an interrogation. He shared his business card and promised to represent us if we ever called.
A few weeks later, my friends were interviewed and investigations began at neighboring colleges. It was unclear whether the university was complicit in the investigation; the prospect of the administration sharing information about the Muslim Student Association with law enforcement made me feel no institution was safe. Many stopped attending services and meetings. Eight years later, I still carried that business card, faded and crumpled, in my wallet. I believed it to be my sole source of protection. I threw it out earlier this year, naively assuming I no longer needed to be afraid of my own federal government.
Why Muslims like me are afraid of the Trump administration
In the weeks since Donald Trump won the presidential election, I’ve realized that most Americans have no idea what I’m afraid of as an American Muslim. The prevailing narrative about our fears is centered on immigration, either in the form of restrictions on refugees or registries for recent immigrants. But like most American Muslims, I’m neither a recent immigrant, nor a refugee. I’m a second-generation Pakistani American living in Washington, DC. I’m frightened by both proposals and deeply concerned for the members of my community and family that will be affected. But I’m equally frightened for my personal safety from law enforcement. I’m genuinely afraid of being reported, interrogated, and arrested on the basis of my religious identity.
My fears are not unfounded; it is not the first time the state and bigots emboldened by it have been mobilized against my community. For most of my adult life, I assumed stories like mine about Bush-era scrutiny of American Muslims were known by those outside our community. After all, it wasn’t a new phenomenon; state surveillance of American Muslims stretched as far back as the FBI’s pursuit of black Muslims during the 1950s. I assumed Americans understood the far-reaching consequences of criminalizing a religious identity: mistrust, fear, loss of civil liberties, loss of livelihood, suppression of civic and religious organizations. I’m afraid I was wrong. I now recognize it’s important to convey exactly what I'm afraid of, so that you might be able help.
Being routinely suspected of terrorism and investigated by law enforcement is an alarmingly normal part of the lives of many American Muslims. Almost all of my young adult Muslim friends have experienced it. I grew up hearing about friends and family being interrogated and harassed by law enforcement, non-citizen community members going missing (i.e., quietly detained, held for questioning, and eventually deported), and police scoping our congregations. There was never any recourse. Rather, we suppressed these stories for fear of attracting additional suspicion.
I can’t begin to explain how deeply these instances affected my sense of belonging, safety, and trust. I could write many more paragraphs about bullying, physical threats, and verbal abuse my family and I endured at the hands of hateful bigots. These incidences have remained a regular and painful presence in my life, regardless of where I’ve called home.
Thankfully, others have written about the traumatic legacy of state surveillance of Muslims in college campuses and neighborhoods. Researchers have published studies on the health implications of individual, interpersonal, and structural anti-Muslim discrimination. As a doctoral student in health policy, the reality of these findings are especially resonant.
Bush-era surveillance was terrible. I’m scared the Trump era will go even further.
A decade and a half since the FBI came to our door, I’m again deeply afraid of what’s ahead. Earlier this month, while canvassing for Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, a man told my wife that he was a Trump supporter, and that we ought to keep walking lest he blow up our car. A day after the election, a group of men in a truck draped in Trump flags drove around my younger sister’s college campus in Texas, my alma mater, hurling expletives at Muslim women.
But as frightening as these incidents may be, I’m most afraid of another period of state persecution of American Muslims. I don't have the luxury of taking comfort in the uncertainty of what Trump will or won't do. In addition to his rhetoric, his appointments of Frank Gaffney, an anti-Islam conspiracy theorist, and Steve Bannon, a champion of anti-Muslim extremists, as his advisers are reason enough for alarm.
Although surveillance of American Muslims continued under the Obama administration, it didn’t feel as widespread and intrusive. Unfortunately, I expect surveillance of American Muslims to intensify under Trump, beyond what we experienced during the Bush and Obama administrations. I'm afraid of my civil liberties being curtailed, of being investigated because I’m a bearded Pakistani American man, of my wife being detained given her work as a Muslim community leader, and of my congregations being monitored and suppressed. I fear the same for my family, friends, and community.
I fear the US Department of Justice and local law enforcement will pursue mainstream American Muslim nonprofit organizations, destabilizing our core institutions. In the event of a terrorist attack, I legitimately fear there may be internment programs. My wife and I have already had several conversations about attorneys we might call if law enforcement shows up at our door. I know noncitizen and lower-income Muslims will be most affected yet least well-positioned to receive support from allies. I know these fears will lead to mental health challenges, particularly for younger Muslims. I wish I could say my fears were exaggerated.
I also feel betrayed by the millions of Americans who voted for Trump
Beyond fear, I feel betrayed by so many of my fellow Americans. I feel mistrustful of strangers on the street, uncertain of their bigotry behind closed doors. I feel uncertain about whether certain things I say or do will be misconstrued and reported to law enforcement. I feel physically vulnerable to a political movement powered by white nationalism. I feel anger toward well-meaning allies who offered assurances but ultimately failed to act or take my worries seriously. Despite having spent five years working in the federal government, I feel stripped of my identity as an American and abandoned by our institutions.
I feel as if my professional goals have been upended because most of my energy these next several years will be spent organizing and resisting. I do not want assurances that things will be okay — they won’t, particularly for those in our community already at the margins. I fear that the concern that exists at this moment will soon dissipate, just as it does after every episode of anti-Muslim violence. I fear that within the next few months, anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies will become normalized.
Much of what I’m afraid of won’t come with a press release. Surveillance programs and investigations will begin slowly and quietly. Neither the knock on my family’s door, nor the surveillance of my undergraduate Muslim Student Association came with an announcement. In the months after the ACLU attorney came to speak with us, we received word that the Department of Homeland Security had opened a Fusion Center nearby, effectively militarizing local law enforcement’s surveillance of my community.
There are ways you can help. Donations to American Muslim and allied organizations are important, particularly those focusing on mental health, legal aid, and organizing and advocacy around anti-Muslim discrimination.
But donations are hardly enough. We need more Americans to commit to protecting American Muslims' civil liberties and personal safety. That includes engaging in difficult conversations with loved ones who espouse bigoted beliefs and intervening to help individuals being harassed. It means using your professional skill sets to support American Muslim and allied nonprofits focused on civil liberties and legal aid, as well as other organizations engaged in defending minority communities from unwarranted state surveillance.
The incoming administration’s policies have frightening implications for so many, particularly those who are Latinx, immigrants, queer, black, and/or women, as well as Muslims at the intersection of those identity markers. As American Muslims, we will be hard at work these next few years to defend our shared civil liberties. We don’t have a choice. And we need all of you to be hard at work with us.
Sameer Siddiqi is a CLF-Lerner Fellow and PhD student in health policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He lives with his wife and dog in Washington, DC.