Two weeks after Donald Trump was elected president, Nora decided to remove her headscarf – for good. Weighing on the mind of the 23-year-old were recent assaults against conspicuous Muslims like herself. State suspicion and private violence would only get worse under Trump, she feared. So she hid part of her identity from the world.
Many Muslim men and women, like Nora, choose to conceal their Muslim identity – or express it in a way that is less “threatening” to others. Some take things one step further: they undertake the extreme measure of erasing their Muslim identity altogether by passing as non-Muslim in public.
While this phenomenon predates Trump, he has certainly intensified it. Acting Muslim, today, is especially dangerous.
This is illustrated by the scores of Muslim women “afraid to wear the headscarf” after Trump claimed the presidency, men shaving their beards to diminish detection that they are in fact Muslims, job-seekers changing their Muslim names on résumés to increase the prospect of a job interview, and the known and unknown stories of Muslims passing as non-Muslims at school, work, or the public sphere at large.
This process is also prevalent in Europe, where Islamophobia is more pronounced than it is in the US and fully enshrined into law. The European Union recently broadened France’s 2004 “headscarf ban”, which prohibits Muslim women from wearing the hijab in public schools, to restrict it within the workplace in EU member states.
These policies, combined with the rise of Islamophobic populism throughout the continent, have had a collateral effect on Muslims men and women – pushing many to remove conspicuous markers of religious identity in the public sphere in order to dodge punitive action from the state or bigots on the street.
For many of these Muslims, downplaying or entirely concealing their Muslim identity is no simple decision. The spiritual and existential trade-offs are many, and include a compromised sense of religious adherence and identity, criticism and scorn from one’s community, and being beholden to what WEB DuBois labeled “double consciousness” in the Souls of Black Folk, whereby a Muslim can freely express his or her identity when among fellow Muslims, but recoils it when moving within public and private spaces where Islam is stigmatized.
The decision to act as non-Muslim as possible is an emergent phenomenon in Trump’s America. But it is not an entirely new one. The hostility toward Muslims after the 9/11 terror attacks motivated many Muslims to underperform, conform or conceal their Muslim identities, and the protracted war on terror extended the phenomenon well into the Obama administration.
Today’s Islamophobia is, after all, the progeny of Orientalism, the master narrative that marked Islam as the civilizational antithesis of the west. This drove formative immigration law and judicial rulings involving Muslims petitioning to become naturalized citizens.
The stereotypes that Islam is an inherently violent and foreign faith, and Muslims a presumptively subversive and inassimilable class of people, are deeply rooted, and readily repackaged and redeployed by Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and rhetoric holding that “Islam hates us”.
Speaking on behalf of the country, and today from inside its highest office, Trump’s orders and words draw a definitive divide between Islam and “us.” This divide, which pits Islam against Americans, compels Muslim Americans to choose one side of the line. Or expose themselves to the state violence and private assaults that come with attempting to straddle it.
Surviving injurious policies and popular backlash, as tragically illustrated by past and present chapters of American history, places a series of burdens on stigmatized people – the heaviest of which is not being who genuinely are, or what you believed God mandates you to be.