Commentary by Hasan Zillur Rahim in San Jose
The pickup truck was following her. Dr. Sarah felt nervous but tried to convince herself it was just her imagination. He couldn’t possible know she was a Muslim, particularly since she was not wearing the optional hijab, the traditional Islamic head-cover to indicate modesty.
She pulled into the parking lot and got out of her car. The pickup slowed. As she crossed the street to get to her office, the driver, a middle-aged white man, rolled down the window and screamed at her: “Go back home!”
The heat of the man’s hate felt as if it were burning a hole in the back of her head. She ran to the safety of her hospital.
Dr. Sarah was born in Chicago to Muslim parents. After receiving a doctorate in psychology, she began working at a hospital in Silicon Valley in the pain management department as a psychologist, a job in which she has flourished for over a decade. When she reported the incident to her concerned supervisor, she advised her not to drive alone for a few weeks.
A week earlier, an engineer of Asian background, an American citizen, was confronted in the parking lot of a grocery store in San Jose by a driver who screamed: “Go back to where you came from.”
For many residents, the sprouting of bigotry in what is the heart of Silicon Valley, with a diversity of culture, religion and ethnicity rare in the world, is shocking.
“Before, I used to call my friends and relatives in India to ask if they were okay,” said Assemblyman Ash Kalra during a rally organized in response to the growing climate of fear following the election. “Now they call me to inquire if I am safe in Trump’s America!”
Trump has indeed loosened the shackles of bigotry among his supporters, emboldening them to threaten those who don’t look like them, and to hurl insults like, “Go back to where you came from!”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has reported harassment and threats targeting Muslim women and children in Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and California in just the past two weeks alone.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 867 hate incidents in the ten days after Trump’s win in November. The advocacy group South Asians Leading Together (SAALT) put out a report in January that documented 207 hate incidents targeting South Asians, Muslims and Middle Easterners in 2016. The report noted the climate resembled the months following the 9/11 attacks, and attributed the spike in hate to campaign rhetoric during the 2016 race.
Here in San Jose, police documeted four cases of crimes targeting Muslims in 2016. There were no cases prior in the years going back to 2011. Experts say the numbers are misleading, and that because victms are often reluctant to come forward, due to cultural or linguistic barriers, or because they are scared, the figures could be higher.
One of those cases involved the Evergreen Islamic Center, where a letter was received just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday that read, in part: “There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump. He is going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And he’s going to start with you Muslims.” The letter went on to make reference to Nazi Germany, saying Trump would “do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews.”
Still, despite the rising tide of Islamophobia, something remarkable began to happen among members of the local Muslim community in the days and weeks following Trump’s win. Having learned in the aftermath of 9/11 that a culture of shame and silence only promoted the politics of fear, area Muslims instead started forging bonds with community residents at a grass-roots level.
Several members of Evergreen (myself included) joined “Indivisible East San Jose,” one of nearly 6,000 ‘Indivisible’ groups that sprang up across the nation as a response and resistance to Trump’s presidency.
Meeting once every month, members knock on doors in San Jose’s depressed areas, informing undocumented workers, for example, of their rights if ICE shows up and the availability of free legal help. A few families in dire straits have been escorted to sanctuaries in synagogues and churches.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Evergreen teamed up with local Christians and Jews as members of “Abrahamic Alliance” at a church to prepare meals for the homeless. For most, this was their first experience with a soup kitchen. Many were shocked to find that in one of the most prosperous areas in the world, there were people for whom a decent meal and a bed to sleep on are luxuries often beyond reach.
As remarkable is the growing outreach and solidarity extended to area Muslims from other immigrant communities. There have been several marches staged to commemorate the Japanese internment and to draw connections between that dark period in U.S. history and its echo against Muslims in Trump’s time. Meetings were held with Internment survivors who spoke of the importance of resistance.
Then there are the acts of individual kindness.
“Just think about it,” said Peggy, who drove an hour from the city of Santa Cruz with several friends in a show of solidarity with Evergreen following the recent threats. “Would we have even met if it were not for Trump? No! This is the silver lining in the dark cloud that hangs over our nation now.”
For local Muslims, the bridges now being formed in the era of Trump are a case of serendipity, the unintended but cathartic consequences of hate.
Hasan Zillur Rahim wrote this story with support from New America Media’s Tracking Hate Fellowship program. Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College and the Outreach Director of the Evergreen Islamic Center in San Jose.
Republished in partnership with New America Media.