“Our role to make our country great will never be easy, but the American way is to get back up and fight for what this country should and must stand for. I am not alone. We are not alone. Sending peace and love to my fellow Americans. We’ve got work to do.”
This year, for the first time since I have been able to vote, I watched the elections unfold while traveling outside of the country. On election night, I stopped by a coffee shop in London. While asking the barista if it was possible for him to recreate a drink that I discovered was only made in America, he noticed my accent. My American accent had become an invitation to ask me about our country. He asked if I was from the States and wanted to know what part. “California,” I answered with pride. I had learned while traveling that my state had a good reputation abroad, which at times made me homesick. But, that night, it didn’t bring me comfort. I knew where his questions were headed.
A large smirk appeared on his face as he leaned forward and asked, “So, did you vote for Trump?” He leaned back and laughed, shaking his head as if he, too, understood how ridiculous a question that was for me. I had become accustomed to being asked about the elections back home, but this was the first time I was directly asked not how strongly I stood against Trump, but if I had actually voted for him. Before election night, unless I was engaged in a serious conversation, my go-to responses were always something along the lines of sarcasm, “We do not speak of he-who-must-not-be-named” or simply, “America is just going through some hard times right now. We have a history of doing that.” Up until election night, I still believed my country would choose to stand on the right side of history and progress forward.
That night, knowing what could be the fate of our country, I didn’t have any sarcasm to offer. I looked back at the barista, well aware that we both came from a shared community of people of color, and knew that while he might have been joking, I couldn’t. I answered with silence. I held a straight face as I stared back at him. He responded with shaky laughter and then matched my silence. His voice softened as he asked about my country’s future. Before I could respond, he asked, “Are you going to return to the States?” And, quick laughter, “Can you?”
Many friends I had met while traveling abroad questioned whether there was a chance I would be barred from returning home despite the fact that there’s a period between the elections and inauguration. A friend back in the U.S. had even joked that I had timed my travels perfectly “in case things went south.” My friend’s mom, whom I was staying with in London, sarcastically detailed a plan of how she would adopt me and bring my family over if I wasn’t allowed back. Underneath all that sarcasm and joking, there was real fear. In all situations, being asked whether I would be allowed to return home was vastly different than being asked whether I would choose to return home. One detail I knew for certain, and I didn’t hesitate with my answer.
“Yes,” I told the barista. “I’ll be returning home. It’s my country. I was born and raised there.”
Even outside the U.S., I was still defending the fact that being Muslim and American was one intertwined identity for me.
Later, my friend and I fell asleep for a few hours while electoral votes were beginning to be counted back in the States; it was past midnight in Europe. I woke up only a few minutes before the result was announced. “He won.” My friend’s monotone voice jolted me awake. “What.” It wasn’t a question to her response. It was just my brain processing the new reality. “He won.” Her face, emotionless, mirrored mine. “No.” It was all I could say back before grabbing my laptop. “They haven’t officially announced it yet, but he won.” She repeated and walked out of the room. In that moment, I didn’t need to see the rush of news stations reporting the win online. My friend’s mother had the BBC news channel turned up in the living room. In true American fashion, this election was going to affect the entire world. Suddenly, the small apartment was filled with silence.
As a Muslim American, I take pride in the privilege to demand our rights and freedoms, and elect the powers that will rule over us. And also, I am angry. But not because Hillary Clinton lost. While Clinton winning might have made us feel safer, the reality is that, even if she’d won, my fellow Americans voted for Trump, standing by his hatred and supporting him. The fact is that I’m surrounded by Americans who didn’t see the privilege that allowed them to turn a blind eye to the larger part of the country that would be severely affected by Trump’s rhetoric and followers. I watched friends on social media complain whenever politics were brought up. They couldn’t be bothered with real incidents that were affecting their fellow neighbors across the country. They were happily living in a bubble where their privilege made them feel safe and untouched.
For those communities that have been forced to face Trump’s rhetoric through attacks of all kinds, we don’t have the luxury of apathy, nor did we have time to mourn for our democracy. My family and friends, although more cautious today, got up after the election and went about their day. As a Muslim American, I faced Islamophobia personally even before 9/11, even before I chose to begin wearing the hijab. My brother has been verbally attacked for being Muslim. Once, while driving home from a long day at work, my brother noticed an elderly woman in the car next to him giving him an obscene gesture. In the car with her were an elderly man and young children. My brother, confused at what could have caused her anger, pulled down his window and was greeted by the elderly woman once again with her middle finger raised, shouting, “Go back to your f**king country, terrorist!” before driving off with everyone inside laughing. I remember him expressing to my family that he was less concerned about the elderly couple than about the example of hate and ignorance they were setting for the young ones in the car. At that moment, he also sympathized with my mother and I who — by also choosing to wear the hijab — have faced too many similar experiences.
