Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 June 2019

How Trump’s victory came at a price for his Muslim supporters

Two of the key Muslim faces in Donald Trump's election campaign, Saba Ahmed and Sajid Tarar, faced smears and hate mail challenging both their religion and their integrity, reports Laura Mackenzie
Stephen Bannon (centre), who was appointed Donald Trump's chief strategist last week, has been accused of Islamophobia. Evan Vucci, File/AP Photo
Stephen Bannon (centre), who was appointed Donald Trump's chief strategist last week, has been accused of Islamophobia. Evan Vucci, File/AP Photo
Saba Ahmed was at work when she received an email from a fellow member of the Republican Party containing a link to Breitbart News, the alt-right website headed by Donald Trump’s new chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.

Opening the story, in December last year, the Pakistan-born American Muslim discovered a deeply personal attack on her.

The author, national security activist Brigitte Gabriel, said Ms Ahmed was “an example of the highest level of sophisticated deception by an Islamist trying to insert themselves into the national security discussion”.

Mr Bannon’s appointment last week brought back difficult memories of the Breitbart story for Ms Ahmed, a staunch supporter of Mr Trump and the Republican Party. After she spent months campaigning for – and defending – the president-elect, she is clearly disappointed by his selection of Mr Bannon.

Despite Mr Trump’s own campaign-trail rhetoric, polling from August showed that 9 per cent of Muslims had a favourable view of him. And while those who supported the business tycoon have celebrated his victory, the election exposed them to painful contradictions and abuse from all sides.

Ms Ahmed, a 31-year-old lawyer, says Ms Gabriel’s article – which said her intent was to “undo America from within” – initially caused a lot of problems for her within the Republican Party. She still worries that people who take Breitbart “as authority” will believe it.

“It’s double hard for me as a Muslim because not only do I have to face challenges within the Muslim community to tell them to do outreach to Republicans, [but] when there’s people like Brigitte Gabriel shunning our efforts and trying to put us down, it makes it double hard and it dissuades a lot of other people from getting involved in the first place,” says Ms Ahmed who lives just outside of Washington, DC.

It was not the first time that Ms Gabriel had made such accusations against Ms Ahmed, and its stance was not an anomaly for Breitbart. Headlines on stories published over the past year have included “The West vs Islam is the new Cold War – Here’s how we win”, “Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture” and “Let’s lock the door to Islam”.

Sajid Tarar, another high-profile Muslim supporter of Mr Trump, has also faced smears against him. Not from Trump supporters or Republicans, but from other Muslims.

Before the election, Mr Tarar, 56, says he regularly received hate mail from Muslims, both in America and around the world – including in Pakistan where he was born. It got so bad, he says, that his family became worried for their safety.

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READ MORE: Meet the Muslims who support Donald Trump

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“It was painful, for me and for my family,” says Mr Tarar, a father of four. “[Messages] calling me names and calling me non-Muslim. And so many things … I was continuously telling them [that having] a difficult political affiliation doesn’t make me non-Muslim, doesn’t make me a bad person, it’s my own personal choice.”

Now that the election is over, Mr Tarar says receives hundreds of messages a day from American Muslims, asking for his help.

“The same community, those [who had] been challenging my religion, my nationality, background. Now they are asking me that I should become a bridge in between them and a new administration,” he adds.

By contrast, Trump supporters and Republicans have always accepted him, says Mr Tarar, the director of a non-profit organisation that works with senior citizens and disabled people.

“You would be surprised. I can send you a picture where I’m holding a sign, ‘American Muslims for Trump’, sitting among 20,000 people [at a Trump rally] ... people used to kiss me for doing that. People used to get in lines to take pictures with me that the Muslims are supporting Donald Trump,” he says.

But what about Breitbart and its executive chairman Mr Bannon, who has been accused of Islamophobia as well as racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny?

Mr Tarar says he disagrees with some of Breitbart’s headlines, but that they do not represent the personal opinion of Mr Bannon, who he has met a few times and describes as a “wonderful person” and “fine man”. 

Mr Bannon cannot be blamed for such stories, he adds.

For Mr Tarrar, allegations of Islamophobia and racism made against Mr Bannon and other picks for positions in the Trump administration are just “stories” – the result of “shameful journalism” and “propaganda machines”. He says that even if the president-elect appointed an imam as his chief strategist, Muslims would still “talk against him”.

Ms Ahmed, however, would have preferred someone else other than Mr Bannon as Mr Trump’s chief strategist. She is concerned that voices like Ms Gabriel’s are only going to get louder with a Trump presidency.

“I think as we go forward it’s going to be all the conservative voices … coming out, but especially within the security realm,” she says. “A lot of people who have been known as anti-Islamic folks are going to be given the platform so that’s why our work is even more important, to counter that.”

“The only way to get beyond this nonsense is for Muslims to get involved and defend themselves … we have to match their efforts in terms of [finances] or not be heard,” she says, acknowledging that for this to happen, many American Muslims are first going to have to accept Mr Trump as their president.

Despite these concerns, however, Ms Ahmed is glad Mr Trump won and hopeful that he will “make America stronger and restore the American leadership round the world – and definitely improve the economy”.

She says she is talking to the Trump transition team about a possible role within the administration – although she would not divulge what the role might be. She also knows of several other Muslims who are working with the team.

As for Mr Tarar, he too would like a position in the Trump administration and has sent a message to the president-elect’s team, signalling his interest in an interfaith or outreach role. He also plans to write a book about his “wonderful experience” on the campaign trail.

lmackenzie@thenational.ae

Updated: November 21, 2016 04:00 AM

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