Sometimes Bayan Karassi hesitates for a moment before she tells a new face she’s Syrian. She’s proud of her heritage — but as a covered Muslim woman living in the South, she doesn’t know who she can trust anymore. The thought never strays far from her mind.
“If they voted for [Donald] Trump, how can they look me in the eye and tell me I matter to them?” she wondered.
In a way, among many voters, the term “Syrian refugees” has become a dog whistle (coded political language) for “ISIS,” due largely in part to the rhetoric espoused on the campaign trail by the newly elected 45th president of the United States and his most ardent supporters.
During the 18 months leading up to election day, Karassi, along with millions of Muslim Americans, experienced a long, creeping march toward the validation of their anxieties. Will President Trump try and implement a national database for Muslims? Could he? Or was it just a campaign promise designed to mobilize his voter base? Will family members living overseas still be allowed to come visit?
Those uneasy feelings will not likely subside for Muslims living in Trump’s America anytime soon, Karassi said.
On election night, she went to a friend’s house to track the results. “We just kept refreshing the page. It was frightening to see things changing. He was winning more states and [the] map just got redder and redder,” Karassi said. To her, America that night looked as though it was bleeding and badly wounded. “It was anxiety and sadness and uncertainty of what was going to happen,” she said. “I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to wake up in the morning and Trump be president.”
Karassi did wake up to the reality of having a newly elected president so vocally opposed to her religion and community, and went to her job at an Alabaster hospital. “Then there was an incident in the elevator that kind of made me take a step back and wonder if this was how things were going to be like now,” Karassi recalled. “An older couple was in the elevator with me and when they were getting off, the man looks at the woman and says, ‘Well, at least now we can take our country back.’ He kind of shot me a glance as he said it. He was definitely directing that toward me because the comment came out of nowhere.”
But not everyone feels such fear. For nearly half of the 121.4 million Americans who voted, the early morning results on November 9, marked a welcome revolutionary moment. Trump’s victory can, in part, be attributed to white, working-class voters who turned out in record numbers to support the candidate they believed would bring back the jobs that had left them behind.
Lance Adams, who is his final year at the Cumberland School of Law, said he supported Trump since he announced he would run for president last year. “I’d say 95 percent of it was that he was anti-establishment,” Adams said over the phone. “I think [his victory] is huge. I think we’ve been on the decline for about 30 years and we’re at the point now where people who might not have voted for Trump have seen their towns and cities decimated economically. And they’re saying ‘When I grew up 50 years ago, it was different. It was better. There were jobs and now my kids can’t get one.’”
As Americans on both sides of the political spectrum try and grapple with what a Trump presidency will actually be like, at least two big questions remain: Will Trump be able to unite his core supporters with members of the diverse minority groups he denigrated throughout his campaign? And how will his hardline stance towards Islam impact the religious freedoms of Muslim-Americans?
“They cried through the night”
A security door and several cameras guard the entrance to the Birmingham Islamic Center. It’s a new precautionary measure added last year after an uptick in terrorist attacks stoked the flames of resentment toward American Muslims. Several members of the community told Ashfaq Taufique, president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, that they no longer felt safe and would not come to pray unless security measures were put in place. He obliged.
There is also a strong police presence on the center’s campus when large crowds are gathered for prayer or another event. It’s a new normal.
Leaning back in a chair in the conference room adjacent to the prayer hall, Taufique tried to find the words to describe how he felt the morning after Trump’s election. He used words like “shocked” and “concerned.” But what stuck out for him was the reaction of the women in his life, like his nieces.
“They cried through the night,” he said, as he sat up and clasped his hands together on the table and his tone got serious. “It’s especially hard for women who wear Islamic attire. We’ve all — the Muslim community as a whole — taken this news in a very sad way.”
Taufique immigrated to America in 1975 from Pakistan and worked as a mechanical engineer for 20 years. Weld first spoke to Taufique last year after the San Bernardino shooting that killed 14. Since then, he has witnessed the nation’s mood shift considerably toward one of “Islamophobia” as a result of the presidential campaign — though he was quick to add his that his masjid (another word for mosque; the literal translation means to lay prostrate with your forehead on the ground in worship, according to Taufique) has received an outpouring of support from the community in recent days. Still, since election day, covered Muslim women across the country have been the target of hate, he explained.
Just hours after the election, NBC News reported several instances in which Muslim women were accosted for wearing hijabs at college campuses in California.
