During his final State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama carved out around two minutes from his 58-minute speech to touch on the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric that’s been sweeping the nation.
As Obama spoke optimistically about America’s future, he also took clear aim at the Republican party and its leading presidential front-runner Donald Trump for inciting fear and anti-Muslim sentiment.
“When politicians insult Muslims, whether abroad, or fellow citizens, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer. That’s not telling it what—telling it like it is, it’s just wrong,” Obama said on Tuesday. “It betrays who we are as a country.”
Just three days before Obama’s address, a Muslim woman wearing a hijab was escorted out of Trump’s campaign rally in South Carolina after she stood up in silent protest when the GOP candidate suggested that Syrian refugees fleeing war in Syria were affiliated with the terrorist group ISIS. Trump has also previously called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
Since getting ejected from Trump’s event, Rose Hamid—a 56-year-old flight attendant and Muslim activist—said she’s not looking for an apology; she just wants people to know that “Muslims are not the enemy.”
Hamid’s message lies at the crux of the struggle faced by Muslim Americans right now: how to dismantle the idea that there is a clear link between the Muslim faith—Islam—and terrorists like ISIS.
The debate surrounding Syrian refugees entering the U.S. took on an Islamophobic tone immediately following the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. A mass shooting in San Bernardino, California—less than three weeks later—was tied to ISIS. And just this week both Istanbul and Jakarta fell victims to suicide bombings that have also been linked back to ISIS.
“I think probably the worst feeling in the world when we hear about something like 9/11 or San Bernardino or the Paris attacks—the worst possible thing I could hear after hearing about those tragedies—is that somebody who identifies as Muslim committed those crimes,” Nawara Alawa, a 24-year-old Muslim American, said during an interview.
“I’m a victim of ISIS,” Saif Hamideh, a 23-year-old Muslim American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Jordan, told me. Hamideh said not only is ISIS hurting his own people—the American people—and destroying his ancestral homeland, but the terrorist group is also threatening “the ideals of liberal democracy” intrinsic to our country.
Young Muslim Americans like Alawa and Hamideh mostly chalk up rising anti-Muslim sentiment to a fear of the “unknown.” Indeed, a poll conducted by TIME in 2010 revealed that 62% of Americans didn’t “personally know a Muslim American.” But they do blame the media for perpetuating the stereotypes that have shaped public perception that suicide bombings and mass shootings are tenets of their religion. This community of Americans wants people to understand that ISIS does not represent Islam.
“Islam is a religion of peace. There’s no violence, no imperialism in Islam,” Hamideh said. “I feel no need to apologize on behalf of ISIS because I have nothing to do with them. In fact, they’re fighting everything I stand for.”