Muslim American Artists, Activists Cope with Trump’s Dystopian Reality

16 February, 2017


Fol­low­ing the trav­el ban, a con­sti­tu­tion­al con­fronta­tion between fed­er­al judges and the White House con­tin­ues while Mus­lims regroup. The Markaz talks to key fig­ures across the country.


Jordan Elgrably

Since Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion on Jan­u­ary 20th, it’s nev­er been hard­er to be Arab- or Mus­lim-Amer­i­can. Amidst exec­u­tive orders tar­get­ing Mus­lims, wom­en’s rights and oth­er issues dear to Demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues, dai­ly protests and war­ring words between the Trump camp and oppo­nents have put Mus­lim Amer­i­cans in the spot­light. While Wash­ing­ton State fed­er­al judge James Robart has man­aged to tem­porar­i­ly block Trump’s con­tro­ver­sial exec­u­tive order bar­ring immi­grant entry from sev­en Mus­lim coun­tries, Mus­lim respon­dents we spoke to remain apprehensive.

Maz Jobrani at a Markaz event.

Tehran-born Maz Jobrani, the stand-up come­di­an and actor, says he’s been get­ting many calls and emails from peo­ple shar­ing their sto­ries, includ­ing legal Iran­ian res­i­dents who while trav­el­ing were coerced to sign form I‑407, which essen­tial­ly waved their visa or green card rights. “They were put back on a plane and returned to Abu Dhabi,” Jobrani reports. “Anoth­er lady emailed telling me that she’s an Iran­ian who was study­ing in India and met an Amer­i­can who she mar­ried. They were wait­ing for her green card inter­view and final­ly got one in Ankara on 1/30/17. When they land­ed in Ankara they were told the inter­view had been can­celled. Now, since Iran has banned Amer­i­cans, the hus­band can’t go to Iran and she, obvi­ous­ly can’t come to the U.S. She told me they are stuck in a hotel room in Ankara.”

Mohja Kahf performing at The Markaz.

Dam­as­cus-born Moh­ja Kahf, a poet, nov­el­ist and lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor, author of The Girl in the Tan­ger­ine Scarf and oth­er works, said in response to the ban, “Where the heck is Amer­i­ca going to get its doc­tors, engi­neers, and spelling bee win­ners from any­more?” She said extreme vet­ting of Mus­lims “will affect me, just like NSEERS did for years, by mak­ing it more excru­ci­at­ing­ly dif­fi­cult for some of my inter­na­tion­al stu­dents to get back here in time for the semes­ter, or to ever enroll here at all. Some will only arrive after humil­i­at­ing, anx­i­ety-pro­duc­ing ordeals.” 

Mehnaz Afridi.

Karachi native Mehnaz Afri­di, an author, pro­fes­sor and the first Mus­lim schol­ar to direct a Holo­caust study cen­ter, not­ed that the ban and oth­er attempts to vet Mus­lim trav­el­ers “will affect all Mus­lims because we will con­tin­ue to be scru­ti­nized. And yes, when I trav­el, I am checked out of line [and tar­get­ed for inter­ro­ga­tion].” Afri­di reports that she and her friends are doing as much as they can to resist, attend­ing march­es, sign­ing peti­tions and pub­lish­ing articles. 

The Pales­tin­ian-Amer­i­can come­di­an Aron Kad­er, whose par­ents are Mus­lim and Mor­mon, mar­ried a Cana­di­an of Lebanese her­itage. His wife is con­cerned about her sta­tus. “She’s not a cit­i­zen. She’s Mus­lim Lebanese but has nev­er been to Lebanon. For the first time, frankly, I’m wor­ried about my gov­ern­ment oppress­ing me or peo­ple I know. My friend Nick Youssef the come­di­an is a per­ma­nent res­i­dent with a green card and a Lebanese pass­port. He could be harassed if he left the coun­try. Who knows? It’s all very threat­en­ing in a way we’ve nev­er known before. I’m also wor­ried about my social media posts in that I’ve said some very nasty things about Trump. But at the end of the day, we can’t be afraid of tyran­ny or that laws won’t pro­tect us. I still put faith in the system.”

