What Makes an American: Islamophobia in the Greater Portland Area (LJP)

by Sara Barkouli

On December 7th, 2015, president Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States” (qtd. in Obeidallah).

In 2007, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), a normally open-minded group, nominated Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West From Within for best book in the field of criticism, although the book is “widely viewed as denigrating an entire religion” (Rendall and Macdonald). In a November 2006 CNN interview with the first Muslim congressman Keith Ellison, Glenn Beck, a prominent political commentator, said, “Sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies” (qtd. in Dietz). Earlier that year, on his syndicated radio show, Beck claimed, “Human beings are not strong enough, unfortunately, to restrain themselves from putting up razor wire and putting [Muslims] on one side of it” (qtd. in Dietz).

It is not hard to find many more instances of prejudice against Muslims such as these in our society today, and it is even easier to find Muslims who have experienced the effects of this rhetoric first-hand. However, being raised Muslim in Portland, I have only once experienced anything close to an Islamophobic “hate-crime.” One day, my dad and I were driving through a Costco parking lot, and he accidentally cut another driver off. The driver rolled down his window and yelled, “Go back to your own country, ya filthy Muslim!” After that instance, my dad was stunned. After over thirty years of living in America, this was the first time any kind of hate had been directed towards him on the basis of his religion. This incident was my first, and only, personal experience with Islamophobia. That day I realized that, even if I rarely encounter it, Islamophobia is real and people experience it everyday in America.

On average, Muslims in America are 48% more likely to say that they have experienced discrimination on the basis of their religion—that is twice as much as Jews, Catholics, or Protestants (Gallup). Essentially, Islamophobia is a dislike or prejudice against Islam or Muslims; an “Islamophobe” is “an individual who holds a closed-minded view of Islam and promotes prejudice or hatred of Muslims” (CAIR). Any phobia is an inexplicable or illogical fear or something. Islamophobia existed before the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, but it gained more notoriety around that time and has continued to do so (Gallup). Organizations like the Muslim Educational Trust (MET) are taking on the increasingly important task of trying to combat the anti-Muslim sentiment in America. Located in the heart of Beaverton, MET is dedicated to “the betterment of our society, and strives to achieve its purpose through education, cooperation, networking, and programs which benefit Muslims and non-Muslims in the greater Portland, Oregon area” (“Welcome”). Along with educating the general public, MET is also invested in providing safe spaces where Muslims can feel supported despite the prejudice thrown their way. Essentially, MET is trying to change people’s negative opinions of Islam and, in the process, solidify the identities of Muslim Americans living in Portland.

Often, Islamophobia stems from misunderstanding. Islamophobes are making their judgements based on what they see in the media and the many stereotypes perpetuated about Muslims. Nowadays, as has been displayed by our recent election, this misinformation is often spread through narrow-minded politicians whose views are easily shared through various news broadcasters. Through sponsoring events such as the “Building Bridges of Understanding” conference in September with countless local public safety officials and civil society organizations, or helping to organize a post-election event at which various faith leaders “promoted community amidst division” (“Portland Faith Leaders”), MET has been an important proponent in fighting against prejudice through education. Although it is difficult to combat something as deeply ingrained in our society as Islamophobia is, it is evident that Portland is trying its best.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that this kind of education and advocacy is essential not just in Portland, but in America on a national level. In late October, a New York Times journalist met with a Muslim family living in Staten Island, New York to see how they were handling the tense election. The youngest daughter in the family, Maaria, reported having a “scary dream about Donald Trump” where he “went to [her] house and threw [her] family in jail” the morning after the second presidential debate (qtd. in S. Schmidt). Maaria, only 7 years old, “does not fully grasp how [her religion] could be used against her, and she lacks the ability to absorb the blows” (S. Schmidt). Across the country, for the past few months especially, Muslim parents have been faced with the difficult task of explaining Islamophobia to their children.

