New York’s Muslim community is left reeling after Trump’s ban

“It feels like a game, like Trump is the king of the chessboard, and he controls everything.”

Protesters are surrounded by police officers and travelers as they pass through an exit of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Jan. 28, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Protesters are surrounded by police officers and travelers as they pass through an exit of Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Jan. 28, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

BAY RIDGE, BROOKLYN — On Monday evening, Bay Ridge, the heart of Brooklyn’s Arab community, was bustling. Locals shopped for Middle Eastern goods at the well-known Balady Market, devoured fragrant stewed lamb at Yemen Cafe, or ate sweets at Nablus Bakery. But for many, their daily routine was overshadowed by Trump’s Muslim ban, which targets their community, families and friends.

On Saturday, nearly a dozen travelers from the seven countries targeted in Trump’s ban — including refugees and visa- and green card-holders — were detained at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens. The incident, which was among many others at airports nationwide, drew immediate outcry. A small crowd gathered in the morning following news that two Iraqi refugees were being held. By afternoon the protest was massive, and propelled others across the country.

The rallies were furiously anti-Trump and resoundingly patriotic. When Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an Iraqi immigrant who had worked for the U.S. military and government, was finally released, he called the United States the greatest country in the world. “This is the humanity, this is the soul of America,” he said amid a crowd of protesters, after spending 19 hours in detention. Later that day, a federal court in New York issued an emergency stay on Trump’s Muslim ban.

But still, many in Bay Ridge fear what is to come.

Fuad Qasem, a retired taxi driver in his mid-60s, smoked a cigarette in Nablus Cafe on Fifth Avenue, where he is a regular. Although the ban doesn’t directly affect him — he is Palestinian American — Qasem said he finds it deeply troubling.

“All of us are affected in one way or another,” he said, either in solidarity or through family ties in the affected countries. “We’re the first generation of immigrants. We left violence, and we’re proud to be American. We don’t want to be let down.”

Qasem has lived in Bay Ridge since he moved to the United States decades ago, and acknowledges that, as a sanctuary city, New York offers a sense of refuge that isn’t present in other areas of the country. Still, rising fear is weakening that perceived security blanket. “Everybody has been asking what’s going to happen to them,” he says. “Undocumented people are scared, keeping a lower profile, worrying about what will happen to their remaining family members at home.”

Sophia Laila, 21, who volunteers at the Arab American Association of New York, is trying to reconcile disbelief with trepidation about what could follow. “I didn’t think the ban would go through — it’s so unconstitutional, so inhumane,” she said at the organization’s Bay Ridge office. “It feels like a game, like Trump is the king of the chessboard, and he controls everything, regardless of whether or not it’s constitutional. People are very worried and scared, especially ones who are undocumented and trying to continue their lives and get their papers in order.”

Organizations like the Arab American Association are pressing for further legal action against the administration. But Laila worries that the damage has already been done. “A lot of storeowners abuse their power, saying, ‘Oh, you’re undocumented, you’re going to work this many hours for this much money, and if not, I’ll call Trump on you.’ You hear that a lot now.”

Those types of threats, along with a post-election rise in anti-Islam hate crimes, have put the Bay Ridge Muslim community on edge. Already-high security has been beefed up at Friday prayers at mosques. “You hear more side comments, like people yelling ‘terrorist’ when they see a woman wearing the hijab,” Laila said.

Hate crimes against Muslim Americans were already on the rise in the lead-up to the election. FBI statistics show a 67 percent increase nationally from 2014 to 2015. Just one week after the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center found over 700 incidents of hateful harassment. ThinkProgress is tracking more targeted cases of harassment and has still found almost 250 incidents.

On Friday, a Massachusetts businessman reportedly shouted slurs at and kicked a Muslim airline employee at JFK. On Sunday, a 27-year-old student with known affinities for white-supremacist movements — and who, on his Facebook page, “likes” Trump and French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen — shot and killed six people and injured more than a dozen at a Quebec City mosque. The shooting came just one day after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had, following the implementation of Trump’s ban, opened Canada’s arms to refugees who had been rejected from the United States.

“The shooter probably reacted to that,” said Laila. “Trump has awakened racists and people who stereotype us.”

“I definitely feel more at risk,” said Abraham Masoud, 30, a manager at Balady Grocery, referencing the rise in hate crimes. “That’s the worry you have in mind.”

Yet even in that climate of fear, the Bay Ridge Muslims ThinkProgress spoke to were unanimous in their defense of the American ideal — and amazed by the number of protesters that mobilized to support them, even as they felt deceived and targeted by the Trump administration.

“People feel that this nation is much better, that they deserve better,” says Qasem, who, despite having been somewhat persuaded by Trump during the campaign — he ultimately didn’t vote for either Trump or Clinton — sees his policies as racist, misguided, and, most of all, ineffective. “The U.S. is much greater than that. There are people scared for their lives. How, as a great nation, as the greatest civilization in history, can we add to the pain of someone who is already suffering?”

In a hopeful twist, Masoud thinks that some good could emerge from the “nightmare” of Trump’s America. “It’ll bring people together, make them aware of who the Muslims are, of what these countries are.” For the first time, he says, people are questioning their assumptions about Muslims and challenging stereotypes.

On a national scale, that might be overly optimistic; after all, many Trump supporters are exalted that the president followed through on his campaign promises. But Masoud may still have a point. Polls over the last year reveal that the majority of the American public doesn’t support Trump’s views on Islam or Muslims. Four polls, conducted by the University of Maryland’s Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace & Development, show that favorable attitudes toward “Muslim people” increased from 53 percent in November 2015 to 70 percent in October 2016.

The dawn of the Trump era is not the onset of Islamophobia in America. Let’s not forget that after the September 11 attacks, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) required non-citizen males from 25 countries — all Muslim-majority, with the exception of North Korea — to be fingerprinted, interrogated, have regular check-ins with immigration officials, and be tracked for international travel.

Less than two weeks into his presidency, the Trump administration has already upended progress made since then. But at the same time, the massive mobilization against both the ban and his presidency more broadly — through protests, unprecedented donations to civil rights and humanitarian organizations, and an outpouring of support on social media — also hints at the makings of a larger civic awakening.

Karina Piser is an associate editor at World Politics Review.