Local Muslims fear Trump climate of hate'

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-08 07:00:07-05

WEST CHESTER, Ohio -- Muslim-Americans across the country have watched with apprehension and horror as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has engaged in openly anti-Muslim rhetoric during his campaign speeches.

Trump has said he would consider requiring Muslim-Americans to register with a government database or carry special identification cards. He has also said he would be open to shutting down mosques in response to terrorist activity.

Now a West Chester-based Muslim organization, Rahma Community Services, is adding its voice to the chorus of growing concern about Trump’s divisive rhetoric and the ripple effects it is creating globally and locally.

On a recent afternoon, talked to Shakila T. Ahmad, president of the board of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati (ICGC), the umbrella organization under which Rahma operates, Afreen Asif, Rahma’s chair, and Samira Jaweed, Rahma’s project and program manager.

The three women talked candidly about Trump, about being Muslim and American, about wearing the hijab headscarf, about Islam as a religion of peace and the backlash against Muslims following terrorist attacks around the world.

“Donald Trump is tapping into the worst in people,” said Ahmad, who has been in her current position since December 2013. “He’s tapping into their hate, into their ignorance and into their fear.

“Our hope is that whoever is going to be the next president will work to uplift the entire nation and the entire American community, because we need it, and we need it more than any other time.”

Ahmad’s sentiments echo those of Muslim imams, advocates and public officials across the country who have repeatedly cited the dangers of increasing Islamophobia.

On Feb. 3, President Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore, the first time he had visited a U.S. mosque as president. At the mosque, Obama read from the Quran, celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in U.S. life, and said American Muslims were vital to the nation’s future.

The women said ICGC welcomes any initiatives that showcase the message that Islam is a religion of peace.

Now in its third year, Rahma, a volunteer-based organization, offers support to Muslim families in the areas of employment, health care, food and referrals to local resources. The 2016 operating budget for ICGC is $1 million, and for Rahma about $70,000.

But the women said that some of their most important missions are educating and sharing their faith with other religious leaders in the community through interfaith seminars and workshops, and in counseling Muslims who may have experienced discrimination in the workplace.

The Islamic Network Group, a nonprofit that works to educate the public on Islam, says that nationwide there are about 6 million Muslim-Americans. Rahma estimates about 35,000 in the Cincinnati area.

“A lot of clients talk about the various nuances that are byproducts of Trump’s hate speeches,” said Jaweed, who worked as a banker at JPMorgan Chase for 13 years before she accepted this job a year ago.

“Women wearing hijabs get stared at,” she said, “and there are incidents of road rage and abrupt terminations of interviews when they realize that the applicant is wearing a hijab.”

She cited the media as a “concerning factor, because they add to the noise.”

All three women talked about the rise of hurtful, abusive incidents directed at Muslim children and women everywhere.

They noted one recent case, which was covered in the media, of a hijab-wearing University of Cincinnati student who was almost run over apparently in reaction to the San Bernardino attack perpetrated by a Muslim couple in which 14 people died.

But they say most victims do not wish to go public with their experiences.

Since the November Paris attacks, they said, 19 mosques nationwide have been either firebombed or vandalized.

Afreen Asif, chair of Rahma, Samira Jaweed, Rahma’s project and program manager, and Shakila T. Ahmad, president of the board of the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.

Asif noted that at her workplace, she often gets comments directed at her following terrorist attacks.

“People might politely ask us, ‘Can you make sure it doesn’t happen again?’ ” she said. “I try to explain. I talk about gun violence in communities across America and say that at the end of the ay, it’s the individual’s choice, not the community’s. It’s not the faith’s fault.”

Just like all Islamic centers and associations, ICGC springs into action every time an attack is carried out by terrorists in the name of Islam.

“We have no reservation about issuing press releases and statements to be very unequivocally against terrorism and for the sanctity of human life. That is our responsibility as Muslims,” Ahmad said.

“Islam’s core values and America’s core principles are a perfect match. We have far more in common with this country than with any other,” she said.

The women displayed an underlying current of both sadness and irritation as they talked of the need to constantly clarify that the religion of Islam has nothing to do with these events.

Both suicide and killings by terrorists are forbidden in Islam, they said.

“We stood up for Paris and condemned it with one voice,” said Asif, who has been in her current position for three years now. “We need to stand up against the terrorists who kill people in all countries irrespective of their religion.”

The women touched briefly on their own lives and affirmed that they speak simultaneously both as Muslims and Americans.

Ahmad does not wear a hijab, but both Asif and Jaweed have made a choice to wear it, even though they both are from non-hijab-wearing families.

Muslims, the women said, are just like all immigrants, and they want to live the American dream of success with the same rights to equality, liberty and happiness.

“It’s not American to discard someone as a result of their religion, their race or their ethnic background. We forget we are all a nation of immigrants,” Jaweed said.

The Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati, located in West Chester, is the largest mosque in the region.

Rahma is the newest addition to the 18-acre Islamic Center, which includes a mosque, an education center, a private school for Pre-K to Grade 8, a community center and a multi-purpose gymnasium. On Sundays, 450 students fill 22 classrooms for Quran classes.

‘The whole concept of the center is that we have a place of worship, a place of learning, a place of community for gathering families, having basketball, having crafts and having Quran classes, so that we connect at an individual level, a family level and a communal level,” Ahmad said.

Jaweed welcomed the community to come and visit ICGC.

“Come talk to us, ask us questions and come and see the beauty of the Quran,” she said.

Asif added that a united world against terrorism is the best solution.

The women agreed there is serious cause for concern if Trump should become president, and said he has already done a lot of damage to Muslim-Americans in this country.

“Our real concern is the climate of hate that he has already created,” Ahmad said.