Muslim-Americans Remain Anxious About Trump Administration

Jan 16, 2017
Originally published on January 16, 2017 10:15 pm

The Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Northern Virginia has seen its share of attention. Two of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks prayed there, and jihadi propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki served as an imam at the mosque before heading off to Yemen to join al-Qaida.

Now, with a U.S. president-elect who has suggested he will take a hard line with Muslim-Americans, the worshipers at Dar al-Hijrah again are bracing for scrutiny and looking for reassurance.

"For anyone who feels anxiety about the current political crisis and what you hear in the public discourse, I am completely confident," Imam Johari Abdul-Malik told the men and women assembled at the mosque last week for Friday prayers. "Not only will Islam survive, but it will thrive."

The worshipers are a diverse group, including security guards, housewives, doctors and educators. Most are immigrants — Dar al-Hijrah means "place of migration" in Arabic — and between them they speak 37 languages.

Many fear they will no longer be welcome in America with Donald Trump as president.

"It's a concern," says Wadi Adam Lahrim, who immigrated from Morocco to the United States with his parents as a child 30 years ago. "We have a new president who has the support of a lot of people who are not very friendly to the Muslim community."

In his sermon, Abdul-Malik reminded worshipers that many of them had immigrated to the United States from countries where Islam is under far greater pressure.

"Many of the people here grew up under dictatorship," he said. "We had a woman here the other week. She said: 'Imam, I grew up in Albania, where they outlawed the practice of Islam. There was no freedom of religion under the communists. We had to go in our houses and hide, so we could pray.' "

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Dar al-Hijrah was visited often by law enforcement officials, and the monitoring led to conflict. In the years since, however, the mosque leadership has worked closely with law enforcement agencies.

As his guest Friday, Abdul-Malik brought along FBI Agent Paul Abbate, head of the bureau's Washington, D.C., field office, to assure the worshipers that his agency was determined to treat Muslim-Americans fairly.

"The essence of our mission to is keep people safe, to keep all of you safe — your loved ones, your families, [and] the communities that we serve," Abbate said, "And we do that fairly and equally for everyone, under the Constitution of the United States."

But Muslim-Americans have heard a more hostile message from President-elect Trump, who last March told an interviewer from CNN, "I think Islam hates us," and who had proposed a complete ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States.

Trump backed off that plan, and Muslim-American leaders are trying to determine whether Trump's more incendiary statements were just campaign rhetoric. Last week they closely followed the testimony of Trump's cabinet picks during their confirmation hearings, eager to see whether a Trump administration would require all U.S. Muslims to register with the federal government.

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, Trump's choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, said he was against a Muslim registry, as did Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, set to be attorney general under Trump.

Sessions, however, said he did think someone's religious beliefs, not just their actions, should be considered in the decision whether to let them enter the United States. In December 2015, Sessions opposed a nonbinding resolution that declared there should be no litmus test for people seeking to enter the United States, and he reaffirmed that position during his confirmation testimony.

"Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States," Sessions said.

As president-elect, Trump has continued to advocate a policy of "extreme vetting" of potential immigrants, to screen out those, such as radicalized Muslims, who might be perceived as a security threat.

Whether he effectively could implement such a policy through executive action is unclear. Under a 1990 law, immigrants can't be barred from the United States on ideological grounds, but another law allows the president to keep out any "class" of people he considers "detrimental to the interests of the United States."

"The president conceivably could interpret existing statutes in such a way as to allow [extreme vetting]," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "[He could] direct his subordinates to keep out anyone who is a member of this class of persons — which is to say people who think it's OK to chop people's heads off and throw gays off of buildings — even though they have not engaged in that activity themselves."

Defining a "class" of people on the basis of their beliefs would not be easy, and almost certainly would be challenged by some in Congress and by the courts.

The threat of such a policy alarms many Muslim-Americans.