My own mother has experienced both verbal and life-threatening attacks due to her visible Muslim appearance, beginning when she immigrated to this country back in the ’90s. In 1992, my mother was verbally attacked for being a “foreigner” while standing in line at a grocery store with my brother and me, who were both toddlers at the time. Her shock was not just at the white man yelling in her face, but also at the black female cashier who defended the man who stood in front of her. Being raised outside the States, she had an understanding that the United States was a place where people of all backgrounds existed together. She didn’t expect to be attacked for an identity she knew she had the freedom to have in a democratic country. My mom escaped the store to the parking lot and was greeted by the man, already sitting in his car, waiting for her to come out. He sped toward her, attempting to run her over and nearly missing all three of us. To this day, my mother is shaken by that incident, but she claims it made her ready for what was to come and undeterred from holding on to her identity of being a proud Muslim American.
Less than a week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported more than 400 incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment. I had an ache in my heart, and a feeling of guilt being far away from family, as I watched news stories pour in from California to New York about people of color being attacked. I found myself constantly checking in with my family back in the United States. Safety felt like a privilege, and it suddenly felt nonexistent. Trump’s rhetoric is not something new to our community, but his election has given more fuel for hate from his supporters.
However, our communities that have been attacked by Trump and his supporters are stronger and will not allow hate to win over love. We are already witnessing numerous acts of kindness, of solidarity, with our communities across the nation. In my hometown, the Islamic Center of San Diego has received letters of love and solidarity, even baskets of food and home-baked goods, from other communities. Members of other communities have held signs of support outside the center on Fridays, the day Muslims believe is blessed and congregate for prayer. These acts of humanity have been witnessed at Islamic centers across the nation. Community members have greeted Muslims at conferences with signs expressing their solidarity. On a personal level, my friends have reached out to me to make certain I know they would always stand by my side as a fellow American and sibling in humanity. A friend of mine, despite living in Los Angeles, checked in with me a few times while I was traveling to ask if my family in San Diego needed anything and to make sure they were safe. Friends who have never been involved in politics and don’t feel comfortable with such subjects being discussed are speaking out and taking action by contacting their representatives and educating others. We are stronger as one. For those who don’t see Trump as an issue, it’s another opening for me to continue to educate them and others in our country. It is ignorance that fuels fear and that fuels hate. We should not have space for any of this.
There’s talk of leaving the country. Jokes and serious conversations. For me, that’s not an option. I’m unapologetically Muslim American and proud. I’m not going anywhere. My family is Muslim-American. We’re not going anywhere. My Muslim-American community isn’t going anywhere. We are part of the fabric of this country, in all parts of life. That’s not going to change. We will continue to rise up in our country, along with all of our allies — those with good conscience fighting for humanity — and continue to contribute to strengthening our country. You will continue to see us everywhere. We will continue to fight for justice, peace and love. That is what makes our country great. Standing as one to fight any evil within us and around us. This bond of humanity cannot be broken.
Weeks after the election, as my plane flew over my home state of California, I was charged with energy. I had been warned about what I would be coming back to — a reality that still felt like a nightmare back in London. The moment my plane landed, I smiled. I knew the reality that was waiting for me, a country still charged by the outcome of an election that not only shook the United States, but the entire world. I also knew that I was home. I was stepping back onto familiar soil and no one was going to stop me from returning home. I was ready to continue to practice my rights as an American and fight for what I believe in. I have nothing but hope and faith. Allah (God) says in the Quran, “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm in justice, witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives” (4:135).
Our role to make our country great will never be easy, but the American way is to get back up and fight for what this country should and must stand for. I am not alone. We are not alone.
Sending peace and love to my fellow Americans. We’ve got work to do.
Haneen Oriqat is a writer and photographer. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University in Los Angeles and is an alumna of the University of California, San Diego. She writes about issues of gender, religion and identity. Her work has appeared in The Manifest-Station and Everyday Feminism. She spends most of her time with coffee in one hand and a good book in the other. You can find Haneen’s work at haneenoriqat.com.
Photo of Lady Liberty by Haneen Oriqat.