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.