How Muslims in the nation’s capital feel about the 2016 race
Updated 12:13 PM ET, Tue August 23, 2016
(CNN)The 2016 election has put Muslims at the center of the American political debate.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has spent the past week engaged in an argument with the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed while serving in the Iraq War. The clash began when the parents, Khizr and Ghazala, condemned Trump at the Democratic National Convention for his call for a ban on Muslim foreigners entering the United States. The call was one of several controversial statements on Muslims the GOP candidate has made during the race, which have also including floating the idea of creating a registry for Muslim Americans, monitoring US mosques and questioning the impartiality of Muslim judges.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has called America’s inclusion of people of different faiths and religions a cornerstone of the country’s values and explicitly welcomed Muslim supporters.
Numbering about 3.3 million, American Muslims make up just 1% of the US population, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure is projected to double by 2050, surpassing many other religious minorities, including Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
Though cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles host sizable Muslim communities, the population is spread all across the country.
American Muslims are also quite diverse, with 38% of them white, 28% black, 28% Asian and 4% Latino. They are also a younger demographic group than their Christian or Jewish peers. And a Pew socioeconomic survey in 2007 called American Muslims “middle class and mostly mainstream.”
Politically, however, they are overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2011, Pew found that 70% identify as Democrats with just 11% identifying as Republicans and 19% describing themselves as independent. A very large majority opposes terrorism, with Pew in 2013 finding that 81% feel that suicide bombings and other forms of violence against civilians are never justified.
So how do the comments made during the course of the campaign strike the ears of Muslim voters who will head to the polls in November? How do they perceive US society and their place in the political system? What are their experiences of America?
To answer some of these questions, CNN profiled five American Muslims from different walks of life in and around the nation’s capital. They expressed anxiety, frustration, pain — but also hope.
NAME: Talib Shareef
OCCUPATION: Imam, Masjid Muhammad Mosque in Washington, D.C.
BIRTHPLACE: New York City
When Imam Talib Shareef started his military career 35 years ago in intelligence, there was no chaplain, no mosque, no pause for Friday prayers and no break from rigorous training even during the month of fasting for Ramadan for the Muslims serving in the US military. At the time, it was a challenge for him to balance his religious observance and his professional duties.
He recalled, “We did not have any mosques or musallah (prayer rugs) at the base. Now they are all over America.” He added, “Some of the Muslims changed their identity in the military system because they could not deal with disparaging comments.”
But that’s in the past, as the military began to make accommodations for Muslim service members in the 1990s.
Now, five of his six sons are serving in the military, and he said they feel at ease with the accommodations offered to Muslims.
Shareef, who has retired from the US Air Force, was recently appointed an imam, or chief cleric, of the Masjid Muhammad Mosque, also called The Nation’s Mosque because of its 80-year history at the heart of Washington. The section of street where the mosque is located is ceremonially designated as “Islamic Way.”
In February, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders delivered a speech at the mosque. The imam praised him for his efforts to “speak out against religious bigotry” and bridge the growing gulf between the Muslim community and other Americans.
While in the military, Shareef took part in six military campaigns, including the Gulf War in 1991 and the war in Afghanistan in 2001. He said he saw no conflict between his Muslim identity and his role as a serviceman.
In response to Trump’s statements on establishing a registry of American Muslims, Shareef said his military record speaks volumes about his allegiance to his country.
“I was one of many who put their lives on the line for many years for the country — I was protecting his (Trump’s) life. I don’t see in his history that he took that kind of stand for his country he wants to be commander in chief of,” he said.
In the wake of the San Bernardino, California, terror attack by an American Muslim and increasing fears of radicalization, the imam said the best course to contain this menace is more community engagement by Muslims instead of isolating themselves because of the incitement of a handful of people.
“We engage with the community because we are part of the community. That’s what Muslims can do: see themselves as a part” of it, he said. “We can begin to stop this radicalization.”
NAME: Remaz Abdelgader
OCCUPATION: Recent graduate of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia
During a town hall at George Mason University in Northern Virginia last fall, Sanders hugged an American Muslim student after she asked him a personal and an emotional question: How would he address the issue of racism and discrimination against minorities as president?