Comedian Aron Kader and his wife Nada with their first-born.

The Malaysian-born Mus­lim activist Ani Osman Zon­n­eveld heads up Mus­lims for Pro­gres­sive Val­ues (MPV), a Los Ange­les-based orga­ni­za­tion with chap­ters around the U.S. and in Aus­tralia, Cana­da, Bangladesh, France, Indone­sia, the Nether­lands, the Philip­pines and South Africa. She says that even with­out dis­cussing the exec­u­tive order ban­ning Mus­lim trav­el, the Trump admin­is­tra­tion seems com­mit­ted to revers­ing social progress while push­ing their con­ser­v­a­tive agen­da. Wit­ness the world­wide reach of Trump’s glob­al gag order. “Every­thing we’ve worked for all these years,” Zon­n­eveld explains, “has been undone. Wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights are going to be thrown out; we’ve become a theoc­ra­cy basi­cal­ly. With a gag order and anoth­er of his exec­u­tive orders, Trump has dis­abled wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights, by pulling fund­ing to orga­ni­za­tions here in the U.S. and abroad that pro­vide health ser­vices to women.” 

Ani Zonneveld with comedian Bassem Yousef.

“Now,” she says, “if you pro­vide an abor­tion option they will lose fund­ing, which would also lim­it mon­ey for HIV med­ica­tion, con­tra­cep­tion, and even treat­ing zika and malar­ia in some countries—so it’s not just abor­tion, they are going to use abor­tion to pull the plug on all the ser­vices.” Mus­lims for Pro­gres­sive Val­ues has also worked hand-in-hand with the LGBTQ com­mu­ni­ty to counter dis­crim­i­na­tion against gay Mus­lims. Zon­n­eveld is alarmed at the recent­ly leaked draft of an exec­u­tive order that will effec­tive­ly allow for dis­crim­i­na­tion against LGBTQ peo­ple. Accord­ing to a report in The Nation, “The draft order seeks to cre­ate whole­sale exemp­tions for peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions who claim reli­gious or moral objec­tions to same-sex mar­riage, pre­mar­i­tal sex, abor­tion, and trans iden­ti­ty, and it seeks to cur­tail wom­en’s access to con­tra­cep­tion and abor­tion through the Afford­able Care Act.” 

To stand up to these new threats, Zon­n­eveld says MPV is part­ner­ing with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the ACLU. “There’s a lot of coali­tion-build­ing now, you’re see­ing orga­ni­za­tions that work for the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, wom­en’s repro­duc­tive rights, faith-based orga­ni­za­tions and civ­il rights groups com­ing together.” 

“I real­ly don’t see a light at the end of the tun­nel,” she says. “With the Sen­ate, and the Supreme Court nom­i­nee, you’re talk­ing about over­turn­ing Roe v. Wade and oth­er leg­is­la­tion. [Vice Pres­i­dent Mike] Pence was at a Pro-Choice march last week­end.” Gloomi­ly, she adds, “There’s not much we can do. We have to get peo­ple elect­ed in two years to win back the Sen­ate. [Trump] is tak­ing us so far back.”

At the same time, the Amer­i­can Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty has seen a surge of sol­i­dar­i­ty unlike any­thing ever expe­ri­enced before, with mas­sive demon­stra­tions, crowds at air­ports, and main­stream politi­cians like Wash­ing­ton State Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee, Cal­i­for­nia Gov­er­nor Jer­ry Brown, and Los Ange­les May­or Eric Garcetti chal­leng­ing the White House on an almost dai­ly basis. 

Seattle playwright Youssef El Guindi.

Even the Amer­i­can pub­lish­ing indus­try has come out to sup­port Mus­lim voic­es, with a raft of respect­ed lit­er­ary agents issu­ing a nation­al call for Mus­lim writ­ers to sub­mit their work. In the state­ment that accom­pa­nied their call for sub­mis­sions, the agents wrote: “The events fol­low­ing Trump’s exec­u­tive order on Jan­u­ary 27, 2017, deeply shocked and sad­dened all of us…The mes­sages of fear and dis­crim­i­na­tion against Mus­lims with­in this coun­try and to those out­side its bor­ders are not ones that reflect our own beliefs and under­stand­ing. As a result, we are tak­ing action by encour­ag­ing sub­mis­sions from writ­ers of Mus­lim her­itage for chil­dren’s and adult fic­tion and non­fic­tion books.” 

