An Open Letter to Undecided Voters in the US Election

Posted by on Nov 4, 2016 in Stop and Think | 16 comments

An Open Letter to Undecided Voters in the US Election

My name is Intisar. Many of you know me because you’ve already read something I’ve written, but for those of you who happen across this letter, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

Fun Fact: While in college I was often mistaken for a good Catholic girl by the elderly Mexican immigrants living in our community.

Fun Fact: While in college I was often mistaken for a good Catholic girl by the elderly Mexican immigrants living in our community.

I write young adult fantasy. My stories are about mighty girls living in worlds that look a lot like ours–which is to say, they’re complex, and diverse, and little bit gritty, even if there is a fair bit of magic floating around. These are the kinds of stories I thirsted for as a kid, and I love even the most miserable moments of the writing process. (That’s usually the editing, which is also usually the longest part of the process. There’s a bit of irony in there somewhere.)

But I’m more than just a writer: I’m a homeschooling mama to two young girls who are an absolute delight (except when they’re not, which happens). Before I left work to focus on my family and writing, I worked with our local health department to address infant mortality in Cincinnati (where our African American families were losing their babies at three times the national average) and community health generally. I received my masters in public health from Johns Hopkins University. I can go on about all the things I am: sister, wife, daughter, volunteer, rescuer of stray cats, Girl Scout leader… it’s a long list whenever we try to define ourselves. But there’s one part of my identity that has come to the fore in the current election:

I’m Muslim.

It’s strange, really, to live in the times we do. Our technology is so advanced, and yet history repeats itself over and over again. We’re all still human, no matter what our gadgets do, and so we keep on doing the same things we always have: slipping into patterns that create an us vs. them mentality; dehumanizing each other; making war on others so we don’t look at our own internal problems; heck, scapegoating huge groups of people based on some aspect of their identity–that they’re women, or people of color, or of a just not “from here,” or anything really. It’s amazing the ways we’ve found to discriminate.

As a Muslim American, I have some interesting memories. I remember a neighbor sitting down to a steak dinner at our house when I was six or seven years old and telling my parents they were going to hell. I remember buying pepper spray and being careful–so careful–about walking home alone because two other people in my university town had already been assaulted, one of them hospitalized, in the wake of 9/11. My first year after graduating, I remember waking up the day after Christmas to find that a neighbor had somehow heaved their old Christmas tree over the six foot fence between us into my back yard.

Another part of our history that makes me so proud to be an American.

Another part of our history that makes me so proud to be an American – the heroism and strength of those who stood up for and continue to champion our civil rights and liberties.

There are, of course, counter-stories. There were the neighbors who made me feel like I was part of their family; the women who called our Muslim Students Association and offered to walk anyone anywhere in order to assure our safety; the neighbors who rushed out of their homes and hauled the Christmas tree away while I was still pondering where Christmas trees go when they’re no longer wanted. I’m grateful for these counter-stories, so very very grateful for the love and care and respect inherent in them. When I think of my country, this is what makes me proud to be American.

But through all these years, all these incidents (far more than I’ve described above), there was at least one other thing I had: my elected political leaders were absolutely clear that I was not an enemy, that Islam was not “the problem.” The media might paint overly simplistic narratives of Islam, there might be extremists specifically trying to change the face of Islam and further that “us vs. them” mentality, but at the end of the day, my leaders didn’t think I was dangerous just for believing in one god and striving to live by the golden rule.

Until now.

This presidential campaign marks a turning point in political rhetoric. And it’s a rhetoric that has been negative in so many ways that it boggles the mind. A single candidate has normalized the voicing of sexist, racist, able-ist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic statements, among others. This has had a very real and documented impact on life as we know it. Trump’s campaign has been linked to the steep rise of anti-Muslim violence over the last year or more. According to another report on the impact of the presidential campaign on schools, Trump’s campaign is producing “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.” Let that sink in. Just sit with it for a moment.

