President Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets really bring me back to the past — to an era in Pakistan when demonization of a religious minority led to devastation of an entire country.
I was born in Pakistan. Like America, Pakistan was founded as a democratic republic, guaranteeing secular governance and universal religious freedom. But in 1987, only 40 years after our country’s birth, my family and I left to escape religious persecution.
Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq executed a military coup to come to power. Among his first actions, Zia signed an executive order targeting Pakistan’s Ahmadiyya Muslim minority — to which we belonged — prescribing fines, arrest and even death should we dare practice our faith. Zia hijacked media to claim Ahmadis hated Pakistan. He called us a “cancer” and accused us of spreading false information even as he shut down our mosques and schools. He spent his questionable presidency empowering right-wing religious fundamentalists, elevating fascist ideology, and mixing religion and state. We didn’t stick around to see what would happen next. By March 1987, we immigrated to America.
Fast forward to 2017. Now I’m a human rights attorney and American Muslim citizen living in Washington — and I’m experiencing deja vu. During Trump’s election campaign, he suggested “Muslim ID cards,” contemplated shutting down mosques and claimed, “Islam hates us.” Almost as soon as he took office, he signed an executive order targeting Muslims coming to America. He has also empowered right-wing fundamentalists, elevated fascists, delegitimized media as fake news, and mixed religion and state. With every tweet, Trump seems to reach a new nadir. On Wednesday, the president retweeted three anti-Muslim videos from the leader of a British far-right extremist organization.
This is not just about the obvious recklessness of tweeting fake videos demonizing Muslims and the danger of promoting neo-fascist ideology. We need to look beyond the obvious foolishness of Trump’s choosing to pick a public fight with our closest ally, British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump is leading America down a dangerous path. My birth country of Pakistan offers an image of the consequences of the incitement of anti-Muslim hatred — and it isn’t pretty.
The year after we left Pakistan, Zia died in a mysterious plane crash. But the damage was done. Zia had radicalized enough Pakistanis that his legacy of extremism far outlasted his life. The persecution of Ahmadi Muslims increased, and millions of them still live in apartheid-like conditions: unable to vote, run for office or even say the Islamic greeting of “As-Salaam Alaikum” without suffering fine or arrest, or being sentenced to capital punishment.
The proliferation of extremist ideology post-Zia harmed all Pakistanis of all backgrounds. Since 1987, terrorists have killed more than 70,000 Pakistanis, the equivalent of about 23 back-to-back 9/11 attacks. National adult literacy is merely 54.9 percent, and the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue to recruit innocent Pakistani children to their barbaric ideologies. Moreover, Zia’s unhinged support for religious fundamentalists led to the explosion of unregulated and unregistered madrassas — which has subsequently resulted in rampant child sex abuse.
Just as Zia refused to condemn right-wing Muslim extremism, the American president refuses to condemn right-wing white supremacy. One study concluded that white supremacists radicalized online grew by 600 percent since 2012 alone, outperforming the Islamic State. Just as Pakistani media remained silent on the persecution of Ahmadi Muslims, American media reports on terrorism done by Muslims at a rate of five times that of terrorism done by non-Muslims — while largely ignoring the epidemic threat of right-wing extremism. In about two dozen presidential debates during the 2016 election, not one journalist asked either Republican or Democratic candidates about the threat of white supremacy terrorism, while nearly every debate included discussions about “radical Islam.” This, even though American police departments and the military have both warned that white supremacy terrorism is a far greater threat to America than even the Islamic State.
In the United States, 2016 represented a five-year high in hate crimes in the United States, with anti-Muslim hate crimes representing a 15-year high. In October 2017, at least four white men were accused of attempting to send or set off explosives, one of which was at an airport. We saw a march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and then another in Tennessee. In a shooting in Gainesville, Fla., a suspect screamed “heil Hitler” before he fired.
Recently, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, the Khalifa of Islam and worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, spoke on this dire state, admonishing, “If we truly want peace in our time then we must act with justice. As Prophet [Muhammad] so beautifully stated, we must love for others what we love for ourselves. We must pursue the rights of others with the same zeal and determination that we pursue our own rights.”
Pakistanis forgot this lesson. My fellow Americans can still embrace it — provided we choose to stand together against extremism. Thirty years ago, my parents brought my three siblings and I to America in search of religious freedom. We found it, and we’re not giving it up that easily. This isn’t just about some anti-Muslim tweets. It’s about the path that America will choose to set for itself.
Qasim Rashid is an attorney, author and national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.