The effects of this rhetoric are felt by children and adults, Muslims and and other faiths alike. In December 2015, Wheaton College tenured professor Larycia Hawkins posted on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book[…]. We worship the same God,” along with a photo of herself wearing a hijab (qtd. in Pashman). The administration at Wheaton immediately placed Hawkins on paid leave for, according to the evangelical college, “not clarifying what makes Christianity distinct from Islam” (qtd. in Pashman). The college then recommended that she resign. “Instances like these just go to show how Islamophobia can manifest itself in the most subtle ways, because it is so deeply-rooted in our society,” remarks Wajdi Said, co-founder and president of MET.  

Relatively speaking, Portland is better off than many other places. Simply the existence of MET and the fact that, after living here for over thirty years, my father has only once personally experienced Islamophobia gives me hope. In the recent election, 74% of Multnomah County voted against Donald Trump (“2016 Oregon”). Back in December 2015, various religious leaders got together at City Hall to speak out against Trump’s stance on Muslim immigration (B. Schmidt). Although Islamophobia isn’t necessarily prevalent in Portland, MET is committed to helping Muslims who have been affected by the nation-wide harmful rhetoric feel at home and find their place not just as Muslims, but as Muslim-Americans.

***

When Khizr Khan spoke at the Democratic National Convention in late July, his speech, at first, blended in with the endless white noise produced by CNN constantly playing on the TV in my living room. Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American who lost his son in the Iraq War, called out Donald Trump for many of his Islamophobic beliefs, saying that he has “sacrificed nothing and no one” and was “smearing the character” of religious minorities (qtd. in Moody). Perhaps the most memorable moment of his speech is when he held up his pocket-sized constitution and offered to lend it to Trump. For days following Khan’s speech, my parents, both Muslim, would quote him at every possible chance. They both felt a huge resurgence in their pride of being Muslim-American. I completely forgot about Khan’s profound words until I heard that MET was sponsoring an event on Sunday, October 23rd where Khan would give a speech, followed by a short question and answer session with him. My parents heard about the event around the same time as I did and expressed their interest in wanting to go, since they were so enamored with Khan’s speech back in July. So on Sunday night, with my pen and notebook in hand, I went to MET to hear Khizr Khan speak.

Upon walking into the gymnasium of MET’s newly constructed Islamic community center, I felt the palpable energy in the room. Since I got there fairly early, many of the chairs were still empty; I chose a seat close to the front, facing a stage with two chairs, two podiums, and two microphones. Quickly the rows of seats started to fill up; people were even packed into the back of the room and on the bleachers lining the walls. Many local political figures, including Senator Ron Wyden, were sitting in the front row.

Eventually, Khizr Khan himself took his seat in the front row, and Senator Wyden, all 6 feet and 3 inches of him, got up to the podium with a smile on his face to introduce him. After the long and complimentary introduction, Khan took his place at the podium. The crowd immediately stood up and gave him a standing ovation. He hadn’t said a word yet. When Khan started speaking, his voice shook; it seemed that he was overcome with emotion over the response of the crowd. He raised his hands up in the air as if he was praying, then held them, palms facing out, towards the crowd, to express his thanks. “So undeservingly I stand before you,” he said, the crowd still cheering.

“[The constitution] doesn’t have to live in books, in pockets, on shelves, it must live in our minds,” Khan started, in reference to his speech at the DNC in July. He addressed the Muslim community directly: “We Muslims sometimes don’t rightfully claim our citizenship,” he stated, “And with that honor comes a responsibility—a full citizenship is not given to you, you must claim it.” Everything he said was met with copious applause from the crowd. Inevitably, his speech started leaning more towards the election, as many conversations around this time seemed to. Khan said that afterward, no matter who won, we must be ready “to forgive, and to extend the hand of friendship. We will move forward with forgiveness in our hearts, and with reconciliation to make this country the best it can be.” Although this was in October, it was almost as if he knew Donald Trump would win.

Near the end of his talk, Khan commented on what had brought him here in the first place: his speech at the DNC. “After my speech, kids would see me ask if they would be able to finish school before getting thrown out of the country,” Khan recounted, choking up on the last few words. It was if the New York Times article about the family in Staten Island was coming to life. The response Khan received from the Muslim community after the speech was overwhelmingly one of thankfulness. “‘Thank you for speaking on behalf of us,’ they would say. ‘Thank you for giving us strength.’,” he said, looking at the ground and shaking his head as if in disbelief of the outpouring of love he had received. He took a breath, looked back up at the crowd, and announced calmly, “My country needs you, the values of equal dignity need you. We will more forward together to make this country better.”

