Just under two years ago, I sat in a metal folding chair inside a mosque in Baltimore and listened to the sitting president of the United States tell me and around 200 of my fellow American Muslims that I belong in America.
Standing at a lectern in his socks (he’d taken off his shoes, as is customary for anyone entering a mosque), President Barack Obama looked out at the assembled crowd and the TV cameras and said, “If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as president of the United States: You fit in here — right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too.”
“You’re not Muslim or American,” he added. “You’re Muslim and American.”
In the midst of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country, it was a powerful message. I had tears in my eyes.
On Wednesday, the sitting president of the United States shared another message about Muslims and their place in America that brought tears to my eyes — but for a starkly different reason.
That’s because President Trump spent Wednesday morning retweeting a series of anti-Muslim propaganda videos portraying Muslims as violent and barbaric to his 43.6 million followers on Twitter.
The videos came from a woman named Jayda Fransen, the leader of a far-right British political party called Britain First that is known for its extreme anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant views. Fransen was convicted in 2016 of religiously aggravated harassment after she verbally abused a woman wearing a hijab.
This is not the first time Trump has singled out Muslims, of course. During the campaign, Trump proposed a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and considered creating a database of Muslims in America.
And after becoming president, Trump attempted to impose a ban on citizens from several majority-Muslim nations from entering the country. (Various iterations of that ban have been blocked, in whole or in part, by federal judges; the government is currently blocking certain citizens from six Muslim-majority countries who don't have existing relationships with people or businesses in the US.)
But something about Trump’s actions Wednesday morning hit me especially hard. The sitting president of the United States deliberately and unapologetically chose to use his international platform to promote naked bigotry and hate against Muslims.
As a Muslim American, that says to me that my president sees me and my fellow Muslims as potential security threats at best and little more than brutal savages at worst. But even worse, it says to other Americans that that’s how they should see us, too. And that’s incredibly dangerous.
Days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush went to a mosque in the heart of Washington, DC, and took a bold stand against anti-Muslim bigotry. In a moving speech, he declared that “Islam is peace."
America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
Trump, by openly promoting blatant anti-Muslim propaganda, is telling his fellow Americans that Muslims should not be respected, but feared. And he’s telling me and my fellow Muslims that we don’t belong here. That, too, is a powerful message.
It’s a message I and nearly every other Muslim I know have gotten from hundreds of trolls online. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get at least one tweet or email from someone calling my religion violent and evil and citing vile anti-Muslim propaganda videos just like the ones Trump shared. Every time it happens, it hurts, but over time I’ve learned how to deal with it and not let it upset me too much.
I never expected to have to learn how to deal with hearing it from my president, though.