Muslim-American Leaders React to Donald Trump's Election

11-9-16 Trump Muslim leaders
A woman wearing a Muslim head scarf walks past people holding Donald Trump signs before the start of the Muslim Day Parade in Manhattan on September 25. Stephanie Keith/Reuters

Leaders of Muslim-American communities and organizations congratulated Donald Trump, and implored the president-elect to change his tone and protect the rights of all Americans, at a Wednesday afternoon news conference held by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and live-streamed on the organization's Facebook page. The Republican nominee, whose decisive victory Tuesday night startled many in both political parties, had spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric throughout his campaign.

"Today, we offer our reaction to what happened last night," said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. "As citizens of this great nation, we accept the result of the democratic process," he noted, before reminding listeners that regardless of who is elected president, "American Muslims are here to stay" and "will not be intimidated or marginalized." He added, "We will hold the new president to the highest standard of protecting rights of all those residing in this great nation."

Several leaders who spoke after Awad on Wednesday touched on similar points, congratulating Trump on his win and emphasizing that accepting the results of the election and the peaceful transfer of power are vital characteristics of American democracy. But then they addressed the divisive, hateful nature of the campaign, acknowledged the fears that have been stoked as a result, called on the new president and his administration to unite the nation, and promised to continue working indefatigably to ensure that all Americans feel safe and can enjoy their constitutional rights.

Trump insulted and estranged Muslims and drew scathing criticism for doing so very early in his campaign. In December 2015—soon after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead and many more wounded—he called for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the United States "until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

"Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad and have no sense of reason or respect for human life," Trump said.

Then just one of several Republican candidates for the presidency, Trump was quickly condemned not only by Muslim leaders and groups, including CAIR, but also by fellow Republicans. Jeb Bush, for example, called Trump "unhinged" and said "his 'policy' proposals are not serious." Senator Lindsey Graham said, "He's putting at risk the lives of interpreters, American supporters, diplomats and the troops in the region by making these bigoted comments."

Over the next several months, observers pressed Trump on whether he was still advocating for such a ban. Sometimes it seemed the candidate had softened his stance, but at other times he said he would expand the ban's scope. Soon after he accepted the Republican nomination, he took another swing at Muslims when he criticized Khizr Khan and his wife, whose son was a U.S. Army captain and died in a car bombing while serving in Iraq.

The U.S. Council of Muslim Organizations, a coalition of national, regional and local Muslim organizations, launched a One Million Voters Drive to encourage Muslim-Americans to cast their ballots. On November 2, less than a week before the election, the organization announced that it had reached its goal, more than doubling the estimated 500,000 Muslim voters in the 2012 election. In mid-October, CAIR released a report that found that 86 percent of registered Muslim voters planned to vote. It also found that 72 percent of Muslim voters planned to vote for Hillary Clinton, while only 4 percent planned to vote for Trump.

"This was an appalling election season that saw Islamophobia, anti-immigrant and sexist rhetoric become commonplace in the U.S.," Naeem Baig, president of the Islamic Circle of North America, said Wednesday. "We ask that the new administration ensure the safety, security and freedom of worship of minorities, in particular, those that have been threatened," he added.

Indeed, the 2016 presidential election season coincided with an increase in hate crimes against Muslim-Americans, according to statistics released in September by researchers at California State University, San Bernardino. At the time, experts like Brian Levin, director of the school's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, attributed the increase, at least in part, to Trump's hateful comments.

It is "imperative that Mr. Trump put aside his divisive rhetoric," Kristin Szremski, director of media and communications for the American Muslims for Palestine organization, said Wednesday. "Muslims are not aliens in this country; we are citizens and expect to be treated as such," she added. "We expect fair and equal treatment for African-Americans, Latinos, immigrants" and every other group. "It is our Constitution with its Bill of Rights and other rights and privileges that makes America great."

Throughout the brief news conference, the leaders navigated a balance between making it clear that the kind of attitudes Trump has displayed cannot continue and expressing a timid hope that America and Americans will come together with respect and cooperation.

"We have seen animosity and fear grow in our community throughout this election cycle," said Rafi Uddin Ahmed of the Muslim Association of Virginia. But "despite the negativity directed toward the Muslim-American community, we believe the Constitution will provide equal protection to all."

"The Muslim-American community is ready to work with our new president," he said. "It is time for the healing process to begin."