The crowd barely gave Khan the chance to put his microphone down before they rose to give him a standing ovation. After everyone finally sat down, Wajdi Said strolled up to the stage and announced that Khan would only answer three questions from the crowd for the Q&A portion of his talk. Unable to think of a meaningful question, I didn’t act until it was too late—the third person was chosen just as I raised my hand. I felt defeated but still grateful to have heard Khan speak. Fortunately, Wajdi is a close family friend and knew that I was working on this project. Just as the crowd was preparing to leave, he took back the microphone and said, “Our last question comes from Sara Barkouli who is writing a report on Islamophobia in Portland.”

I stood up on shaky legs as a man handed me a microphone. “Um, salam alaikum, Mr. Khan, and thank you so much for being here!” I said as a crowd of about 600 people all turned to look at me. “And thanks for putting me on the spot Wajdi…” the crowd let out a quick chuckle as, suddenly, an obvious question came to mind, and I continued, “Mr. Khan, do you have any advice for me writing my report?” Various sounds of “hmm…” and “interesting” were let out from the crowd as I was asked to come up onto the stage.

Khan first gave me a hug, then took a long pause before he answered my question. “Dear Sara,” he started, “the answer lies in interfaith relations.” He continued, looking me right in the eye as if a crowd of over 600 people wasn’t watching us, “When you have religious gatherings or celebrations, invite your friends along. Invite non-Muslims into your home. Then go to their houses to see what their customs are like.” He turned to face the crowd and I heard the snapping of cameras trying to capture the moment. “We must do our best to learn from others and grant dignity to everyone.”

With the rising tension from the election, this concept of  “interfaith relations” is more important than ever. Chances are that most Islamophobes across the country simply haven’t interacted with and extended the hand of friendship, as Khan would put it, to enough Muslims. But Portland faith leaders from various religions have made the bold decision to come together instead of letting their differences drive them apart amidst the growing negativity surrounding Islam. After Trump called for the “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration, more than a dozen religious leaders rallied to reaffirm “Portland’s welcoming nature for all immigrants and refugees” (B. Schmidt). In late November, MET sponsored an event at which many more faith leaders stepped forward to promote unity in a time when our country has become more divided than ever (“Portland Faith Leaders”). Perhaps acting on the concept of “interfaith relations” is why Portland is making such large strides against Islamophobia.

***

The first thing I saw when I walked into Wajdi’s office on a gray November afternoon was a congressional record titled “Opening of Muslim Educational Trust in Beaverton, Oregon” hanging on the wall above his desk. Also on the wall was a picture of Oregon Islamic Academy’s graduating class of 2009 (three students) and multiple intricate tapestries with Arabic lettering, similar to those I could find hung around my own home. On the desk sat a mug that read “Education, Outreach, Recreation: MET,” along with a jumble of thank-you cards, business cards, and various pens and pencils. I took a seat next to the desk and counted down the minutes, hoping that he would show up soon.

After ten minutes, a relaxed Wajdi finally walked in with a slice of pizza in hand. He is a man of average height with thin wire glasses adorning his tan face. With a calm demeanor, he gave me a hug and said, “Sara, salam alaikum, how are you? How are your studies?” He sat down at his cluttered desk and cut into his pizza. “Sorry,” he said between mouthfuls, “I didn’t have a chance to eat lunch today.”

Before getting involved with MET, Wajdi spent his childhood in Yemen dreaming of helping people in the future. “When I was in 5th grade, I would watch news about the Ethiopian famine and think, what if I could become a doctor and invent a pill that they could take to make them not hungry?” Wajdi told me. After immigrating to America on December 24th, 1987—yes, he remembered the exact date—to attend Portland State University’s pre-med program, Wajdi quickly became involved in the small and scattered Muslim community by joining PSU’s Muslim Students Association. “At the time, there were two mosques in town, but both of them were in total isolation. We [the Muslim Students Association] were more focused in terms of building the community,” Wajdi told me.