This probably isn’t your life. Maybe it is–I don’t know. But tonight I want to give you a window into my life. My little girls are six and four years old. For Halloween, they dressed up as a blue unicorn and a “monkey-bee.” They are sweet, and innocent, and so very alive with love and hope. And I worry. I worry about what will happen to them when there are politicians who can talk about the national registration of all Muslims, and point to our history of registering and then interning Japanese Americans as a precedent worth repeating. I worry about white supremacist groups like the KKK openly endorsing a major political candidate who is happy to have them. This is not the America I know. This is not the America I have loved and learned from and worked to care for. This is an America that is giving up civic discourse, deep and thoughtful assessment and reflection on the challenges our country faces, for simplistic, angry stances based on ignorance and bias.

Listen to the frog, folks. He's talking sense.

Listen to the frog, folks. He’s talking sense.

Trump has normalized rhetorics of hate and mockery. He uses bullying tactics to stop those who speak up–and they often work. And he is changing our culture. He is making it acceptable, laudable even, to speak one’s biases and prejudices with pride. Under such a presidency, anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence will continue to skyrocket. My children would become (in fact, already are) easy targets for hate crimes, just from their names, but especially so if they’re seen with me–a hijab-wearing woman. I can envision a future in which national registration leads to “relocation” to internment camps. And that’s just the impact I see on myself as a Muslim American. I have no doubt that there will be an increase of hate crimes against Latinos, a bolstering of rape culture with a linked increase in sexual assault, a reduction in empathy–and then services–for individuals with disabilities. It is not that far fetched, because it’s already beginning.

This is an America that terrifies me. This is an America that is losing its heart, losing that core of love and care and respect that always came through to me before. As a nation, we have done some terrible things–history speaks to that very well. But we have struggled over decades and centuries to find our way to better ways, to a rule of law that respects us all. It is chilling to watch us slide back so easily, losing hard-won ground in a matter of months.

Next week the world will be watching who we elect as our next president. So will my family and I. The impact of this election for us is very, very real. Never has voting for a political candidate been aligned with our physical safety, with a reduction or increase in crimes against people of my faith, with the possible stripping away of our civil rights as Americans–which is to say, with the stripping away of our identity as  Americans.

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I know that both of the major candidates running for election this year are flawed. Last week, when I voted early for Hillary Clinton, I did so knowing that she approves of the use of drone strikes that regularly involve “collateral damage” that look a lot like children and families to me. I voted for her knowing that I disagreed on a number of major policy issues that don’t need to be gone into here–but I did so also knowing that a vote for Hillary was a vote against a rhetoric of hate and violence that could very well destroy my family and I. It was a vote for Hillary’s own discourse of building our strength on our diversity as a nation. It was a vote for continuing to care for and love and respect those around us, however different we may all be. Because, as a nation, that has always been where our true strength, and beauty, and–dare I say it?–greatness lies.

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  • Alina Sayre

    Amen, Intisar. I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for sharing your honest and articulate voice.

  • I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Muslim growing up in America, then or now. We humans are ridiculous creatures and forget that there are actual people behind labels far too easily. There is a lot of fear and uncertainty right now and nobody is voting for their first choice. Thank you for being brave enough to share this and tales of your daughters’ adorableness continue to reach new, exciting heights.

    • Thanks so much, Elisabeth–for reading, for caring, and of course for finding my daughters adorable. 😉 And yes, it is so very easy to forget that behind every label are real people with their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and adorable children…

  • I agree with everything you’ve written. I’m proud to call you a friend and hope that the forces of civility and decency prevail in this election. Thank you for this post. I’m off to share it.

    • Thanks so much, Marzie. Here is to hoping for and working toward an America where we are all critically engaged in our democracy, and able to engage in that discourse with courtesy and kindness. Decency is highly underrated nowadays, it feels like! And thank you for the share! 🙂

  • I just had this conversation last night with someone else — I am just stunned that this question has even come up in mainstream America. I am a white evangelical Christian who is the descendant of both immigrants and pre-Revolutionites, here in the US before it was even the US, and I grew up learning about the openness of our country and our important role in welcoming immigrants, and hearing lectures and sermons on our duty to help others both overseas and here. I can still sing most of our second grade musical about “how many kinds of people does it take to make our country great?” (What a sad coincidence of words….)