The Seat­tle-based play­wright Yussef El Guin­di was born in Egypt and received his B.A. from the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Cairo. Now an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen, El Guin­di has seen his plays about the Arab/Muslim Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence hit stages across the coun­try for more than a decade, among them “Back of the Throat,” “Acts of Desire,” “Hostages” and “Jihad Jones and the Kalash­nikov Babes.” He says that he is hun­ker­ing down, but unafraid. His plays fuse com­e­dy and pol­i­tics in ways that make his work par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant these days, but El Guin­di has yet to see a new surge of inter­est from the­atre producers. 

“The mood in the coun­try is rather oppres­sive in terms of feel­ing like cer­tain lib­er­ties of move­ment and expres­sion might be cur­tailed in some way,” El Guin­di says. “A free-float­ing anx­i­ety hov­ers. One isn’t sure what might hap­pen next, or how it might affect you and your friends. 

“Even though my coun­try of birth, Egypt, is not on the list, I wor­ry about trav­el­ing abroad. I wor­ry about com­pli­ca­tions that might arise while trav­el­ing. I wor­ry about aggres­sive ques­tion­ing and behav­ior at the bor­der. I wor­ry that license has been giv­en to act aggres­sive­ly towards immi­grants and peo­ple of a cer­tain faith… 

“My impulse, as an immi­grant, is to keep my head down and shut up. Immi­grants are the peo­ple most invest­ed in try­ing to prove their alle­giance and worth to their adopt­ed coun­try. It’s a lit­tle dis­tress­ing to real­ize that those efforts are effec­tive­ly dis­count­ed in lieu of the much more salient facts (or fic­tions) of one’s race and religion. 

Professor Moustafa Bayoumi.

“I do have a voice though. I imag­ine I will con­tin­ue doing what I’m doing: writ­ing and respond­ing to what’s going on around me. While my impulse may be to keep my head down and shut up, that writer’s voice will have none of that. Plus the Amer­i­can cit­i­zen in me will have none of that. I believe we are required to speak up dur­ing times like these.” 

Ali Eter­az, the Pak­istan-born, San Fran­cis­co-based author of the recent nov­el Native Believ­er and the best­selling Mus­lim com­ing-of-age mem­oir, Chil­dren of Dust, seems of a sim­i­lar mind to El Guin­di. “In a nation of immi­grants every act of exclu­sion­ary nativism should be tak­en per­son­al­ly,” he says. Eter­az has­n’t encoun­tered any unusu­al “trav­el­ing while Mus­lim” prob­lems in the past year, but he adds sar­don­ical­ly, “Oth­er than cen­sor­ing my speech, mind­ing my cloth­ing, height­en­ing my ser­vil­i­ty, no, no problems.” 

“A minor­i­ty writer lives in the shad­ows,” Eter­az stress­es, “in exile from the gar­dens where the major­i­ty writer suns her­self. In a time when the sun is erased the minor­i­ty writer must teach how to thrive in the dark.” 

Moustafa Bay­ou­mi sees more dark times ahead but seems ready to do bat­tle. He is the author of two pre­scient, award-win­ning books about Arab American/Muslim Amer­i­can life, How Does It Feel to Be a Prob­lem? Being Young and Arab in Amer­i­ca and This Mus­lim Amer­i­can Life, Dis­patch­es From the War on Ter­ror

Both books under­score Bay­oumi’s belief that in the Unit­ed States, Mus­lims are by default guilty till proven innocent. 

Despite the seem­ing dystopia, Bay­o­mi appears heart­ened by all the pub­lic sol­i­dar­i­ty he’s observed over the past few weeks. “I don’t think we would have got­ten the stay from the judi­cia­ry over the immi­gra­tion ban, had it not been for all the pub­lic protest,” he says. 