After seeing that there were little to no resources for Muslim Americans in Portland, he teamed up with two fellow students and “that’s where the story began; the idea and the concept of the Muslim Educational Trust came to a reality. On August 6th, 1993, MET was started. We thought nothing better than to start our own institution that will help in positively integrating the American Muslim community and create an identity as an American Muslim, you know? Identity.” He paused on the last word.

Despite the amount of negativity surrounding Islam, MET has been met with mostly positive reactions from the community. The only negative feedback it has received has been that it is creating isolation and not helping Muslims “become American.” To that, Wajdi responds, “Yani, you know, what makes an American?” That is why having public figures such as Khizr Khan is so important, Wajdi thinks. “Khan was really the catalyst to wake up the Muslim community to realize how much power they have in standing up for themselves when faced with discrimination. It really means a lot to us!” he said enthusiastically, with a big smile spread over his tanned face.

Wajdi sees almost zero instances of hate crime in Portland, and has only experienced Islamophobia once. “My neighbor once made an extremely hateful comment about Muslims to me, but an engaging discussion came out of it. Really, I was lucky to be able to teach him that terrorism and violence have no race, no religion.” Wajdi implores Muslims facing adversity to “rise to the challenge and form positive discussions. Try to turn your challenge into opportunities for better understanding.” That is truly his biggest responsibility at MET, he claims. “We always try to plan activities to form better understanding, like our Building Bridges event, or our interfaith council. We are better off now than when I first started MET, with large numbers coming together to take a stand against bigotry and hate.”

***

Back at the MET event in October, Khizr Khan, a man who had only existed through my TV until now, stood on stage in front of me. A sea of people of different races, ethnicities, and religions were crammed into the large room, hanging onto each of Khan’s words echoing out of the massive speakers attached to the walls. All 600 of us were connected by wanting to support this man who had given a voice to a marginalized group of people. But more than that, we were showing our solidarity with Muslims who are in need of support now more than ever. This event served as proof that Wajdi’s vision was manifesting itself in meaningful ways, and that, just maybe, America might be changing for the better. As Khan put it best, “When you arrive at the American immigration desk, the first words you get to hear are ‘welcome home’.”

 

Works Cited

“2016 Oregon Election Results.” The Oregonian/OregonLive. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Schmidt, Brad. “Portland Censures Donald Trump’s Stance on Muslim Immigration.” The Oregonian/OregonLive 16 Dec. 2015. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

CAIR. “Combating Islamophobia – Islamophobia.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Campuzano, Eder. “Khizr Khan in Oregon: ‘The values of equal dignity in this country need you'” The Oregonian/Oregon Live, 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Dietz, Rob. “Beck Has a Warning for Muslims “who Have Sat on [their] Frickin’ Hands” and Have Not “lin[ed] up to Shoot the Bad Muslims in the Head”” Media Matters for America. N.p., 10 Aug. 2007. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Gallup. “Islamophobia: Understanding Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the West” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Moody, Chris. “Father of Slain Muslim US Soldier to Donald Trump: ‘You Have Sacrificed

Nothing and No One'” CNN. Cable News Network, 28 Jul. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.

Obeidallah, Dean. “Donald Trump’s Horrifying Words about Muslims (Opinion).” CNN, 21 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Pashman, Manya Brachear. “Wheaton College Reverses Efforts to Fire Professor, but She Won’t

Return to Teach.” Chicagotribune.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

“Portland Faith Leaders Promote Community amidst Division.” KGW. N.p., 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

Rendall, Steve, and Isabel Macdonald. “Making Islamophobia Mainstream.” FAIR. N.p., 1 Nov. 2008. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Said, Wajdi. Personal interview. 14 Nov. 2016.

Schmidt, Samantha. “‘I Had a Scary Dream About Donald Trump’: Muslim Parents

Face a Tense Election.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2016. Web. 22 Nov. 2016.

“Welcome to the Muslim Educational Trust – MET.” metpdx.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2016.

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