Less than an hour before he endorsed Donald Trump for president, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan sat down in his office in Janesville, Wisconsin with local Muslim leader Salih Erschen, the founder of the city’s first mosque, and his 21-year-old daughter Sabrina.
Erschen told ThinkProgress that he hoped to impress upon Ryan that Trump and other high profile Republicans have “caused a lot of difficulties for Muslims” in America. “It’s been a hard task to get out there and quell all these fears about Muslims that you’re seeing right now in our society,” said Erschen. “One of the infamous things I’ve been hearing is calls to ‘send those Muslims back where they came from.’ But I’m from southern Wisconsin. I wouldn’t be sent very far.”
“I went to Ryan’s office with my daughter, who is pregnant now, to show that we are three generations of Muslims who are 100 percent American,” he added. “There’s no foreign element to us at all. In fact, any one of us could run for president someday.”
One of the infamous things I’ve been hearing is calls to ‘send those Muslims back where they came from.’ But I’m from southern Wisconsin.
In that meeting, Erschen said, Ryan repeatedly indicated that he strongly believes in freedom of religion and believes Trump’s anti-Islam statements are “not productive.” He also vowed to “speak out against anti-Muslim rhetoric.” Later that same day, Ryan published an editorial pledging his vote to Trump. It included no mention of Trump’s plan to ban all Muslim immigrants from the United States.
The civil rights group Fellowship of Reconciliation, which organized the meeting between between Erschen and Ryan, slammed the new House Speaker’s hypocrisy, arguing that the Trump endorsement rendered his promises to tackle Islamophobia meaningless.
“We strongly reject the blatantly duplicitous ability of Rep. Ryan to express a commitment to end Islamophobia, while literally at the same time endorsing the most xenophobic, anti-Muslim candidate of modern times,” said Anthony Grimes, the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s director of campaigns and strategy.
Erschen told ThinkProgress he doesn’t find Ryan’s series of events ironic, but fully in line with how he sees politicians in general and the Republican Party in particular. “I know Paul Ryan has the job of keeping his delegation tied together,” he sighed. “And I know the history of the Republican Party. Even if they know they have a loser, they’re going to unite behind him. They have to stick with the turd and try to polish it.”
Ryan’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about the meeting.
A changing Wisconsin, a changing America
Erschen grew up in a Catholic family in southwestern Wisconsin and converted to Islam when he was 21 years old. Last year, he opened Janesville’s first mosque, the Muslim Dawa Circle, to serve the city’s small but rapidly growing Muslim population.
Though less than one percent of Wisconsin’s voting population identifies as Muslim, a 2010 study found that Islam is the second-largest faith group in the state. Nearly 10,000 practicing Muslims live in the Milwaukee area alone, and Erschen says as many as 100 people have shown up to his mosque’s first open house.
With that growth has come some friction and intolerance.
Muslim families in Greenfield and Homestead have reported being harassed in public, screamed at, and spat on. Some say their children are bullied at school, while others have received death threats.
Last year, the mayor of Superior, Wisconsin wrote on social media that Michelle Obama “and her Muslim partner have destroyed the fabric of democracy.”
Factory workers in Brillion, Wisconsin were fired for taking short breaks to pray five times a day.
Muslim leaders in Milwaukee told ThinkProgress that women who wear headscarves are sometimes “accosted in the street and spoken to in a hostile manner.” After seeing mosques around the country attacked and vandalized, the Islamic Society of Milwaukee began hiring, at significant expense, private security guards for their Friday prayers and holidays.
After Erschen opened the Muslim Dawa Circle last summer, two anti-Islam conspiracy theory sites — Bare Naked Islam and Iron Burka — called the mosque an “enemy headquarters” and “jihad indoctrination center.” Commenters on those sites urged readers to deface the mosque with pig fat and protest its open house. Erschen said none of these attacks ever materialized, but he does see a troubling rise in this kind of anti-Islam rhetoric around the country, fueled by myths about his religion that he’s working constantly to dispel.
He has repeatedly invited Ryan and other Janesville officials to visit the mosque and speak to the congregation, and has traveled around the state speaking at Rotary Clubs, universities, and other venues. Though Ryan has not yet committed to making that visit, Erschen says he will keep trying.
“It’s important for people to understand what Islam is really about instead of the stereotypes they’re hearing,” he said. “Even teaching some simple things like the fact that Muslims believe in Jesus opens up a door of communication and understanding.”
Driven out of the GOP
Erschen says the anti-Islam rhetoric that many Republican candidates, not just Trump, have offered this election cycle has been damaging to his interfaith outreach efforts.
Before dropping out of the GOP race, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called for shutting down U.S. mosques and cafes where “radicals are being inspired.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned that “non-assimilationist Muslims” are “invading” the United States. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who is now campaigning for Trump, said Muslims should be disqualified from the presidency. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee asserted that Muslims are the only terrorists. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker opined that there are only a handful of reasonable, moderate Muslims — out of more than a billion worldwide — who don’t follow ISIS ideology. Sen. Ted Cruz called for patrolling and surveilling Muslim neighborhoods across the United States.
They always need an ‘other’ to attack, and we are unfortunately that ‘other’ right now.
Trump, now the presumptive GOP nominee, called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States and expressed support for having all Muslims registered in a database. Just this week, he said he wouldn’t trust a Muslim judge to act in a fair and impartial manner.
“All of the candidates utilized the Muslim card, if you will, to push themselves forward,” said Erschen. “Muslims are an easy target, and the rest of society doesn’t hold them accountable for these comments. They always need an ‘other’ to attack, and we are unfortunately that ‘other’ right now.”
The irony, Erschen said, is that these GOP leaders are marginalizing million of potential supporters.
“The faith of Islam has a conservative worldview,” he explained. “There’s a natural nearness to the GOP platform, but the people themselves, the Republicans, don’t understand that. Instead, they stand up and say things that fully offend over two million Muslims in this country.”
Many Muslims in Wisconsin and across the United States used to be staunch Republicans, and overwhelmingly backed George W. Bush due in large part to his conservative social policies. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent wars abroad and crackdown on civil liberties at home, that all changed. Today, a solid majority self-identify as Democrats, and many have thrown their support this year behind Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who have made concerted efforts to reach out to Muslim voters.
By publicly backing Trump, Erschen said, Ryan is only digging the party deeper in a hole with Muslim voters and his own constituents.
“Leaders like Ryan are going to have to do everything they can to manage [Trump],” he said. “Anybody who has some sense of moral fabric needs to try to hold this man back and give him some guidance. Maybe we’ve lived through worse political crises in America before, but not in my lifetime.”