The Year I Stopped Breathing: On Being Muslim and American in the Age of Trump

The Year I Stopped Breathing: On Being Muslim and American in the Age of Trump

The Year I Stopped Breathing: On Being Muslim and American in the Age of Trump

Trump didn’t invent Islamophobia, but he has injected it with a new and lethal force.


It took a moment for the news to sink in, to fully grasp what had happened on that fateful Tuesday morning. But once I did, I felt like I was drowning.

How could I not? The magnitude of the event was as overwhelming as a massive ocean wave, and after the initial blow, I knew immediately that we—Muslim Americans—now had to prepare to be swept away by it. We, like the rest of the United States, had been caught completely off guard, and so many people across the country suddenly seemed afraid for the future. But we Muslim Americans knew enough to assume the worst. Our fears were not abstract.

Almost instantly, mosques were vandalized. Muslim parents agonized over their children’s safety at school. Violent assaults increased not only in number but also in ferocity. As all of this was occurring, we were working hard to look out for one another, while also trying not to lose sight of what this catastrophe meant for the nation as a whole.

One thing that helped was the genuine concern we heard from our non-Muslim friends, neighbors, and even strangers. “I am the daughter of a Japanese-American who was interned during W.W.II,” read one e-mail I received from an electronic mailing list I’m on. “I have heard that Muslims are fearful to leave their homes etc., and with good reason. Is there a way that I can help? I live in Brooklyn. I have a car. I would be happy to accompany Muslim women to stores and public places, run errands, help with a media campaign. I don’t know what to do, but I am willing to help.”

Life became instantly more difficult for us after that Tuesday, but this offer of help just two days later—and a thousand more like it—were each a small burst of fresh air, helping us to get some oxygen into our lungs so that we wouldn’t drown.

The e-mail from this woman landed in my inbox on Thursday, September 13, 2001.

Sixteen years ago, I had a sudden tight sensation in my chest while absorbing all the horrific news of the day. Now the feeling is back. At no other point since the months following the September 11 attacks have I felt as worried about my life as a Muslim in this country as I have since the rise of Donald Trump, from the beginnings of his campaign for president in 2015 all the way through his first year in office. That’s a long stretch to feel like it’s hard to breathe, but since Trump is known to have shifted money from his charitable foundation into his own pockets, why wouldn’t he steal my oxygen, too?

A lot of Trump’s politics runs on his own anti-Muslim guano. In 2015 alone, he endorsed the idea of registering Muslims in a national database, said he would “strongly consider” closing down mosques in the United States, and campaigned on barring all Syrian refugees. He promoted the batshit theory that a quarter of US Muslims believe that violence against Americans “is justified as a part of the global jihad.” (In fact, Muslim Americans reject violence against civilians at a substantially higher rate than the general US public, according to the Pew Research Center.) And he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Trump’s defenders insisted that this was all just “campaign-trail rhetoric,” as if exploiting bigotry were any different from bigotry itself. But by the end of 2015, hate crimes against Muslims in the United States had rocketed to what was then their highest point since 2001. Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the University of California, San Bernardino, told The New York Times that the anti-Muslim violence in this period seemed to escalate immediately following Trump’s flamethrowing comments.

And the situation did not ease after 2015; instead, it got substantially worse. In 2016, hate crimes rose again, according to FBI data, this time by almost 20 percent compared with the previous year. In particular, the number of violent assaults against Muslim Americans surpassed even the number from 2001, the year when the previous high had been recorded. The Trump effect was being felt, and painfully so.

Since his election, Trump hasn’t relented in stoking anti-Muslim feelings. He has doubled down on his double standard of demonizing Muslim extremists but not white extremists. He has remained silent on Muslim victims of hatred. He has retweeted three incredibly incendiary anti-Muslim videos from the extreme right-wing fringe group Britain First, solidifying his credentials not as a global statesman and the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, but as the chief propagandist for the international anti-Muslim movement. (Strange behavior for someone who insults internationalism at every chance.)

