x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 October 2017

‘Muslims in America’ photography project takes on deeper significance

Photographer Robert Gerhardt is on a mission to depict the lives of a minority

These images show a community under siege, but also citizens lawfully exercising their rights to religious freedom in the country of their birth.

Robert Gerhardt began his Muslims in America project in 2010, but the photographs have taken on a deeper significance in recent weeks following the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, by self-proclaimed supporters of ISIL, and the inflammatory statements of Republican Party candidate Donald Trump who is proposing a register of all Muslims in America and a ban on any more entering the country.

Gerhardt has captured a reality of Muslim life in the United States that is no different from any other group with the quiet rituals of study and play, on the basketball court and in the uniform of a police officer.

Except that life is different. Gerhardt, a New Yorker, began the project after learning that proposals for a new mosque in the city had been blocked by objections.

“Islamophobia had been growing in New York since 9/11,” he says, referring to the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Centre and killed more than 2,000 people. “It seemed to have died down a bit until the Paris attacks.”

Gerhardt has visited Muslim communities in states, including California, Wisconsin, Florida and Tennessee.

In Tennessee he found Muslims who had been living there since the 1970s. Their plans to build a bigger mosque brought furious protests from residents and anti-Islam activists.

Until then, they had used a smaller building and “as far as I can see, nobody cared”, says Gerhardt.

“Then all these people jumped on the issue.”

The new climate of Islamophobia has left Muslims feeling both scared and frustrated, he says.

“They see themselves as Americans who happen to be Muslim. Suddenly, they stand out more than they thought.

“They were born here, they grew up here. These are Americans.”

plangton@thenational.ae