Those moments captured the anxiety and pain Remaz Abdelgader has felt in an election year marked by rhetoric about Islam.
To her, Sanders sounded authentic rather than being consoling merely for the sake of a sound bite. “It has been tremendous to just hear that kind of support,” she said.
“I’m a black, I’m a Muslim and I’m a woman. To be those three identities is very dangerous because everyday you are facing new battles,” the George Mason senior said.
In high school, she related, a man called her an “Iraqi bitch” while nearly running her over. Abdelgader, who immigrated from Sudan when she was 6 years old, managed to escape any serious physical injury but long remained scathed by her memories of the event.
After hearing Sanders answer her question, she began to campaign for the Vermont senator, saying he had given her a renewed sense of hope and promise in America. “I don’t really know home other than America,” said Abdelgader, who aspires to be a human rights lawyer.
Her involvement in the campaign provided her a rare chance to interact with people of diverse communities at the campaign’s watch parties. For the first time, she started working closely with Jews and other groups.
The exchange between Sanders — who responded to her question by noting that he is Jewish and his father’s family died in Nazi concentration camps — and Abdelgader went viral with more than 130,000 views. She believes the exchange also underlines symbolic unity of Muslims and Jews and the need to build bridges to eradicate racism. Sanders, she said, “is the epitome of what society needs to be. It does not matter if you are a Christian. It does not matter if you are Jewish, white, black, poor, rich. It’s unity. We need that unity. We have moved from the word ‘race.'”
NAME: Colin Christopher
OCCUPATION: Deputy Director of Government Affairs, Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia
BIRTHPLACE: Madison, Wisconsin
Some of Colin Christopher’s own friends and family members grew uncomfortable when they found out about his conversion to Islam six years ago. And on the street, he at times feels the tension in the atmosphere when he is seen in public with his wife of Bangladeshi origin, whose head covering makes apparent their identity as a Muslim couple.
“When I’m out in public (alone), I’m at the top of the food chain. But when I’m with my wife who wears (a) hijab, it’s a totally different game,” said the 32-year-old Wisconsin native. “Especially if we are in an all-white neighborhood, there is usually a tension in the air.”
Christopher said that the example of the Prophet Mohammad’s love for all people and Islam’s focus on service and charity prompted him to become a Muslim. And his desire to live out his faith in practice led him to become the deputy director of government affairs at the Dar al-Hijrah Mosque in Falls Church, Virginia, in 2015. In that role, he applies Islam’s teachings on justice and equality to work with interfaith partners on gun violence prevention, affordable housing, environmental justice and other policies.
Dar al-Hijrah Mosque has been labeled the “9/11 mosque” by critics because two of the 19 hijackers had stopped by the mosque to attend Friday services just before executing the terror plot in New York. And from 2001-2002, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Muslim who went on to serve as a spokesman for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was an imam at the mosque. The 9/11 Commission explored how much he influenced the two hijackers directly. He was later killed in a US drone strike in Yemen. The mosque has also faced allegations of raising money for Islamic extremists such as Hamas. Christopher responded that the allegations have never been substantiated. “If, in an official capacity, the mosque raised funds for Hamas, this mosque would no longer exist,” he said.
After the ISIS-directed terror attacks in Paris in November, the mosque became a subject of hate crimes. Christopher blames the election-year rhetoric for a toxic atmosphere that encourages the incidents, such as a hoax explosive device at the mosque late last year.
He blamed Trump and like-minded figures for creating “this dangerous atmosphere with their inflammatory and ignorant statements,” which he warned have “repercussions beyond the Muslim community.”
Christopher has also faced frequent security screenings at the airport, adding to his frustration: “I’m often flagged by the Transportation Security Administration because I have traveled to Pakistan a few times for vacation and to visit friends and because I’m sure the government knows I’m a Muslim. It is obnoxious and it really upsets me sometimes. It’s like I’m assumed guilty until proven innocent.”