Last December, Mannal Mekdad, a former Weld employee who now lives in San Antonio, had an incident at the Riverchase Galleria shopping mall in which an elderly man spit at her feet as she walked to her car. After she got in her car, the man stood in her way preventing her from leaving for a few moments. Incidents like this are common for covered women, Mekdad said, and many go unreported, as hers did.
Speaking on Friday from San Antonio, Mekdad said she’s been surprised at the level of anger she has witnessed being directed toward the Muslim community, both subtly and overtly, in the days after the election. It would seem as though the bigoted underbelly of America had once again found its footing and latched on to a leader who wasn’t like the others, Mekdad said.
“I was going to go out and run some errands the day after the election and my husband was like ‘I don’t know if you should go out. Maybe just wait and see what happens,’” Mekdad said. For her, and other covered Muslim women, something as routine as going to the store carries with it prolonged stares and uneasy feelings.
“Even if a woman isn’t wearing a hijab, they’re still being harassed because we — as a country I mean — elected a man who says it’s okay to talk to women like that,” Mekdad said. “I know a lot of people who are nervous, and they’ve considered not wearing a hijab anymore. But for me, I don’t think that’s the answer. Now more than ever, people need to stick to their values and stay strong in the things they believe in.”
“Does he not feel safe around me?”
As the late-night results trickled in on November 8, it became evident that there is a disconnect between rural and metropolitan counties. This isn’t anything new. However, this election seemed to highlight that fact in a way not previously seen.
For Muslims living in the metropolitan South, cities offer more freedom of mobility as opposed to the vast, rural counties that make up a majority of the country where many — especially covered women — don’t always feel welcomed.
As Karassi sat down with her iced latte, two days after the election, several of her friends walked into the coffee shop where she was sitting. “You going to put that on your Snapchat story like you always do?” one of them asked. They exchanged pleasantries for several minutes, and the women went on their way. They’re friends of hers from school. Karassi is entering her junior year as a major in health care management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Karassi knows that UAB, which was ranked as the third most diverse college in America by the Princeton Review, is not like the rest of the South, and she rarely ventures far from campus alone. That sad reality, she said, is something most Americans don’t like to consider too often.
Karassi was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Syrian immigrants. When she was in fifth grade she moved back to Aleppo with her family. She spent her formative years in the city that has now been reduced to rubble. In 2010, she was spending the summer in Alabama with her family just as the uprising began. Her aunt called her parents and told them it was no longer safe. Karassi has not been back since. Much of her family is still there, though they’ve been scattered across the country and into neighboring regions.
“My dad wants to bring his 89-year-old mother here. She’s been living in Turkey for several years now,” Karassi said. “He wants to bring her so he can care for her and there is absolutely no way because the government won’t allow it. It’s already so hard to do anything with a visa if you’re Syrian, even travel visas. To cut off Syria completely, you’re putting a huge population of people just out on the streets in a warzone with no way out.”
This past presidential election presented challenges for Muslim Americans, with an unprecedented amount of airtime and media coverage being given to people Karassi considers xenophobic and not representative of the values she holds true. Trump is number one on that list.
“The whole time I’m just thinking, this has got to be a joke. How has nobody stopped this guy yet?” Karassi said. “The more people showed him support, the more crazy he’d become.”
She recalled an incident the day after the election. One of her friends, someone she had known for a while, posted on Facebook, “As an American I’ve never felt safer.”
Karassi didn’t know if they should still be friends. “Does he not feel safe around me?” she wondered. “I knew he was a Trump supporter from the beginning but I didn’t realize to what degree, I guess. I just thought he was someone who didn’t like Hillary, which is the case for a lot of people I know.”
Both Karassi and Mekdad said they did not feel represented by either of the major party candidates in this past election, a sentiment shared by more than those in the Muslim community.
“Yeah, Hillary Clinton kept saying she was accepting of Muslims but she kept saying it in a way like it’s all Muslims’ responsibility to make sure we tell people if there is suspicious activity,” Mekdad said. “It’s like she just wanted us to spy on each other. Even though she wasn’t all about the xenophobia it’s kind of the same thing to me. Like all we’re good for is to make sure that nothing is about to go down. She didn’t speak to us.”
For Taufique, the world has changed. Advances in technology and globalization mean many of the jobs that have gone away won’t ever come back. “Our working class, which voted for Trump, our government, we all need to recognize that the status quo is not going to be there anymore,” Taufique said. “Most the people who voted for him didn’t think he’d actually follow through with the things he was saying. I hope and pray that his promise to get people employed and earning decent wages for their families is something he does follow through with.”
