I got out of bed on Nov. 9 and went through the motions I had gone through the day before and the day before that. Shower. Clothes. Hair. Concealer for the dark circles under my eyes that were especially prominent from crying. I paused as I looked at my jewelry box and then, with purpose, affixed my favorite necklace around my neck. The silver one with my name— pronounced Henna here—crafted in beautiful, fluid Arabic calligraphy, with the short vowels intersecting the three bold letters. I’d worn this necklace countless times, but today it didn’t feel like jewelry; it felt like armor. Today, if someone asked me what its letters meant, I wouldn’t stop at “my name.” No, I would tell them the story about how it was a present from my aunt who wears the hijab, from the time I visited my family in Egypt as a ten-year-old. About how in a dustier jewelry box back home in Queens, the most ethnically diverse county in the country, I left behind another necklace, its calligraphy even more beautiful, that reads “Allah.” It was given to me by my Muslim, immigrant, Arab father. I rarely wore it because explaining its context always felt scary and complicated and not worth the possible confusion that I was one of them. It was too difficult to explain that Allah was the same word for God, Dios, or Yehweh. That I’m Muslim but, like, not that religious. So, on Nov. 9 I wore my name necklace instead, since it was the only one I had bothered to pack back in August. I decided that if our country had just elected a man who thought Muslims should carry ID cards like badges, I would decide what mine looked like.
Wearing my necklace, I was extremely cognizant of how that morning I woke up to news that 53 million of my fellow citizens, by electing Trump, challenged my ability to hold my Muslim identity label alongside my American one. I also became aware of how the Muslim community was acting as a network of solidarity, community, support, and activism following what to many felt like a national tragedy. Over the years, in St. Louis, in Missouri, and in the country at large, Muslim Americans have been organizing and mobilizing to create an increasingly civically engaged and participatory section of the American constituency.
This became all the more clear after speaking with Faizan Syed, the executive director of the Council on American and Islamic Relations in St. Louis (CAIR-STL). He commented on how organizations like CAIR play a role in creating this change and presence. Primarily focused on defending American Muslims who are victims of discrimination, CAIR also leads various initiatives that work to form a culture of civic engagement within the Muslim community. Their Ambassador Project, for instance, works to build relationships between American Muslims and their local elected officials.
All this work is important, because as Muslims, its important that people view me and us not as Donald Trump’s potential terrorists or as just another means of ensuring national security— as Hillary Clinton suggested when she called Muslims our “eyes and ears” for combatting terrorism. Like any other American teen, I go to class, I binge watch Broad City, I take too many BuzzFeed quizzes when I should be studying. I also happen to be Muslim. Organizations like CAIR drive that message home as they combat Islamophobia and increase visibility of Muslims within our community.
However, despite all of these engagement and education efforts, Syed thinks there’s a deeper reason the Muslim community is stopping short of full civic engagement at its fullest potential. “The greatest barrier towards Muslim voter participation is apathy and a belief that their vote does not count,” he says. “A belief that no matter who you vote for, things won’t change.” This apathy is seen by comparing levels of civic engagement. According to a Pew study, only 62 percent of Muslims who are U.S. citizens were certain that they were registered to vote; the national average was 74 percent. Changing this pattern is essential, since despite accounting for only 1 percent of the total U.S. population, Muslims were considered a swing demographic in many states. In Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia put together, Muslims accounted for nearly one million votes. Because of this vital importance, huge efforts were made to get out the vote and combat the pre-existing apathy.
For example, many groups spearheaded by the U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations (USCMO) led the “One America” campaign dedicated to registering one million new Muslim voters by the 2016 election. The USCMO also led a National Muslim Registration Day on the same day as Eid el-Adha, one of two major Muslim holidays. And in appointing a Muslim Outreach Director and two state-level Muslim outreach coordinators, Hillary Clinton’s campaign showed that they also understood the power of the Muslim vote.
However, no matter the number of efforts by organizations and politicians, what Muslim involvement looks like will ultimately be up to Muslims individuals themselves. This agency can be seen at our most local level, right here on Wash U’s campus. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) is an active club on campus that works to connect Muslim students. Junior Ishak Hossain is the vice president of MSA. “Our group is small, yet the bonds we manage to create are meaningful,” he says. “The Muslim identity is a heavy weight to carry on campus, but the ability to share in that identity with others brings us together.” Through events such as the MSA Welcome Lunch and Eid El-Adha Dinner, general body meetings, movie screenings, and Friday prayers, the club increases the visibility of Muslim students and facilitates bonding and dialogue.
Just like other Muslims and groups across the country, the Muslim community at Wash U also worked to have its voice increasingly heard in this election. This was evident through MSA’s “Meet a Muslim” booth at the Oct. 9 Debate Fair, where club members interacted one-to-one with the Wash U community and members of the media. Separately, MSA also collaborated with five other clubs in forming an educational panel around the time of the election. Through all this programing, MSA did more than just provide a network where individual Muslim students felt connected with one another. It also showed to the larger Wash U community that Muslim students are important to our campus, not because of something inherent to their faith, or because they fulfill a diversity “checkbox,” but because they are varied, vibrant, and active members of our university. Through every act of social justice and education that works to break down the walls that Trump is so adamant about building, Muslim students at Wash U represent the values we should all share as members of this university.
A result of this engagement is the rise of a sense of group consciousness within the network of the Muslim community. This election marked a turning point not only in levels of civic participation, but also in defining the place Muslims have in the American consciousness. It marked a turning point in how Muslims view themselves.
Unlike some other identity-based groups that politicians aim to win over, the Muslim population is extremely ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse. Ranging from Black American members of the Nation of Islam to second-generation Pakistani-Americans to Arabic speakers to East Asians to West African immigrants, Muslims don’t look one way or represent one place. And yet, being Muslim in America means that in some ways, your faith comes first in defining with whom you connect, network and organize.
Through organizing, participating, networking and dialoguing, I hope, as a Muslim, that soon I will no longer have to prove to people that I have always been and always will be an American like any other. That I’m not anyone’s “eyes and ears.” That I can talk for hours about feminism, Beyonce, Game of Thrones, international relations, my steady decline of meal points, the places I want to travel to, but couldn’t give you any information on the next terrorist plot. I have always believed that my story—that of a multicultural young woman, a child of immigrants, a Muslim, a feminist, a first-generation American citizen—could only happen because I am American. No other place would accept or claim me with the same open arms and proud conviction. After this election’s results, it’s easy to feel that those arms are now closed, that there is rejection and fear in their place. But I refuse to accept that. I love my country, or more so the promise of my country, too much to step away. I hope to be alive when this election’s results are a distant memory and we are inaugurating our first female president, or our first Muslim president, or both—someone like me. Until then, I will continue wearing both my necklaces and explaining them proudly to anybody who bothers to ask.