This article was original posted by the Detroit Free Press on January 10, 2016.
Since the tragic attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, American Muslims have become objects of suspicion as never before. Unsurprisingly, the situation has been exploited for political gain by some of the candidates for president. But unlike the standard political fear mongering, devoid of policy substance in past election cycles, at least one of the candidates—Donald Trump—has rather remarkably driven a national dialogue on a set of troubling policies, ranging from surveillance of mosques in the United States, to a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” to suspending the resettlement of all Syrian refugees (regardless of age or need).
In this toxic political environment, some Americans have taken matters into their own hands, as evidenced by a sharp rise in hate crimes directed against Muslims, including even those who “look Muslim.”
Conversely, the Democratic candidates for president have expressed solidarity with American Muslims. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have visited mosques, and Hillary Clinton has been a leading voice on the dangers of demonizing an entire religion that represents 1.6 billion people. Yet, aside from expressions of solidarity and indignation at Trump’s proposals, none of the candidates have explained what solidarity might mean in practice. Here are some ideas:
Stand with Muslim parents on issues they care about: Given the current political environment, Muslim parents worry a lot about their kids being bullied. Muslims with ties to conflict countries are also frustrated that banks won’t let them easily send money home to loved ones, even though the federal government has said it’s fine. If candidates stand with Muslims on issues they care about, even rhetorically, Muslims will stand with them on Election Day.
End law enforcement’s outreach to Muslim communities: The FBI and local law enforcement routinely hold meetings with Muslim community members. The hope is that members of the community will be more willing to inform the government of potential terrorist activities as a consequence. However the reality is that it just breeds mistrust, making it less likely Muslims will approach the authorities when there is a problem of any kind, regardless of its nature. Muslims rightly point out that the U.S. government conducts no such outreach to far-right wing white Americans even though there have been more domestic deaths as the result of terrorism by far-right wing individuals than Muslims since 9/11 (48 deaths versus 45 deaths, respectively). What’s more, very few tips come from Muslims who attend these meetings because the majority of individuals who get involved in terrorism aren’t very active in their communities, which begs the question—why does this kind of community outreach take place at all?
Talk about issues that matter to Muslims in all their variety: There are approximately 3.3 million American Muslims who represent a diverse set of communities across the country. On any given day in Michigan, candidates speaking to Muslims might find themselves fielding questions from an audience that couldn’t care less about Lebanon but really cares about Pakistan (and vice versa). But above all, American Muslims care first and foremost about local issues that affect their everyday lives and families—the need for better schools, better public infrastructure, an environment conducive to growing small businesses, affordable higher education, the ability of their children to find work after they finish school (without staggering debt!), and so on. And the fact remains that Muslims contribute in ways and fields that have nothing to do with Islam. Recognizing the heterogeneity of American Muslims, and amplifying their contributions, would go a long way toward building bridges—and solidarity—between Muslims and non-Muslims and dampening anti-Muslim sentiments.
If the Democratic candidates want to contrast their positions with those of Trump, let them not only decry his divisive sentiments and policies. Let them also put forward their own policies that will unite rather than divide.