Election Day is coming soon, and Rashida Tlaib is making sure her two sons understand what a watershed event this could be for American Muslims like them. The political climate is ugly, she warns, and the rhetoric is getting nastier by the day.
They need this victory, Tlaib explained. He’s simply got to win.
No, no, not him. The candidate they’re rooting for is local: Abdullah Hammoud, a Muslim Democrat running for the Michigan legislature. Hammoud’s sweeping primary victory this month in a little-watched race is giving Muslims across the country a pick-me-up at a time when Republican nominee Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Islam proposals dominate the presidential campaign.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Tlaib, who lives in Detroit and once served as a Democrat in Michigan’s legislature. “I want my sons to sit down with Abdullah and shake his hand and say, ‘He has a cool name like mine, and he has the same face, and he prays in the same way – and he has access to be a member of the legislature.’ ”
Hammoud’s ascent provides one answer to a question that Muslim parents are asking themselves every day: How do I talk to my kids about this election? To Tlaib and other Muslim parents, the Michigan race is a positive aside in an otherwise wrenching election-year conversation involving thorny questions of faith, democracy and identity.
Last month, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign released a TV political ad called “Role Models,” featuring children listening to Trump’s offensive words about women and minorities – a direct appeal to many parents’ unease with his rhetoric.
I’m trying to preserve my daughter’s natural pride in her community and her background before it starts to get tainted by the fear and prejudice that’s out there.
Svend White, Chicago father
Among Muslim parents, anxiety over the election runs even deeper. Already, families say, their American-born children ask whether Trump is going to arrest or deport them. The experience of 8-year-old Sofia, who packed up her dolls to await forcible removal from her home, triggered the hashtag campaign #IWillProtectYou, with U.S. military personnel vowing to defend Sofia and other Muslims from infringement of their constitutional rights.
To avoid planting such fears, some Muslim parents have opted to tune out election talk altogether, abstaining from TV and radio to shield their children from attacks on their religion. Others prefer to charge headfirst into the fray, urging their children to volunteer at phone banks so that they learn the importance of political participation. And many more parents are caught somewhere in the middle, still unsure of how and when to have the dreaded Trump talk.
“I’m a bit paralyzed,” said Svend White, a Chicago-based Muslim father who’s facing the issue with his 10-year-old daughter. “I don’t know exactly how to broach it. I’m trying to preserve my daughter’s natural pride in her community and her background before it starts to get tainted by the fear and prejudice that’s out there.”
Aamir Nooruddin, a Muslim father in Maryland, said he decided to have an in-depth Trump talk with his 8-year-old daughter, Sakeena, after visiting a grade school where the students peppered him with questions about whether he worried about his children’s future in the country.
The fears telegraphed in the students’ questions made him wonder how his own daughter was dealing with the ubiquity of Trump’s message. When Nooruddin asked, he was dismayed to hear a girl who’d only known a black president respond matter-of-factly that Trump doesn’t like “brown people” or Muslims.
Rather than “pile on,” Nooruddin said, he emphasized that bigotry isn’t confined to one person or one political party. But then Sakeena caught him watching a New York Times montage of unfiltered scenes from Trump rallies, with supporters yelling racial slurs and cheering on a man wearing a shirt that said, “F--- Islam.” She looked at her dad and asked: “Do they really hate us?”
That was tough, Nooruddin said. He came up with a response that discussed the angst among many Americans over economic hardship and the country’s changing demographics. He wrapped it up by urging her to be living proof that the bigots are wrong – just work hard, be polite, smile.
“I feel bad because what I really mean is, ‘Don’t come off as a threat,’ ” Nooruddin said. “And that’s a tragedy in itself, that as a parent you have to tell your child not to appear as a threat.”
Fatima Khalaf’s three sons and a daughter are older –10, 15, 18 and 20 – and are already veterans at brushing off the occasional slur of “terrorist” from their classmates in Las Vegas. Khalaf said that living in Nevada, a closely watched swing state, gives her the chance to stress the importance of participation as an antidote to bigotry and xenophobia.
Khalaf is proud that one of her sons is already dipping a toe in politics: he worked on Capitol Hill in Washington this summer and was included in the photo of diverse Democratic interns that circulated after the Republican intern photo went viral because the class was overwhelmingly white.
“A Trump presidency is scary to a lot of minorities because he is so threatening,” Khalaf said. “But for a lot of us in these communities, it’s also been a rallying cry to get more civically engaged, and to talk about politics with our children.”
Sameena Karmally had a morning ritual of listening to NPR with her children but stopped it when Muslims became a staple of the news shows, whether because of Islamic State attacks or Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks. Then Karmally went a step further, banning all discussion of Trump inside her home. Even when dinner guests bring up the man of the hour, she said, “I politely say, ‘This is a no-Trump zone.’ ”
And still her children are keenly aware of Trump and his stances. Karmally said her 6-year-old daughter asked whether the family would have to move to Canada if Trump is elected.
“Every Muslim kid is asking their parents that,” she said. “My kids were born here and he’s made them feel like they don’t have a place in this country. I tell them, ‘There’s enough good people, and you know your neighbors and friends would never let that happen.’ ”
Trump is the worst offender, Muslim families say, but he’s hardly alone. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton doesn’t get a pass, either. Many American Muslims resent Clinton’s habit of describing ordinary Muslim citizens as the first line of defense from terrorism – an idea echoed by her husband, former President Bill Clinton, in his speech to the Democratic National Convention last month.
Tlaib, the Michigan mother, was aghast when another Muslim mom shared a story about a classroom game where the children were separating themselves into groups: those who could stay and those who’d be deported. Tlaib’s own sons have told her “Mama, don’t worry, if anybody asks if we’re Muslim, I’ll lie,” and “We’re lucky – we don’t look Muslim.”
The psychological effects of Trump’s words on children so infuriated Tlaib that she and a couple dozen other mothers began a Michigan-based activist group called “Moms Against Trump.” Tlaib was among the protesters to heckle the candidate during his economic speech in Detroit this week; security escorted her out as Trump’s fans jeered.
“One of the things we tell people is, if he doesn’t win, great, but guess what? The damage is out there and the damage is pretty deep. And it’s going to take us years to rectify what he’s done to our country and our kids,” Tlaib said. “No matter how much we try to protect them and keep them away from him, it’s out there.”