“Blunder after blunder after blunder”
The banner on Lance Adams’ Facebook page is a picture of Trump (who is giving a thumbs-up) and Vice President-elect Mike Pence standing in front of an American flag. Adams’ support for Trump hardened when he didn’t back down from his criticism of Senator John McCain.
“That struck me as someone who was being really serious,” said Adams, who supported Ron Paul through the 2008 and 2012 primaries. He’s always been drawn to anti-establishment candidates, he said.
While many decried Trump’s comments about McCain’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump said — Adams believes McCain has used his status as a veteran to further his political career, in such a way that does not sit well with him. “If it had been anybody else it would have bothered me. But John McCain has been known to use that as a tool to get ahead in life. There’s a lot of speculation about him out there and he just likes to use it to his advantage. More power to him but I’ve never liked him and I never supported him,” Adams explained.
“When Trump didn’t back down from criticizing such a big, establishment Republican like McCain, I knew he was my guy,” Adams said. He liked the fact that Trump was not going to be “run over.”
Unlike Trump, every other politician, facing criticism of their words, would generally apologize, Adams said, though he did agree with Trump when he apologized for “about four things.” One of those was the Access Hollywood recording in which Trump spoke about women in a sexually predatory manner.
Adams said that growing up in Alabaster to a middle-class family made Trump’s campaign promises believable. For example, Adams believes Trump will be able to follow through on his promise to build a wall at the Mexican border and temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States. Despite that, Adams believes Trump can be a president for all Americans.
“I think he’s perfectly qualified,” Adams said. “I think a lot of people who have grown up and made a career out of being politicians, to them, of course they’re going to say he’s not qualified because they’ve been working toward what they see as the proper qualifications.”
None of that experience impresses Adams. “All we’ve seen for the last 30 years is people who could not have been more qualified on paper make blunder after blunder after blunder,” Adams said. He believes Hillary Clinton would not properly handle the situation in Syria, which could lead to more death and destruction.
While he is sympathetic to the concerns expressed in the Muslim community about Trump, Adams doubts that they have much to worry about. “I’ve also seen some stories about Muslims who did vote for Trump — of course it wasn’t the majority of them,” Adams said. “But their thinking was, ‘We’ve seen what radical Islam has done where they came from and they don’t want to see it here.’
“It just makes me wonder: Are the people who are scared of Trump — and I don’t know why they would be, because he hasn’t said anything about sending people back or anything like that, especially if they’re citizens who can vote — do they even have a reason to be?”
Having Trump as president could mean less intervention in the Middle East and “in the long run cause terrorists to calm down,” Adams said. “It’s going to make it easier for Muslims living here because there won’t be anything left to be scared of.”
Adams is confident that, even after a particularly vicious campaign, Trump can heal America’s political wounds. He is less sure that those on the political left will be able to fall in line. “It will be just like the [George W.] Bush years. Except this time I think we’ll have a president who will fight back against accusations that aren’t true, which you never saw with Bush.” Adams didn’t specify what instances he was referring to exactly. But for him, one thing is certain: Trump will be a champion for the working man.
A white working class in crisis
America’s identity is changing. As of 2016, minority children became the majority in America’s public schools according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
A New York Times article from Nov. 9, “Why Trump Won: Working-Class Whites,” pointed to the inaccuracy of post-2012 election analysis that underestimated the number of white working-class voters over the age of 45 by about 10 million.
“The rural countryside of the North swung overwhelmingly to Mr. Trump. Most obvious was Iowa, where Mr. Obama won easily in 2012 but where Mr. Trump prevailed easily,” the article reads. “These gains extended east, across Wisconsin and Michigan to New England. Mr. Trump won Maine’s Second Congressional District by 12 points; Mr. Obama had won it by eight points. These gains went far beyond what many believed was possible. But Mr. Obama was strong among white working-class Northerners, and that meant there was a lot of room for a Democrat to fall.”
Despite the unforeseen wave of support that helped carry Trump into the White House, Dr. Harris Beider, a visiting professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, sees a white working class in crisis and “a last gasp” for the way things were but will never be again.
Beider is currently working on an ambitious project, interviewing hundreds of white working-class Americans over the course of the next year in an effort to better understand what drives them; what their fears are; what are their ambitions; where they fit into America’s changing identity. The project, titled, “The Other Reality: white working class views on belonging, changing identity and immigration,” recently brought Beider to Birmingham for field work.