"It is extremely important to us that this place is safe," says Wadi Adam Lahrim, who has three children, ages 7, 11 and 12. "We would like the rest of the U.S. to understand us. Just as we took the time to learn your language, your culture, and to understand you and be able to work with you and live with you, I hope that some folks in America will take the time also to understand us and get to know us, rather than hate us."

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Muslim-Americans are anxious about a Donald Trump administration. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he favored halting all Muslim immigration to the U.S. He also suggested he would support increased monitoring of Muslim communities in the states. The president-elect has since retreated from these positions, but as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, Muslim-Americans are wary.

JOHARI ABDUL MALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Friday prayers at the Dar al Hijrah mosque in Northern Virginia find hundreds of men kneeling in the prayer room, women in a separate room.

MALIK: (Foreign language spoken).

GJELTEN: It's a diverse group - taxi drivers, security guards, housewives, doctors, educators, largely immigrant Muslims. Dar al Hijrah means place of migration in Arabic, but many Muslims now fear they will no longer be welcome under a Trump presidency. The imam preaching here at this day, Johari Abdul Malik, felt the need to remind the worshippers how many of them had already known repression coming from countries ruled by dictators.

MALIK: We had a woman here the other week. She said, Imam, I grew up in Albania where they outlawed practicing Islam. There was no freedom of religion under the communists.

GJELTEN: Even so, Abdul Malik said, Islam there survived and Muslims will survive in America. Dar al Hijrah has known crisis before, after 9/11. The jihadi propagandist Anwar al Awlaki served as an imam here before heading off to join al-Qaida, those years brought FBI scrutiny. Since then, the mosque leadership has cooperated closely with law enforcement agencies. On this day, Abdul Malik brought along FBI agent Paul Abbate, director of the bureau's D.C. field office, to reassure the congregation.

PAUL ABBATE: The essence of our mission is to keep people safe, to keep all of you safe, your loved ones, your families, the communities that we serve, and we do that fairly and equally for everyone under the Constitution of the United States.

GJELTEN: The problem is from Donald Trump, American-Muslims have heard a message of hostility, crystallized in a CNN interview last March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I think Islam hates us.

GJELTEN: The question now is whether such comments were just campaign rhetoric. Muslim leaders watched what Trump's Cabinet picks said during their confirmation hearings to see, for example, whether a Trump administration would require all U.S. Muslims to register. Gen. John Kelly, Trump's choice for homeland security, said he's against that, so did Sen. Jeff Sessions, set to be attorney general. But Sessions also said he thinks someone's religious beliefs, not just their actions, but their beliefs should be a factor when deciding whether to let them into the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEFF SESSIONS: Many people do have religious views that are inimical to the public safety of the United States.

GJELTEN: President-elect Trump is advocating extreme vetting to weed out immigrants, radicalized Muslims, for example, who might pose a security threat. A 1990 law says people can't be barred from the United States on ideological grounds, but another law allows the president to keep out any class of people he considers, quote, "detrimental to the interests of the United States," unquote. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says President Trump could interpret that authority as allowing him to do what he wants.

MARK KRIKORIAN: The president directs his subordinates to keep out anyone who, you know, is a member of this class of persons, which is to say people who think it's OK to chop people's heads off and throw gays off of buildings even though they have not engaged in that activity themselves.

GJELTEN: At Dar al Hijrah, almost all the worshipers last Friday stayed to hear the FBI agent. Wadi Adam Lahrim emigrated as a child from Morocco 30 years ago.

WADI ADAM LAHRIM: I have three children ages 7, 11 and 12.

GJELTEN: His plea - don't lump us Muslim-Americans in with ISIS terrorists.

LAHRIM: We would like the rest of the U.S. to understand us, just as we took the time to learn your language, your culture, and to understand you and be able to work with you and live with you, I hope that some folks in America will take the time also to get to know us rather than hate us.

GJELTEN: One concern - President-elect Trump has not yet invited any Muslim faith leader to his inauguration. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISLANDS SONG, "CHARM OFFENSIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.