America’s Oldest Muslim Families on the Trump Presidency: ‘This Can’t Deter Us’


Alyssa Haughwout, the caretaker at the Brooklyn’s historic Lipka Tatar mosque.
Alyssa Haughwout, the caretaker of Brooklyn’s historic Lipka Tatar mosque. Photograph: Ryan Schuessler for the Guardian


When Alyssa Haughwout heard the news that Donald Trump had become the president-elect of the United States, her first thought was about the century-old mosque she cares for.

“I’m not really worried, knock on wood,” said the 31-year-old native of Brooklyn and third-generation American of Lipka Tatar descent. “But when Trump got elected, my first thought was: ‘We should get a security camera. We don’t have a video in the front. Let’s just do that.’” The community has since started the process of upgrading its security system.

Amid a reported spike in hate incidents in recent years and since the election, centenarian Muslim communities across the country – whose families have been in the country as long as Trump’s, if not longer – are wondering what will come next. Generations before the president-elect irrationally claimed “Islam hates us”on national television, their parents and grandparents were writing the story of what it means to be an American Muslim, from the streets of Brooklyn to the plains of North Dakota.

Now, Americas’ oldest Muslim families are holding on to optimism: “This too shall pass,” said Marion Sedorowitz, Haughwout’s aunt, who also sits on the board of the mosque, which is a spiritual home to Brooklyn’s 110-year-old Lipka Tatar community.

Lipka Tatars are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group with roots in what are now the lands split between Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. Hundreds immigrated to the US at the turn of the last century – around the same time that Donald Trump’s paternal grandfather left Germany for the US in 1885.

‘All this anti-Muslim-ism – I want to say it will be short-lived’

Brooklyn’s historic Lipka Tatar mosque.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Brooklyn’s historic Lipka Tatar mosque. Photograph: Ryan Schussler for The Guardian

“I think a lot of that garbage is going to be swept under the rug,” Joe Aossey, an 80-year-old lifelong resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said about the anti-Muslim fervor emboldened by the Trump campaign. “There are simply too many Muslims, and they have too many friends.”

Hassan Igram, 61, also of Cedar Rapids, said: “I have a lot of faith in the American people, I really do. I think if they were to be approached by Muslims, they would change. We’re people with the same aspirations as any other American.”

Aossey’s maternal grandparents immigrated to Iowa in the late 1880s from what is now Lebanon – a few years before Trump’s grandfather became a US citizen in Seattle, going on to seed the family’s wealth in a gold-rush-era bar and brothel in Canada, biographers have found.

Igram’s family immigrated to the US around that same time. Cedar Rapids’ Muslim community is more than a century old, and the city is home to one of the first purpose-built mosques in North America.

“The way I see it – all this anti-Muslim-ism – I want to say it will be short-lived,” Aossey said. “It comes from the ignorance of people who don’t know anything except their own [lives], or it comes from the top to divide and rule.”

Describing the reported spike in hate incidents against Muslims since the election, Igram said: “Even if [Trump] doesn’t condone it, he’s already set the groundwork for this stuff to happen.” Igram said he had family members, particularly women who wear hijab, who have been harassed in public. “It’s not a coincidence.”

Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – among the first purpose-built mosques in the United States.
FacebookTwitterPinterest Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – among the first purpose-built mosques in the United States. Photograph: Ryan Shuessler for the Guardian

Ken Zvizdich, who is a third-generation member of Chicago’s deep-rooted Bosnian Muslim community, is also concerned about what might be in store for American Muslims under a Trump administration.

“The majority of the Muslims have adjusted well in this country, and I think the implications that have been made are not correct,” Zvizdich, 50, said. “I think the Muslims in this country are going through the same things that the Jews went through, the Irish went through, the Italians went through – the difference is that today you have TV, iPhones, cameras, the internet. I think in 50 years or 100 years, Muslims are going to be an accepted part of this culture and society. It’s a difficult time, and American Muslims need to realize that, but they also need to step up and say we’re proud Americans and we want to do what’s right by this country, too.”

Zvizdich’s grandfather immigrated from Bosnia in 1906 and was a founding member of a benevolent society – Chicago’s Dzemijetul Hajrije – that is thought to be the oldest Muslim organization in the US. It once had chapters in cities such as Gary, Indiana, and Boise, Idaho. The Zvizdich family counts several US military veterans in its ranks.

“My grandfather’s favorite holiday was Thanksgiving, because it was the one holiday that they could identify as a true American,” Zvizdich said. “I’m a proud American. I have no conflict of interest [with my religion].”

‘They should be evaluated before they come into the country’

A military tombstone in Ross, North Dakota’s Muslim cemetery.
FacebookTwitterPinterest A military tombstone in a Muslim cemetery in Ross, North Dakota. Photograph: Ryan Schussler for The Guardian

Richard Omar, a 66-year-old son of Lebanese immigrants and a native of Mountrail County, North Dakota, falls more into the camp that is skeptical of Muslim immigrants.

“You say that Muslims are portrayed as evil people,” Omar said in a phone interview from his home in Stanley, North Dakota. “Well, some of them are [evil]. I won’t argue with that. It’s no different than any other group of people.”

Of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, he added: “They should be evaluated before they come into the country.”

Those applying for refugee status in the US go through a rigorous vetting process that crosses multiple government agencies and can take more than two years to complete.

Omar is a descendant of a small community of Muslim homesteaders in North Dakota who are credited with building the first US mosque, in the town of Ross in 1929 – the year before Trump’s Scottish mother immigrated to the United States. Omar believes his parents may have prayed at that mosque, but it was falling apart by the time he was old enough to remember. He and his siblings attended a Christian church growing up.

“They were just common people to me,” he said of his parents and the other Muslim immigrants who came to north-west North Dakota at the beginning of the 20th century. “And I think to everybody else in this area.”

Betty Abdallah, whose father was a member of Ross’s Muslim community, told the Guardian in June: “From my upbringing, the Muslim faith isn’t unkind. It makes me sad, for the stupidity. It’s not Muslims that are unsafe. It’s ‘radical’. And you can be a radical Christian. You can be a radical Jehovah’s Witness. It’s just the word ‘radical’.”

Back in Brooklyn, the Sedorowitzes and their niece contemplated the rise of Islamophobia over coffee and Italian pastries.

“A lot of non-Muslim folks do not have enough information about Islam,” Marion Sedorowitz said. “And they have the wrong information. It’s like our religion has been hijacked. And it’s really difficult to try to get people to understand.”

For Alyssa Haughwout, who became the mosque’s caretaker a year ago, Trump’s victory comes at a time when she has been pushing for her community to further open its spiritual home to the neighborhood and world – in part to tell its story and show how Islam has long been a part of American society.

“[Opening the mosque up] was important before and now even more so,” she said, referring to Trump’s victory. “This can’t be the thing that deters us. This is just more reason to do it.”

Courtesy: Guardian

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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