Opinion

I am a heartland Muslim and I don’t think all Trump supporters are racist

Saeed A. Khan is a lecturer at Wayne State University in Detroit and co-teaches a course on Muslim-Christian diversity at Rochester College. Photo courtesy of Saeed A. Khan

(RNS) The election of Donald Trump has been met by exactly half this country with jubilation and by the other half with extreme trepidation.

For the latter, the next four years are a matter of palpable anxiety due to two indisputable realities: a campaign that was unprecedented in recent memory regarding its demonization of entire segments of our society based upon religion, gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity; and a reaction among some of Trump’s supporters, emboldened by their candidate’s victory, to lash out at members of each of those groups with abuse and in some cases, violence.

Clearly, racism and bigotry are on display because they were unleashed, perhaps normalized, by a political strategy to mobilize voters. But to infer that all of Trump’s supporters are rabid racists, or even motivated by such base impulses, would be as ironically absurd as those who contend that all Muslims are terrorists. An accurate assessment of the election and the reality of this nation requires nuance, not the replacement of one binary narrative with another.


COUNTERPOINT: Trump supporters think my life is worth less than theirs


Admittedly, my background is not typical of the average Muslim American; at the same time, it is also evident that it differs from at least half of the national experience as well, if the election alignments are any indication.

I spent my teenage years growing up in Lapeer, Mich., a small town about an hour north of Detroit and a half-hour east of Flint.

In the early ’80s, while I was in high school, the recession hit; Flint died as General Motors closed down several facilities. Lapeer was a feeder community for the auto industry. With facility closures in Pontiac and Detroit, Lapeer suffered as a whole. There were no liberals; no conservatives. There were simply people suffering, but they did so with incomprehensible dignity. There was no bitterness, no call for pity, no lawlessness. Lapeer was a community whose people came together to help each other cope with a crisis.

As a member of the only Muslim family in Lapeer, I needed only to step out of my house to experience the recession. While we were very fortunate to be comfortable during those years, I was painfully aware that others did not enjoy my condition.

As a physician, my father had patients who sheepishly avoided coming in for their scheduled office visits because they had no health insurance. My father would tell them they couldn’t find work if they were sick, so they could keep their appointments and worry about paying later, if at all.

Years afterward, when the economy improved, my father would receive checks in the mail from unfamiliar postmarks: Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama, Texas. They were from former patients who never forgot dad’s gesture in their time of need.

From the number of signs in people’s yards in the run-up to the elections, and from conversations with locals, I can say that Lapeer has its fair share of Trump supporters.

Those discussions about voting preference were candid, but came from a place of mutual trust and respect. For them, it was a matter of a health insurance law that showed promise, but had increased their premium costs.

It was a matter of being patronized by elites from the D.C. Beltway who talk a good game but deliver nothing.

Emphatically, and to a person, no one said they chose Trump because of some racial, nativistic rationale.

Interestingly, many said they had been “all in” for Bernie Sanders, hardly a magnet for bigots and white supremacists. They switched to Trump because Hillary Clinton was not genuine or sincere for them. Their desperation for a better life led them to the welcoming rhetoric of Trump, a choice that was more a socio-economic gamble than an ideological gambit.

The already divisive state of our nation is now training its lens of demarcation on how and why people voted for their respective candidate.

In the midst of shock felt by those who thought Clinton was a lock for the White House, and no doubt aided by Trump’s own toxic rhetoric that routinely demonized people based upon their religion, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, many imputed upon the president-elect’s supporters the categorical and singular motivation of racism and bigotry.

They are bewildered that anyone would willingly refuse to disavow a candidate who introduced so much rancor. Several have in fact now demanded his voters prove their lack of bigotry by explicitly speaking out against it.

As a Muslim American, while I can understand the frustration, I am troubled by the irony and the imperative, having been on the receiving end of it for the past 15 years.

Muslims are routinely asked to disavow terrorism any time a Muslim commits an extremist act. It is a terrible, unreasonable burden to place upon anyone to disprove a presumption they may not hold.

The racism that fuels some Trump voters does not motivate all; there are a multitude of impulses that cause people to choose a certain name on a ballot, not all of which are governed by the darker angels of our nature. His pool of supporters is as complex as the mosaic that makes up the Muslim American community.

For the sake of honesty, symmetry and sincerity, it is apt that Muslims invoke the golden rule and ask that people do unto others as they would hope others would do unto them.

(Saeed A. Khan is a lecturer at Wayne State University in Detroit and co-teaches a course on Muslim-Christian diversity at Rochester College)

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