"You don’t have any bombs in the back of your car, do you?”
Asif Ansari, a forty-three-year-old with light-brown skin and a graying beard, was with his wife and two sons at a zoo on the West Coast in 2013, watching an exhibit. An extended family approached him.
A man had made the remark. He was there with his mother, his son, and his grandson, as best as Asif could tell. The comment was completely unprompted, and Asif says he responded calmly, stating that he was born and educated in the United States and had never had such a comment directed at him before. But those words have stuck with him.
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Asif Ansari
“While it’s not something that happens a lot,” Ansari says, “it’s happened at least once, and that’s enough to make me be aware of my surroundings wherever I am with my family.”
He’s sitting in the small library of the Apex Mosque, which houses works ranging from historical texts to children’s books. For roughly three years he’s served as vice director of the five-hundred-member mosque as well as its media and outreach coordinator. When the INDY contacted the mosque for an interview, he came forward, ready to discuss this unnerving presidential election.
“It’s comments that have been made and have not been condemned on the GOP side,” he says. “Which groups have been called out? Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, women—which is surprising. There have been many, many negative comments made about women, without recourse. So, as I said, I’m sure there are other groups, but it’s comments about these groups or organizations, which I think are creating a very divisive environment.”
Much of this, of course, has come from Donald Trump, who, at various points in his campaign, has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States, surveillance of all mosques in America, and has criticized the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who was killed in action. A spokeswoman even dismissed concerns about Trump’s anti-Islam language on CNN by saying, “So what? They’re Muslim.”
Most of the eleven local Muslims the INDY interviewed for this story say they’ve encountered little overt bigotry—even this year—which they attribute to the Triangle’s diversity and inclusivity. But they are, nevertheless, very concerned about civil liberties in America, given how Trump has stoked the fear of the other. In fact, in June, such Islamophobia appeared in North Carolina, when a man threatened members of a mosque in Hoke County.
“Really, if you think about it, since September 11, it has gotten harder instead of becoming easier,” says Saad Jafri, an IT professional who attends the Morrisville Islamic Center.
“[Most] people in this country don’t even know a Muslim,” adds his wife, Mary Jafri, also an IT professional. “If you know people, doesn’t matter Muslim or any other, anyone who is different from you, any religion any race, then you have that personal connection with them and that goes a long way.”
According to the Pew Research Center, about 1 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim; in North Carolina, it’s slightly less than that.
“The Muslim population [in North Carolina] is small, but their characteristics are disproportionately such that they’re more likely to vote,” says Jen’nan Read, an associate professor of sociology and global health at Duke University. “So, Muslims, by and large, are citizens, so they have the right to vote. [They are] more highly educated than the U.S. population, and that’s true in North Carolina as well, so they are more of a voting population. They may be one percent, but you can have a lot of other people who don’t vote. It’s about what percentage are they of the voting population.”
- Photo by Ben McKeown
- Asif Ansari at the Apex Mosque in Apex
Indeed, because they live in such a crucial swing state, many locals Muslims feel good about their vote.
“There is a kind of silver lining to this whole thing [because] of the focus on us,” says Kamran Qureshy, a dentist who attends the Islamic Center of Morrisville. “Especially, as you said, this is gonna be a swing state and maybe that one percent is going to make a difference. Right? So it puts a lot of focus on to all communities where we do have large numbers, enough to impact that one percent.”
Even so, Qureshy isn’t exactly excited about how the next four years will play out: “In the end, it probably won’t matter who wins the election,” he says. “Because it depends if the person who’s winning the election who’s saying what they’re saying can actually implement what they’re saying.”
Amirah—a UNC student who asked that her name be changed for this story—echoes those thoughts. She doesn’t like Trump, but she doesn’t care much for Hillary Clinton, or even Barack Obama.
“[Hillary] is a war hawk and is responsible for the complete chaos in Libya,” she says. “And [her] foreign policy: very, very conservative. Very militaristic and very pro-war, pro-military-industrial complex. And a lot of this impacts Muslim countries in particular. … I can’t get with Obama either because he’s—Obama has expanded the drone wars overseas. He’s indiscriminately—I mean, beyond his cool factor, he’s a pretty much part of the military-industrial complex.”
Amirah appears to be in the minority. An informal poll of Muslim Americans conducted shortly after the 2012 election by the Council on American-Islamic Relations showed that 85 percent of respondents voted for Obama. But while the enthusiasm for Clinton is far more muted, local Muslims say they’re undeterred.
“We always make it a point to vote,” Saad says. “But we are also taking steps to help others to register to vote.” That includes local mosques’ registration drives and offers to drive people to the polls.
“A lot of people don’t even know where the local polling station is,” he adds. “Now, how they vote is up to them, but at least they can make that effort.”