GCC nationals in America: Experiencing the good and bad of life under Trump

From the distasteful rhetoric on the campaign trail, through the first few months with a new president, Muslims from the Gulf who call the United States home remain on guard.
The Trump administration has signalled a strong alliance with the GCC countries.
By Ola Salem in Washington, D.C.
Mon 03 Jul 2017 11:05 AM

Zaineb Bahram was shopping at a mall in Florida when a stranger started yelling profanities at her.

The 30-year-old from Bahrain was wearing a hijab, which makes her a target in anti-Islamic attacks.

The incident, however, did not take place during president Donald Trump’s reign, but months earlier.

“I do not think President Trump is the reason behind the Muslim insecurity in the States as much as it is due to terror attacks and ISIS. They have caused fear in the American society,” Bahram says.

Still, there is no denying that an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes arrived within hours of Trump’s victory, whose infamous campaign speeches incited hatred towards Muslims.

Most notably, he called for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, a registry for all Muslims in the US and close monitoring of mosques.

Within 24 hours of his election, Trump's name had already been scribbled on public property known to be Muslim spaces at educational institutes. Children were bullied in schools for their faith and told to go back to where they came from.

For Gulf expatriates in the US, the climate became too toxic. They reached out to one another to offer their support. They also turned to their respective countries’ embassies as they wondered if the US was no longer a safe place to live.

Many of them agree with Bahram that Trump did not create Muslim hatred, but his arrival normalised it and fuelled it as he continued to link Islam to terror attacks.

“Muslims are getting increasingly angry, with [ISIS] and terror attacks,” says Oussama Jammal, Secretary General of the US Council of Muslim Organisation in Washington.

“It is not in our advantage when some lunatic [carries out] an attack in the West. These attackers are our main enemy and undermine American and European Muslims.”

With every terror attack, several other anti-Muslim attacks follow — mostly targeting women in hijabs, or worshippers who have attended their local mosques.

A woman attends a town hall meeting following a rally to protest restrictive guidelines issued by the US on who qualifies as a close familial relationship under the Supreme Court order on the Muslim and refugee ban at Union Square on June 29, 2017, in New York. US President Donald Trump's five-month effort to implement a promised ban on travellers from six mostly Muslim countries and on all refugees took effect late Thursday, June 29, 2017 as controversy swirls over who qualifies for an exemption based on family ties. (Photo: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

On June 20, a 47-year-old man, who was labelled a “far-right white terrorist” in British media, rammed a rented van into a number of Muslim worshippers in London as they were leaving Finsbury Park mosque following Ramadan Taraweeh prayers. One was killed while eight others were injured.

The attack appeared to have been orchestrated to mimic an attack carried out by ISIS-affiliates earlier in the month also in London. On June 3, three men drove a rented van into pedestrians on London bridge. The attackers then abandoned the van and went on a stabbing spree in Borough Market. Seven were killed that night and 48 were wounded.

Some Muslim women took off their hijab to retain religious ambiguity in light of the attacks. Others sought self-defence classes for protection.

Kalimah Rashada, a Muslim American from Tennessee, says the best way to survive any crime is to fight back.

“We partnered up with [international] black-belt martial artists to come to local mosques and set up self-defence lessons,” says the Programme Manager for the American Muslim Advisory Council.

She says all women who come to her class have fallen victim to “hateful speech” and “negative slurs”.

“I started these classes right after the election when we got statistical data that hateful attacks on people who look Muslim had increased,” she says.

“These are not only women, they are women and Muslim, and wearing a hijab. You are adding to the compound of women.”

Even as months pass with Trump as president, despite a fresh start within the region after his visit to Saudi Arabia, GCC Muslims in America continue to face uncertainty. Rashada says there has not been a moment of “relief” for Muslims.

Amidst all the hate, however, new bonds of solitary have formed.

With every new policy and every act against Muslims, many Americans have protested and offered support to the Muslim community.

Dr Fatima Al Dhaheri, an Emirati physician in Washington, says this unity has made her proud to call America her “second home”.

“I'm definitely less worried now because of the way the country came together against [Trump’s] policies,” she says. “That made me feel empowered, as a visible Muslim woman in my field of work and I felt proud of this country.”

But it is not all bad for Gulf expatriates. Politically, the White House has signalled a strong alliance with the GCC countries, which did not have the sort of relationship they desired under the previous administration.

In a speech Trump gave on May 20 in Saudi Arabia, where he made his first foreign trip, he slammed Iran, called for its isolation, announced billions in arms deals with Saudi Arabia, backed the war in Yemen and recognised the Gulf’s approach to fight terror.

Even phrases formally used by him to describe radical terrorist organisations were changed to distance the group from a religion. When it comes to the Gulf, he has ticked all the boxes and earned approval from many GCC leaders.

Saeed Alhasen, Deputy Executive Director of the Saudis in America organisation, says the visit to the kingdom “revived life” in the US-Saudi relationship and provided “comfort” for Saudi students in the country, which he estimated to be more than 125,000.

“Donald Trump’s rhetoric during the campaigning period was not reassuring, especially for his campaign against Islam and Muslims,” he says. “But after assuming office, his first visit was to the Saudi kingdom and he sat at one table with King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and Islamic world leaders. This visit gives a very clear message that the US strongly supports and is reviving the life of the partnership.”

Youssef Al Nuaimi, a Saudi studying international politics at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, says he prefers Trump over Obama.

“There are a lot of things the Arab world can, and will, do with the Trump administration,” he says. “Even though his rhetoric was bad. I mean, we look at Obama, he said some of the most wonderful things about the Muslim world. Look at his policy and how he left the Middle East. We don’t care about rhetoric, but we care about action.

“[With Obama], Tehran got a free hand — [he] allowed them to do whatever they wanted inside Iran, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Specifically Yemen. I think on a weekly and monthly basis [the Obama administration] was speaking to counterparts in the Iranian regime and emboldening them in the Middle East.”

Al Nuaimi says Republicans’ foreign policy was generally more in line with that of the GCC states.

Although there is hope that Muslims in the US will catch a break in light of new bonds with the Gulf Sunni states, they have been told to remain vigilant and report all crimes.

Jammal says his organisation is working closely with the FBI and local police departments. “Unfortunately, we still have reported incidents of backlash on the Muslim community,” he says. “They are sporadic and go up and down — depending on news, unfortunately.”

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Last Updated: Thu 06 Jul 2017 04:12 PM GST

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