In 2001, Syrian-American activist, advocate, and speaker Isra Chaker was a fifth grader in a predominantly white community in Boulder, Colorado - two hours behind New York City. By the time Chaker woke up on September 11th, the attacks had already happened.
“But as a 10-year old, not having heard anything yet or seen the news, it was a regular school day,” she recalls. “And I remember going to school, and the first thing I was told by a boy in my class was ‘is Osama Bin Laden your uncle?’ And I remember defending myself and saying ‘no, I don’t have an uncle by that name, who is that?’ And I remember the boy looking at me and saying: ‘don’t act like you don’t know’.”
I remember going to school, and the first thing I was told by a boy in my class was ‘is Osama Bin Laden your uncle?’
It has been nearly 18 years since that interaction and the post-9/11 cultural, legal, and political Islamophobia that gripped the United States. Children who were born that same year will be eligible to vote for the first time in the upcoming presidential election in 2020, and never has the place of Arab and Muslim Americans been as contested as it is today.
Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib - the first two Muslim women serving in Congress - at the swearing-in ceremony in January. Photo courtesy of AFP.
Though last year saw the election of the first Muslim-American women to congress - Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar - both have had accusations of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and disrespect hurled at them like vitriol, including - and most sensationally - by President Donald Trump. Which is, admittedly, not very surprising coming from Trump, who since announcing his candidacy nearly four years ago, has used his platform to expound xenophobic, exclusionary politics.
the anti-Muslim culture that led to her family once coming home to the word “TERRORIST” sprayed in graffiti across the front of their Colorado home is the same that perpetuates the conditional, precarious space that Arab and Muslim Americans occupy today
“I am an unapologetic, Syrian-American, visibly Muslim woman,” says Chaker. “And all those identities are under attack by this current administration and by the current president of the United States.” Chaker is a civil rights activist, campaigns and advocacy expert, and speaker who has been working against discriminatory policies like the Muslim ban and family separation at the southern US border. In 2017, she made headlines for bringing refugees to Trump’s childhood home in Queens to share their experiences, and she was a featured speaker at the #FamiliesBelongTogether march in DC last summer. She has also consulted with Netflix and Grey’s Anatomy on the portrayal of Muslim and Arab American characters. Her 200,000 follower-strong social media platform, IsraSpeaks, is an honest, open conversation about Arab American life and politics.
Most recently, she is featured in the “We the Future” campaign, which brings artwork and curricula of 10 young activists to 20,000 schools across America.
Chaker spoke to us about the realities of living and working as a visibly Muslim woman in Trump’s America. In the process, she illuminates how the anti-Muslim culture that led to her family once coming home to the word “TERRORIST” sprayed in graffiti across the front of their Colorado home is the same that perpetuates the conditional, precarious space that Arab and Muslim Americans occupy today, and the impossible positions and choices that come with it.
I am an unapologetic, Syrian-American, visibly Muslim woman. And all those identities are under attack by this current administration and by the current president of the United States.
In activism, it is the choice to claim a seat at the table, knowing that - at the slightest misstep - your identity is hurled at you in accusation. Culturally, to advocate for greater representation, knowing that million-dollar brands featuring a hijab is a commercial decision that - too easily - can give way to tokenism. Politically, the choice to endorse a candidate, not out of wholehearted belief, but because they are ‘the lesser evil’. At every turn, it is knowing that your identity as an Arab or Muslim American can be weaponised, and choosing to - as Chaker does - hold it up anyway.
Chaker at the Women's March in Washington, DC in January 2019. Photo credit: Mohannad Rachid.
In Chaker’s description of herself, there’s one central word that stands out. It’s not ‘Syrian-American’, or ‘visibly Muslim’, or ‘woman’. It’s ‘unapologetic’. Minorities, particularly in politics, are expected to earn their place at the table, not out of merit, but a long process of paying dues to a particular sensibility, a particular narrative of what power is and looks like (white, Anglo-Saxon, male). It’s a process women like Chaker and Ilhan Omar are now refusing. As the first Somali-American, the first immigrant from Africa, the first non-white woman from Minnesota, and one of the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, Omar does not look like - or sound like, or acquiesce to - the expected view of power.
