This week 15-year-old Amnah Khan joined hundreds of demonstrators in the small town of Easton in Pennsylvania to protest the travel ban introduced by Donald Trump.
The American teenager, who wears a black headscarf, fears that Pakistan — from where her parents emigrated before she was born — might be added to the list of the seven Muslim-majority countries from which the new administration last weekend temporarily barred travellers.
“When they start targeting us, it’s taking away that freedom that my parents came here for — it’s scary to think that the nation that I love, that this president is pushing me away, that we’re going to be targeted as Muslims,” says Ms Khan.
Donald Trump’s executive order barring travel from Syria, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, suspending new refugee admissions and banning Syrian refugees has spurred nationwide protests, legal challenges and opposition from within his own party.
Despite the administration’s denial that the travel ban amounts to a religious test, it has alarmed Muslims. Mr Trump did little to quell those fears when, on the morning the order was issued, he told a Christian news service that he would prioritise Christian refugees.
This corner of eastern Pennsylvania was once home to America’s second-largest steel producer. It includes one of the oldest and largest Syrian communities in the US and has welcomed thousands of Muslim immigrants over the past 20 years. For Ms Khan and others at the rally, this is only the beginning — they plan to continue to protest Mr Trump’s ban in the weeks and months to come.
Zeynab Ahmed, who was also at the rally, was born in the US to Egyptian immigrants toward the end of segregation in the 1960s. “I remember being refused to go to the bathroom because of my skin colour — and this is like history repeating itself,” she says. “What has happened to my country? I don’t want to [travel] because I’m terrified they won’t let me back in — even though I was born here.”
Many Muslims fear that Mr Trump has embraced a dark view of Islam. During the campaign, he warned that Syrian refugees were going to be “a great Trojan horse” and said, “I think Islam hates us”. His chief adviser and the reported architect of the policy, Steve Bannon, has said that he believes the west is in an existential war with Islam, which he has compared to Nazism.
The sort of “us vs them” mentality that seems to be guiding the Trump White House is disheartening, says Nagi Latefa, president of the Muslim Association of Lehigh Valley. He says the “emotional impact is huge”, particularly on young people like his five daughters.
“Kids don’t understand the difference between a green card or a citizen or a visa — but they know that Islam is mentioned all the time, and they want to know why the president is singling out Islam — are we different? Is there something wrong with us?” he says. “For us — even as adults, even as citizens — we are worried that this is just the beginning of much more to come.”
He says last weekend’s mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque that left six Muslims dead allegedly at the hands of a far-right extremist who has reportedly expressed support for Mr Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen reveals the “lethal impact” such rhetoric can have. “When you keep talking about [how] these people are coming to change your country, change your way of life . . .” it can spark violence, he says.
Many of the refugees who have already settled in the area, fleeing imprisonment and death at the hands of the Assad regime, say this is not the America they know. “We understand that he wants to make the US safer, but not in this way, where he is saying he will deny Muslim refugees only — this is not American values,” says a refugee, who escaped Syria years ago and does not want his identity to be revealed for fear of facing retaliation from the Assad regime.
“They say they are afraid of Isis — we are afraid of Isis! Isis has killed more Muslims than anyone, but they are not Muslim to us: they are criminals,” he says. “Seventy years ago, the British in the Middle East, the French in Algeria, the Italians in Libya, they killed millions in the Muslim world, but we didn’t say, ‘see, look how many Muslims the Christians killed!’ No, we understand that [this is not] religion, that these are people driven by something else.”
Still, Mr Latefa says he has been heartened by the outpouring of support from locals and politicians from both parties. Last weekend, his mosque held a “meet your Muslim neighbours” event that usually attracts a few hundred people over the course of a day. Instead, more than a thousand showed up. “It was beyond our wildest imaginations,” he says. “I don’t care what people say around the world, this is the America we know and love.”
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