    And while that philosophy is still present, it’s been muddied by voices I seriously had thought were found only in the darker chapters of history books or the extreme fringes of society. Two years ago I looked up and said to my husband, “I wonder if this is how it started in Germany, before anyone thought where it could go? But we know now where it can go.”

    I am disgusted. People I have known for years or decades have used more racial or religious slurs (against blacks, Muslims, Christians, Hispanics, all directions) in the last year than in all the previous time I have known them, and it’s the slippery influence of this social division — from the political rhetoric to the hyped racial divide, all fanned by a media frenzy trying to drive outrage and fear to cash in for ad dollars. This is not what I grew up thinking America was, and I don’t want it to be my America now.

    I had never before 2016 considered that someone might want to be a refugee FROM the USA. My brain is still trying to wrap around that.

    Of course I disagree with other Americans, because we are a conglomerate of individuals, and even in some things which are important to each of us. But I do not want them to leave. And I do not want my country to be a country they would want to leave.

    • This is so true–we will always have disagreement in the US, and that’s good. It makes us think, and engage with discussion and ideas that might be outside of our comfort zone (or it should!), and at the end of the day, we need to learn to respect and value our differences just as we do our commonalities. That’s a lot of what America is about for me too–a place that’s welcoming and growing and changing with every year. But the changes this last year–the growth of racism and religious bigotry (pro- or anti-)–these aren’t the changes I want for America either.

      A couple of months ago at Friday prayer our imam (guy who gives the sermon) joked that we all have a Plan B if the US moves toward internment camps… Canada. He pointed out and spent the rest if the sermon talking about Plan A, which is engaging with civic discourse, building interfaith action, developing a more complex narrative of Muslims in America, and so forth. (He’s a pretty wise man.) But the fact was there–when he mentioned Canada, the whole mosque laughed. People really are so concerned about where America is going that they have, at the backs of their minds, an idea of where to run. And that’s heartbreaking to me.

    • Carl Harrison

      I am a born again Christian and I do not understand why large blocks of evangelical Christians have sided with the politics of intolerance.

      Something is wrong and I don’t know what it is.

      My religious faith remains as strong as ever but my understanding of what’s going is very weak.

  • Karol Lagodzki

    I shared with my FB tribe. Thank you, Intisar.

  • (((A. Nuran)))

    We watched the election with horror. I find it bitterly ironic that we may have to move to Israel so that my Muslim family members will be safe from persecution in the US

    • I’m so sorry. It’s been a tough night and morning for us, and we’re trying to think very strategically about our way forward. We have to consider our own safety–our little girls–but we’ve also got to find our way forward to being better allies to the other communities under fire as well. The repeal of the ACA would literally result in the deaths of thousands of people who cannot afford lifesaving treatments otherwise. Just asthma breathing treatments are prohibitively expensive. The impact on people with disabilities would be devastating. And that’s just one issue.

      As you find your way through the coming months, and no matter where you end up going to keep your family safe (and yes! That is ironic!), know that you have allies. And that you can be an ally. Even from afar.

      Sending love to you and your family.

      • (((A. Nuran)))

        Thank you for your kind words. They mean a lot.
        Stay safe.

  • Carl Harrison

    Beautifully expressed. Your words confirm the value of truth and compassion.

    These are frightening times. The path of least resistance is one of silence.

    Your courage combined with your eloquence is an inspiration.

    Thank you.

    • Thank you so much, Carl–and my apologies for missing your comment when you posted! I really believe that truth and compassion, building empathy between people, is what we need most right now. These are indeed frightening times. It is up to each of us to find where our strength lies and stand up for each other.

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