Asked about the links his mosque has to 9/11 and the accusations leveled at it, he said that two of the hijackers happened to be there, as they may have been traveling, but that they were not part of the community and their presence was mere chance.
On terrorism more broadly, he responded, “Why are Muslims the only group that are required to apologize for and condemn the actions of criminals that associate with their group?”
He added, “You must understand that by asking me whether I condemn terrorism, you are questioning my humanity.”
Still, Christopher hopes for a future when Muslims can pass out literature about their faith without provoking anger from others on the street. “It’s going to take some time before someone handing out material about Islam on this sidewalk is seen in the same way as the believers of other faith traditions,” he said.
NAME: Noor Wazwaz
OCCUPATION: Producer, National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.
“People ask me if I go to sleep with my hijab. Do I shower in it? Are men in my religion controlling? If I’m upset about terrorist attacks that are happening? How do I feel about 9/11?”
These are some of the questions Noor Wazwaz has heard from her fellow Americans, who are curious about her outlook and religion. Very few of them know that the hijab can be a fashion statement alongside a religious obligation, for instance. “I have so many hijabs — I have a closet with my hijabs, so many different colors — you have to match, obviously, all kinds of patterns and colors,” she said.
At 24, Wazwaz is beginning her career as a producer at NPR in DC. One day she aspires to be an on-camera reporter, but it is a dream that she worries might be harder to achieve as a Muslim woman who covers her head.
In her broadcast journalism class at Northwestern University in Chicago, students were given the opportunity to produce a live shot to be aired on one of the local PBS affiliates.
“The producer told my professor he didn’t want me to participate because my hijab was a ‘distraction,’ ” she recalled. “After multiple conversations, he let me do it.”
Like many other American Muslims, Wazwaz was confronted with two different cultures and lifestyles: American at school and Arab Palestinian at home.
“When I was in college, I did go through an identity crisis,” she acknowledged. “I didn’t wear my hijab. I didn’t want to. I wanted to go party and do whatever my friends were doing.”
Now she no longer sees a contradiction between her American and Muslim identities.
“I don’t believe that I have to pick one or the other. That’s what so great about America,” she said. “Being an American does not mean that you have to drink alcohol or you have to eat pork. America is not telling you (what) you have to do to be an American.”
This year, though, the rhetoric and insults about her religion during the presidential campaign has made her feel for the first time that she is less American.
“Does it make me feel like that I don’t belong here? Sometimes yes, because of controversial statements that are coming that say that Muslims don’t belong here,” she said.
Wazwaz loves what she does as a producer and hopes to get across this message to all America through her work: “We are your journalists, we are your police officers, we are your doctors. We have contributed to the society for a very long time.”
NAME: Dr. Tariq Shahab
OCCUPATION: Cardiologist in Falls Church, Virginia
Tariq Shahab came to the United States from Pakistan 26 years ago to study medicine but chose to stay as he felt America offered him more of he wanted: the best medical education, better economic prospects, religious freedom and, above all, a place to call home.
“There is something about America that keeps you, attracts you and adopts you. We should keep that going. We should not change it. This is not the third world. We should stay the first world,” said Shahab, who was visibly upset about the future of his country in the wake of the rhetoric about Muslims during the campaign.
An American Muslim doctor, Shahab has observed the last five presidential elections in the United States but has never been as concerned about the outcome of the race as this time around. “This is the first time that it’s being felt that, yes, if a certain individual is elected then it would be difficult for the minorities to live in the US,” he said.
In Pakistan, Shahab is known as the spouse of famous film actress Reema Khan. But in the United States, his decades of service as a physician is what he’s known for among his patients in the community.
As a cardiologist, Shahab said he has warm and trusting bonds with his patients, who come from all walks of American life, including the US military.
But he sees that, despite his deep integration into the mainstream, there are American-born Muslims who feel isolated.
“We should try to influence the younger generation if we see this kind of mindset,” he said, appealing to his fellow Muslims. “We should have someone at the home spot that and intervene before something happens.”
This story has been updated to provide further information on Colin Christopher and his mosque.