These things happened way before Trump was elected or even ran for office. Islamophobia and racism have existed for a very long time in the US.
Speaking to MSNBC, Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C., echoed the same language of impenitence in commenting on recent attacks against Omar. “Why Ilhan keeps getting targeted is because she is an unapologetic, Black, Muslim woman. And her real crime in the eyes of those attacking her is that she dares to speak out and act like she’s equal. She doesn’t know her place in their eyes, and so she represents something that is threatening to them.”
Ever since Omar assumed office in January, she has been one of the leading progressive voices in government, a position that has brought her under routine fire from right-wing media, her own party, and - of course - Trump himself. She has been called to resign by the president, been censured by her own Democratic party, and had inflammatory and racist rhetoric thrown at her at every turn.
A Washington, D.C. march against the Muslim ban in October 2017. Photo credit: Les Talusan.
Mere hours after a man by the name of Patrick Carlineo Jr., an avowed Trump supporter, was arrested in New York two weeks ago for threatening to assault and murder Omar, Trump reignited allegations of anti-Semitism against her at the Republican Jewish Coalition's national convention. Trump’s comments speak to more than the obvious absurdity of a head of state’s apparent nonchalance to threats on a policymaker’s life. Working in the eye of the storm that is Washington D.C., Chaker witnesses the fight between xenophobia and inclusion in American politics on a daily basis, and the factors that come into play and create a culture of accusation and the constant need to prove one’s American-ness, that their loyalty as elected officials is to the US.
“I don’t even think the issue is about dual loyalty,” says Chaker. “It’s only when it’s a Black, Muslim woman who happens to be a refugee that we start calling in her identities as some sort of external factor...It’s being made about identity, because that’s the one thing they can weaponise. The smear campaigns against her are completely unfounded, and very scary. And it’s endangering her life and the lives of so many visibly Muslim and visibly Black women in America. And it’s not going to stop until the people that are in office stop their discriminatory policies and rhetoric.”
Protests at JFK International Airport against the executive order that brought the Muslim ban into effect in 2017. Photo credit: Stephanie Keith.
This, Chaker says, is precisely why Arab and Muslim Americans are effectively - if not legally - disenfranchised from public office. Without legal barriers to their entry to politics, there remain barriers of fear. It hasn’t been five months since Omar was sworn in, and to believe influential policymakers and pundits such as Ronna McDaniel (the head of the Republican National Committee) and Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade and Jeanine Pirro, she has effectively become an enemy of America. Her important work - inter alia introducing two important acts on unlawful lobbying and childcare protection, respectively; cosponsoring a bill to end the Muslim ban; supporting the people’s uprising in Sudan; working against the unfair lobbying efforts of AIPAC, the NRA, and the fossil fuel industry; and speaking out against the war on Yemen, the repression of China’s Uighur population, US intervention in Venezuela, and the continued unwarranted use of force by the US military abroad - has largely gone unnoticed as a result.
[We need to] make sure the right people are elected into office. So that this sort of rhetoric, and these kinds of discriminatory policies are never to happen again. That they will never be acceptable again.
“White supremacists and other people who are anti-Muslim and anti-refugee and anti-immigrant, they wait for a moment like this to use as their leverage point to attack, to weaponise, to tear down the person...To break them down and push them out of office. I think that’s the agenda here.”
Photo credit: #NoMuslimBanEver Coalition.
“At the end of the day, I think US politics is in a place that it’s never been before,” continues Chaker. “Where people want representation and inclusivity, and that’s why we have members like congresswoman Omar and congresswoman Tlaib in office. While at the same time, we are still combatting our president’s rhetoric that is vile, heartless, cruel, discriminatory and inaccurate."