Not all Mus­lim artists and activists are as optimistic. 

Feb­ru­ary 1st, five days after the ban was issued, the Pales­tin­ian Ital­ian author Rula Jebre­al tweet­ed that she thought the worst was yet to come. “White House aides who wrote Trump’s #Mus­lim­Ban see it as just the start. A reg­istry and Inter­ment camps are next.”

While Jebre­al pre­dicts Mus­lim deten­tion camps, Bay­ou­mi does­n’t have time for sci-fi scenarios. 

“I think there’s enough cause for con­cern with the things that we have right in front of us. And I think it plays into their hands by ele­vat­ing a pol­i­tics of fear, of the unknown. We already know what we’re bat­tling, so let’s bat­tle it. I think it’s more impor­tant to fight the fights that are right in front of us than try to pre­dict what’s ahead of us.”

Bay­ou­mi has a point, but all of this would appear to con­firm that the “Mus­lim ban” has made it okay in some cir­cles to be anti-Muslim—witness scores of attacks against mosques, includ­ing the mass shoot­ing in Que­bec and the mosque that was burned down in Vic­to­ria, Texas.

He does­n’t find any of this to be new, but exac­er­bat­ed under Trump. “In a num­ber of ways this is an exten­sion of the last 15 years, rather than a rup­ture, so it is hard to keep up with, but it’s been hard to keep up with for 15 years. There is sup­port for Trump’s poli­cies not because of Trump but because there is a polit­i­cal cul­ture cul­ti­vat­ed over these years.

“Of course, Islam­o­pho­bia is much old­er than 15 years, but we can point to 9/11 as a moment when I think things changed on a mat­ter of scale in the Unit­ed States, and also, when Islam­o­pho­bia turned inwards. Pri­or to 9/11, Islam­o­pho­bia had an out­ward-look­ing for­eign pol­i­cy ele­ment to it, about for­eign­ers out there. After 9/11, Islam­o­pho­bia turned inwards, and we’re see­ing that right now. Not to min­i­mize what’s hap­pen­ing today—it feels almost like we’re in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion and I think we need to oper­ate along those lines, but by doing so we should­n’t for­get or be nos­tal­gic for some past that did­n’t exist. I don’t think Barak Oba­ma was such a huge friend to the Mus­lims, in the end.”

When asked if today’s anti-Mus­lim furor is push­ing him toward or away from his reli­gion of birth, he is expansive.

“I think Mus­lim iden­ti­ty has actu­al­ly become more and more racial­ized. It’s become more and more iden­ti­tar­i­an. Because when it’s assumed that you’re Mus­lim you have to take on that role—that’s one of the things Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his book Anti-Semi­te and Jew, that the Jew is some­one oth­ers think is a Jew. For exam­ple, when spe­cial reg­is­tra­tion was hap­pen­ing I had a friend who was Moroc­can and he had to go through the whole thing—a lot of peo­ple I knew did. They told me at the time many of them were super sec­u­lar and had very lit­tle regard for going to the masjid, and they told me that they nev­er felt more Mus­lim than when they went through spe­cial registration.”

Bay­ou­mi seems to still be work­ing this out for him­self but, he says, “I’m not going to run away from that iden­ti­ty; I’m going to embrace it and then I’m going to get oth­ers around me and be open tent-like about it. I’ve always grown up around reli­gious peo­ple, so I find reli­gious Mus­lims com­fort­ing, I don’t find them scary at all. And I feel like it’s impor­tant to have a wide sense of who we are across the spec­trum, so that you don’t just get a few peo­ple rep­re­sent­ing you in a nar­row way, because the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty is broad and diverse and complicated.”

Per­haps this diver­si­ty will be the sal­va­tion for Mus­lims and Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the age of Trump.

Jor­dan Elgrably writes on the pol­i­tics of iden­ti­ty for a range of pub­li­ca­tions. In 2001 he cofound­ed the Lev­an­tine Cul­tur­al Cen­ter, now known as The Markaz, the first cul­tur­al cen­ter for the Mid­dle East in South­ern California.