Speaking before the election, Beider offered his opinion on why he thought Trump was staying afloat despite controversies that would have sunk any other politician with presidential ambitions. “The narrative is that he’s getting support from lower-middle income whites, particularly men, north and south and east and west,” Beider said. “I’ve spoken to folks in Brooklyn, lots of police and firefighters, traditional blue collar Irish and Italian neighborhoods, and they said in focus groups that ‘He tells it like he is’ and he’s anti-establishment – although he is part of the establishment.”
“He’s speaking in a way that [many people] find refreshing and they also speak about being a stranger in their own neighborhood. They go into a shop and can’t understand the language being spoken,” Beider continued. “They talk about the lack of representation. They also hate Hillary. There are a combination of factors. The country is going to be a majority-minority by 2046. It’s changing rapidly. Young people have a very different approach to race and diversity. I think this election has been set up as the last gasp of white people who want the old America before it transitions into the new America. They’re worried and concerned about it.”
Similar reasoning can easily be found elsewhere. In an article titled “The Original Underclass,” The Atlantic explores the “barely suppressed contempt [that] has characterized much of the commentary about white woe, on both the left and the right.” As an example, the article quoted Kevin Williamson, “a conservative provocateur,” who heaps scorn on white working-class Americans who seem to have a history of voting against their interests.
“Nothing happened to them,” Williamson wrote, referring to the despair exhibited by many working-class voters. “There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.”
Dr. Vince Gawronski, political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College, said that while there is now a definitive divide between rural and metropolitan counties, both in terms of political and economic standings, a big part of the apparent decline in working-class America is the lack of training for the new economy.
“They want to hear why they’re not succeeding as much. It’s not necessarily an absolute decline,” Gawronski said. “But in some cases it is, particularly in rural areas. There hasn’t been any retraining. At the same time it’s hard to train a 60-year-old guy who’s been putting a bolt on a thingamabob in a factory for 30 years.”
Gawronski believes that economic anxiety has lead to working-class whites placing the blame on minority groups and the country’s changing identity as a reason for their struggles. “It’s economic anxiety, while at the same time the minorities are becoming the majority,” Gawronski said. “Whites, on planet earth, are the minority. Places that seem to be the most what you would call ‘racist’ are the places that don’t have any contact with the other, with minorities. Social proximity is a huge part of it. And I think that is on full display now.”
As for why Trump unexpectedly rose to power, Gawronski said the Republican Party didn’t take him seriously enough and drastically underestimated his support. “He wasn’t properly vetted. They didn’t go back and really dig into him. He knows nothing about how the world works. He’s lived in a bubble his entire life. Forget the tax returns. I’d like to see his grades,” Gawronski said. “He’s never had any pets. What kind of person has never had a pet? How sad.”
Trump’s core supporters have always been here, Gawronski said, but this election has put them front and center. “What it’s done is, it’s made them come out from under the rocks,” he said. “It’s made it okay for them to say some of this stuff out loud. It’s really negatively affected civil discourse. People will now say things that they would only say in private. The fringe is now considered normal. Trump has given the fringe their safe place.”
“Is my hijab not enough ID for you?”
“We used to go to Syria and my whole family would be there. All of them. Just right down the road,” Karassi said. She speaks softly of her family still in the war zone but she is optimistic about the future, despite the horrific images spilling out of the city she once called home. Visiting Aleppo, especially with Trump as president, is out of the question, she said.
“How did he even get this far?” Karassi asked. “He ran on fear and hate and all of the worst parts of us. Anyone who knows a Muslim knows that’s not how we are. And to tell people he can stop terrorism is just impossible… He ran on pure ego and he won. He wanted to be president for himself and people bought into it completely.”
She’s surprised by Trump supporters she knows. “If I didn’t know people who supported him, I’d say, ‘Well yeah, they just don’t know better because they’ve never met someone like me,’” Karassi said. “But a lot of people I know voted for him and they know Muslims. They think it won’t happen but he’s already talked about having ID cards for Muslims. That’s just the beginning. I’m sorry, but is my hijab not enough ID for you?”
Religion aside, Mekdad said that Trump’s election was a sad day for women across the world because of the message it sent. “Just the way he speaks about women, it really surprised me that he had so much support from them,” Mekdad said. “I can’t believe that he can say these things and 42 percent of women still voted for him. Do they not have any self-respect? It’s disgusting.”
While both Karassi and Mekdad had a guarded sense of optimism about the days ahead, Taufique couched his view of the future in a historical context. “Americans have come out victorious from events worse than this,” Taufique said. “I believe in the power of the American people to put aside our petty differences and come to a resolution among all of us that we are going to work for a brighter and great America. We are going to hope and pray, but we are also going to work toward that.”