It’s only when it’s a Black, Muslim woman who happens to be a refugee that we start calling in her identities as some sort of external factor...It’s being made about identity, because that’s the one thing they can weaponise.
The root of this problem, according to Chaker, is a persistent lack of representation, especially - but not exclusively - in politics. Though the scene has been changing and the Arab American community has improved in impact and voice particularly since Trump was elected, much of the story is still being told about Arab and Muslim Americans, not by them. They are written of, and not writers themselves.
This is, in part, what Chaker contributed to rectifying in her involvement with Netflix and ABC. For Netflix, she consulted on their growing inclusion and diversity strategy for upcoming projects. With ABC, her work with Grey’s Anatomy helped in the crafting and development of Arab and Muslim American characters, in efforts for more accurate, fair representations of a marginalised community. It’s 2019, and even though a million and one problematic voices will claim the apolitical status of entertainment, pop culture and the entertainment industry do hold social and political weight.
Sophia Ali as Dr. Dahlia Qadri on ABC's Grey's Anatomy.
There is a real impact to seeing characters like Dahlia Qadri - a hijabi doctor played by Sophia Ali on Grey’s Anatomy - simply be, realistically. Not a terrorist, not a symbol, and not anything besides a talented doctor adding a much needed voice. On the importance of working on mainstream representation, Chaker says it was important for her “to make sure they understand the really huge impact they have with Netflix, with Grey’s Anatomy, these shows that have millions of viewers, the impact they have in really setting the tone and breaking down stereotypes, in a way that we - as activists and policymakers - will probably never reach.”
[TV] shows that have millions of viewers should understand the impact they have in really setting the tone and breaking down stereotypes, in a way that we - as activists and policymakers - will probably never reach.
Activists, advocates, and politicians need to fully understand the impact of mainstream culture: the screens, feeds, and sensationalist news that directly seep into the public’s consciousness. To ignore it would be to make the same mistake the Democratic party and progressive America made in 2016: to disqualify the invisible masses that might have seemed politically irrelevant in the sanitised spaces of Washington, but ultimately got Trump elected. Yes, Trump did lose the popular vote to Hillary Clinton’s 65.8 million, but there are still 63 million people who voted for a candidate who was calling for “the complete and utter shutdown of Muslims entering this country,” as Chaker puts it.
Illustration by Kimothy Joy.
“These things happened way before Trump was elected or even ran for office,” elaborates Chaker. “Islamophobia and racism have existed for a very long time in the US. Even policy wise, there were certain policies under the Obama administration that were very harmful towards vulnerable communities and communities of migrants.”
Chaker herself worked as a fellow in Colorado for both of Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012. This trade-off is a familiar - and perhaps currently inevitable - aspect of Arab American life and politics. It is the same choice many made in 2016, to favor Hillary Clinton’s imperial feminism - perfectly aligned with the violent foreign policies that have destabilised the regions and thrust them (if not their parents) into diaspora - over Trump. In Chaker’s hope for the coming election and the good it can bring to Arab and Muslim American communities, there is also the same telling ambivalence. “I don’t think any one candidate is ideal, but I think it’s more about who is the lesser evil and who can be more good for us. And who will at least not have the vile rhetoric and policies that we’re seeing right now.”
Today, the race for the Democratic primary already includes 18 potential presidential candidates (the earliest votes for which won’t be cast for another 10 months). Despite any ambivalence, Chaker sees in the 2020 election a potential resurgence of a stronger Arab and Muslim American community. “Our issues, our identities are front and centre in the world stage of politics,” Chaker says. “We now have a much larger platform to stand on. And to ensure and enforce that our voices are heard, that our policy positions are taken seriously, that our community’s endorsement and that our support is fought for and sought after…[We need to] do everything in our power to make sure the right people are elected into office. So that this sort of rhetoric, and these kinds of discriminatory policies are never to happen again. That they will never be acceptable again.”
You can keep up with Isra Chaker on her website, or Twitter and Instagram at @IsraSpeaks.
Main image credit: Becky Davis.
Main square image credit: Monica Weeks.