‘We have to support one another’: Palestinian family from Mississippi discusses the fear of Islam in America

A fear of Islam in America is becoming more common every day in a nation that includes 3.3 million of its followers as citizens.

That fear has been popularly coined around the world as “Islamophobia.”

A poll conducted in March 2015 by YouGov revealed that 55 percent of surveyed Americans had an “unfavorable” opinion of Islam, and 44 percent would not be interested in learning more about the religion.

Hanan Mohammad, a 54-year-old Palestinian immigrant from McComb, Miss., thinks the rising fear is absurd. She hopes that many Americans become more willing to open their minds to Islam going forward.

“It hurts because it’s not the truth,” Hanan said. “If you know what the real Islam is, Islam is peace, love, caring and not hurting anybody. The things you see today, breaking down hospitals, breaking into houses, bombings; that’s just not our religion. It’s not what Islam is about.”

Hanan immigrated to America after marrying her husband Mahmoud Mohammad in their native home of Al-Bireh, Palestine in 1981. Mahmoud, 22 years old at the time, was already an American citizen and caught a flight back to Palestine to marry the 19-year-old Hanan. Hanan waited a few months following the marriage before emigrating from Palestine, because she needed to acquire a visa and meet other requirements first.

Hanan had no idea what to expect.

“I was nervous at first for sure,” Hanan said. “I didn’t know much of the language and I didn’t have much of a family here in the beginning. The phone was too expensive. One or two calls a month cost maybe a hundred dollars for just a few minutes. That’s life, you just have to get used to it.”

The couple originally lived in Fredericksburg, Va., while Mahmoud worked for a taxicab service in Washington D.C. Hanan gave birth to the first two of the couple’s five children, Abeer and Horieah, in Fredericksburg.

After a few years, Mahmoud moved the couple to New Orleans because of a family business with his brothers. While in New Orleans, Hanan birthed two more children, Faten and Huda. Another business venture forced Mahmoud and Hanan to move to Memphis, Tenn. where they had their youngest child and only son, Mohammad.

Families like Hanan and Mahmoud’s are the reason why the population of Muslims in America is expected to double by 2050, according to Pew Research Center.

Besheer Mohamed, a senior researcher that focuses on religion at Pew Research Center, found that American Muslims typically have more children than Americans of other religions. Mohamed also found that Muslims also tend to be younger than the general public, so a larger share of Muslims will soon be at the point in their lives when people begin having children.

A story by Omar Sacirbey from the Huffington Post in August 2011 states that while it might be hard to track, it’s estimated that nearly 20,000 Americans convert to Islam each year.

“Every day you will see or hear about someone becoming a Muslim in America, at least ten people, all around,” Hanan said. “Every single day. People tend to view Islam as the way they want to see it, and not for what it really is.”

Hanan and Mahmoud’s son Mohammad Mohammad, a 19-year-old college student at Southwest Mississippi Community College, thinks U.S. President-elect Donald Trump ran a campaign that put the nation’s fear of Islam at a forefront.

On Dec. 7, 2015, Trump presented a policy while on the campaign trail to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” a campaign press release said.

I don’t agree that we shouldn’t let people into our country simply because of their name or religion,” Mohammad said. “A lot of what he says feeds off of his supporters. I really don’t believe half of the things he says. He grew up in the city and a diverse area, so I believe he just said those things to gain a base of votes.”

Trump began to alter his stance on the issue as the Nov. 8 presidential election came near. He changed the title of his plan to “extreme vetting,” and stated that he would focus on country of origin rather than religion.

Muslim-Americans are still afraid what Trump’s presidency could mean for their future in America however. Hanan and Mahmoud’s daughter Abeer Aabed worries about her sons Mahdi and Balal more than anything.

“Honestly, the only thing that still bothers me is that when I told the boys he won, they seemed hurt,” Aabed said. “That’s sad and it tells you something. This will be the first president they remember.”

Huda Mohammad, Hanan and Mahmoud’s youngest daughter, was worried about Abeer’s 7-year-old son Mahdi prior to the election as well.

“He was hurt before Trump was even elected,” Huda said. “He said a lot of his classmates wanted Trump and he couldn’t understand why they would want someone who doesn’t like his kind of people.”

Hanan, a grandmother to six children, has tried to make sure that the Islamic faith is well conceived in her household.

“Thank God we are lucky that they understand what Islam really is,” Hanan said. Sometimes you have to try to raise the kids to the best of your ability, but then the rest you have to give it up to God.”

Hanan occasionally attends Masjid Abu Bakr, a mosque in Metairie, La. that holds multiple congregational prayers daily. She is fully aware of how the Muslim community in the South is miniscule compared to urban areas like Chicago, where other members of her family live.

“They have a big mosque in Chicago,” Hanan said. “The mosque they have there maybe holds up to 5,000 people each time. The one in New Orleans doesn’t even hold up to 200 people, and people can’t afford to attend it frequently. That’s a problem.”

As for Hanan’s thoughts on the presidential election, she believes the country remains stronger together.

“There’s more freedom here and it’s more safe,” Hanan said. “I hope the best for everybody. We have to support one another.”

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