In the days after the November election, Kat Nijmeddin had dozens of Twitter notifications every time she looked down at her phone. Many were from people criticizing the Muslim Fresno State student’s hair covering or telling her to leave the country.
“… go back to your country, you would expect us to adhere to your country’s customs you need to do the same.”
“Your religion’s outfit, just like gang signs, represent the beliefs of the most disgusting radicals in the civilized world. Drop it!”
“… u look weird with a rag on your head …”
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For the record, she was born in the United States.
Nijmeddin, 22, is an avid Twitter user with more than 3,000 followers. She wears a hijab. Her profile photo reflected that – until the negative comments got overwhelming.
On Nov. 15, the art student replaced it with a photo of paint, tweeting, “you better believe I changed my display pic bc I was tired of people automatically attacking/trolling me for my hijab.”
Nijmeddin’s experience is not an anomaly. Many American Muslims feel vulnerable after the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign included anti-Muslim rhetoric and proposals. Local Muslim leaders say some women have even stopped wearing their hijabs for fear of being attacked.
In March, Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “tremendous hatred” partly defines the world’s second-largest religion. “I think Islam hates us,” he said, adding that it’s hard to distinguish between the religion and Islamic extremism.
FBI hate crime statistics released this month show 257 reported such crimes against Muslims last year, a 67 percent surge over 2014.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported 701 incidents of harassment nationwide in the first week after the presidential election. Of those, 206 were anti-immigrant and 51 were anti-Muslim. SPLC also reported 27 anti-Trump incidents. In an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” last month, Trump said he was saddened to hear about the incidents and told his supporters to “stop it.”
Nijmeddin said she threw up the night of the election from stress. She wrote that the election felt like a nightmare and that she was scared.
Early the next morning, one of her tweets went viral: “I am not going to take off my hijab,” she wrote, “I’m just going to tie it tighter. I’m not going to sacrifice a part of me to adhere to your ignorance.”
Other people don’t feel as confident as Nijmeddin. Another Fresno State student started wearing a hijab last summer and is still getting used to strangers staring at her. The Bee is not identifying the 18-year-old because she fears for her safety.
She said that on campus the day after the election, she avoided eye contact while walking past people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. Later that day, she bought pepper spray, just in case she gets assaulted like a Muslim student at San Jose State University and others.
Even driving makes her uneasy. She now makes sure to look only straight ahead when pulling up to red lights, just in case someone notices her hijab and reacts.
“To just start wearing a hijab and then have this election happen, it made me more nervous than it should,” she said. Despite the fear, the 18-year-old said she won’t take off her hijab, though she understands why others would.
Muslims who believe their rights were violated are asked to contact local police and the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Civil Rights department at 202-742-6420 or by filing a report online at www.cair.com/civil-rights/report-an-incident/view/form.html
Last month on ABC News’ “This Week,” Trump said he wants a database and watch lists specifically for Syrian refugees. Nearly a dozen Syrian families have arrived in Fresno since late October. The city could be designated as a resettlement site, bringing up to 150 more families in the year afterward if approved.
Said Habbaba, 66, came to Fresno with his wife and daughter four years ago at the beginning of the civil war, seeking asylum. Through an interpreter, Habbaba said it’s difficult to judge Trump because he hasn’t done anything yet and he understands that politicians sometimes say whatever it takes to get elected.
Still, he fears what could happen if he and his family are forced to leave.
“I hope he doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do,” Habbaba said.
Letter heightens vigilance
The 18-year-old Fresno State student said she was scared to learn that the mosque she has attended since she was a toddler had received a hate letter threatening Muslim genocide.
The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno was among many mosques around the state and country to receive the letter. Police and the FBI are investigating the mailing, which says Trump will do to Muslims what Hitler did to Jews. It calls Muslims “filthy people” and says they “worship the devil.” It is signed by “Americans for a Better Way.”
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Fresno Islamic center, said the organization received similar messages throughout the presidential campaign. He said Trump wasn’t the only candidate with Islamophobic rhetoric, pointing to Hillary Clinton saying at the third presidential debate that Muslims are on the front lines to identify and prevent terrorist attacks.
“That erases everything else about us,” he said, “like the only value we have is somehow finding these ghost terrorists out there, and I don’t know any more than you.”
Nekumanesh now worries about all immigrants and people of color under Trump’s presidency, though he is particularly concerned about Muslim women who wear a hijab and Sikhs who wear a turban or beard, because they are visible targets.
Last year in Fresno, an elderly Sikh man was beaten and run over with a car while walking to work. Friday, the attacker, who yelled: “ISIS. Terrorist. Let’s get him,” was sentenced to four years in prison for what a jury determined was a hate crime.
Local Sikh leaders say many in their community have been on edge since the election, too.
Nekumanesh urged people to stay strong but remain vigilant.
You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re expressing your religious identity in a country that honors religious freedom.
Reza Nekumanesh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno
“We don’t want women to feel less empowered. The answer is not to take off the hijab and hide who you are,” he said. “And you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re expressing your religious identity in a country that honors religious freedom.”
Nijmeddin’s non-Muslim friends refused to let Twitter trolls win. They created a hashtag campaign, #WeAreKat. They added the phrase to their Twitter bios and changed their profile photos to pictures of Nijmeddin. The hashtag was tweeted by hundreds of people, including many who don’t know Nijmeddin personally.
“I was speechless,” she said. “That’s one of the nicest and most heartfelt things anyone has ever done for me. And it’s something so little.”
She hasn’t changed her profile picture back to one of herself yet but plans to soon. The hateful tweets have died down.
About 150 people filled the Islamic Center for a public prayer Friday afternoon. Nekumanesh said the center was inundated with calls and messages of support after learning about the hateful letter.
One girl taped a pink heart-shaped note to the window this week, saying she had gone to the center with her mom to vote on Election Day.
“I am sorry someone wrote hurtful things to you in a letter,” the girl wrote. “I think all people should be nice and welcoming to each other.”