Most important, he has shown that his Muslim ban was far from mere campaign rhetoric. After three different iterations, the latest version of the ban, now in effect, seems poised to pull the United States all the way back to the late 19th century, when the targeted exclusion of a whole class of immigrants—in those days, the Chinese—became the law of the land.

Little wonder that 2017 is on track to become another record-breaking year for anti-Muslim hate crimes.

The ease with which Trump, as president, trots out his anti-Muslim bigotry has Muslim Americans feeling more on edge than ever. This may be unsurprising, since his statements seem to have a direct impact on our physical welfare, but Trump’s outrageous behavior also tends to make us forget just how sad and ordinary much of his Islamophobia really is.

Policy-wise, Trump is no evil genius concocting innovative new ways to torment us. A registry for Muslims was something that the Bush administration rolled out in limited fashion, starting in 2002, to little public outcry but disastrous effect—especially to the many immigrant families whose fathers or brothers were deported because of the program. Trump’s demands for a total and complete shutdown of Muslim immigration is not leagues away from an initiative of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, carried out during the Obama years, that delayed or denied citizenship to tens of thousands of people from Muslim-majority countries. (The ACLU is currently litigating that program.) Meanwhile, Trump’s calls for spying on or shutting down mosques seem pretty similar to the mass sweeps and surveillance programs run by the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies under both Bush and Obama.

Considering this short history, it may be tempting to believe that Trump’s big new play is, basically, to speak out loud an Islamophobia that has already been put into practice. But to think so misses a vital point.

The fundamental difference between Trump and his predecessors is that Trump sanctions—encourages, really—the mistreatment of Muslims by uniting the power of the executive branch with the violence of the far right. (This strategy is not limited to Muslims, of course.) Even George W. Bush didn’t countenance such a strategy. Six days after the 2001 attacks, Bush visited a mosque in Washington, DC, not to further the interests of global peace—he was already preparing for war—but to stem the rapidly rising vigilante violence against Muslims and those mistaken to be Muslim happening around the country at the time. Bush’s mosque visit was necessary as a way to garner global support for an imminent conflict abroad while reminding Americans of the state’s monopoly on violence—including against Muslims—at home.

With Trump, it’s different. The very idea of Trump visiting a mosque seems ludicrous. Why? Because unlike his immediate predecessors, Trump is best understood not as a regular politician but as a fundamentally sectarian demagogue. And like sectarian demagogues everywhere, he aspires not to unity but to division. Trump doesn’t seek to monopolize the violence against vulnerable minorities; he aims to direct its many actors. True to his sectarian impulses, he pursues the state’s tools of violence for himself while also craving the ability to mobilize his own militia if needed. His is a chauvinism that masquerades as patriotism.

And now this chauvinism seems to be seeping beyond the White House into the other branches of government. The Supreme Court’s latest ruling on the Muslim ban suggests that Trump may have successfully co-opted the legal rationalism of the judiciary as well, thereby unifying the power of the executive branch, the violence of the far right, and the legitimacy of the judicial branch in the service of the Trump agenda. This development is more than menacing—it’s petrifying.

The good news is that this alarming turn of affairs has also been deeply disturbing to many Americans of all stripes. Trump’s election and subsequent attempt to roll out his first travel ban in January 2017 was, I suspect, eye-opening to people who never suspected their country would act in such a manner, at least not in their lifetime. And that shock led to some of the most inspiring collective action this country has seen in years. The rapid demonstrations around the nation’s airports to oppose the Muslim ban were deeply moving and completely unforgettable.

The looming problem is that our oppositional energies are easily exhausted by the relentlessness of Trump and by the deepening institutionalization of the War on Terror. As the second year of Trump’s presidency begins, we can’t let our energies dissipate. Like the Japanese-American woman from Brooklyn who offered her help to Muslim strangers in 2001, we need to show the level of concern for one another that the times demand. We need to organize our energies to secure a more just and humane future. And we need to do so with a mass surge of people beside us.

We also can’t wait for the FBI, the Mueller investigation, the Democratic Party, or anyone else to save us. The task is ours, and ours alone. The stakes are as high as you suspect, and we may not have much time left before the right-wing tide overtakes us, and we all drown.

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