Oral History — June 15, 2017, 10:34 am

Making Moves

Muslim Americans on pursuing political careers in the age of Trump

[Bonus track]

Muslim Americans share their reasons for getting involved in politics.

Think about your mother’s cooking,” political trainer Monica Perez tells a group of nearly 30 people as they toss around ideas for stump speeches. The workshop, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is part of a weekend-long training for immigrant and first-generation Americans considering running for office. Founded by Sayu Bhojwani in 2010, the New American Leaders Project organizes at least four sessions a year in an effort to make American democracy more representative of the country’s changing demographics. Most applicants cite some integral part of their identities — their religion, race, ethnicity, or immigrant background — as the main obstacle they’ll face on the campaign trail. But Bhojwani encourages them to capitalize on those differences, telling them: “You bring something unique to the American experience.” Even during an election where religious and racial vitriol fueled Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid, two Muslim Americans won state house seats — and Bhojwani says she expects to see more Muslims win elections in 2018 and beyond. The number of Muslim-American applicants to NALP trainings has doubled in the last year. “What we’re seeing,” Bhojwani says, “is not people going underground but people standing up even firmer and taller and saying, ‘I am not going to let this happen to my community again.’” I talked to several Muslim Americans who attended the April training about why they’re getting more involved in politics.

Ghida Dagher, 28, works at the United Way of Southeastern Michigan and was helping train participants at the NALP workshop. She served as campaign manager for Abdullah Hammoud, who became the first Arab-American to represent Dearborn in the Michigan State House in 2016.

I moved to Detroit when I was nine as a refugee from Sierra Leone. Both of my parents are Lebanese by heritage. My mom taught English to immigrant moms and was a salesperson at Macy’s and Hudson’s. My dad runs medical clinics. Although he is a medical doctor, he can’t practice with his French degree in the U.S.

One of the things about being an immigrant and a refugee is that you have to grow up very quickly. I felt like I had to step up in my own way to help with the family. Growing up I always wanted to be a doctor like my dad, because I thought that’s what security and stability meant. In college, I realized that wasn’t the right path for me. I remember calling my family and saying, “Mom, Baba, I’m not going to be a doctor.” I expected a really negative reaction, but they were like, “Okay, that’s fine. Now what are you going to be?”

I started telling them about the kind of work I wanted to do and they didn’t get it. I had to phrase it this way: I want to see change in the world and in order to see change in the world I don’t want to just help one or two people, I want to help on a large scale. I think the most effective way to do that is through policies.

I was never somebody who grew up saying, “I’m going to be a politician.” But in times like this there is a sense of responsibility that all of us are feeling from underrepresented communities. We don’t have elected bodies that are reflective of our communities. I think that’s why a lot of us are stepping up now. It’s completely unacceptable to say someone can’t be an American or be a part of American society because of their religion. My immigrant experience and my Muslim experience ground me, but it’s really my American experience that propels me. The future that I want for America is one that many others want as well.

Hanan Yahya, 23, is a community organizer and educator living in Detroit. She moved to the U.S. from Yemen with her family when she was three.

I’m number eight out of nine siblings. My mom is illiterate. My father didn’t go to school either but he does know how to read and write. When we moved to the U.S., my older siblings had to sacrifice their opportunity for school for the rest of us.

I always wanted to do more than anybody I know has ever done. It wasn’t even an ego thing, it was like, “This is for my family, this is for my community. I have to do it for them.”

I went to a small charter school with limited resources that focused on standardized exams rather than the real potential of its students. It took a substitute teacher noticing me from the crowd and saying, “You are going to be someone and I will help you” to make me realize that there was so much that needed to be done in my community. I want to be able to advocate for schools that create an environment for students to thrive academically and intellectually, to be challenged in various fields, to be involved in extracurriculars, and in the community, and to provide leadership development. This is not a revolutionary idea. But it’s not happening for the children of Detroit.

My family is definitely cautious of supporting me, knowing how risky running for office is to my reputation, to my family’s reputation, and to my personal safety. I think there’s a fear that every move I make and everything that comes out of my mouth will be representative of my family, of my community, of Islam. To some extent I get it. There are so many risks. But at the end of the day it’s still a job.

It’s not something new for my identity to be thrown in the mix and be used as fuel. From the everyday glances and glares, people who belittle me and think I’m inferior, I know what’s coming. Being negatively stereotyped on the campaign trail is definitely a fear, but it’s also a driving factor in why I want to do this. Most of my work is in the realm of representation — teaching and inspiring the next generation. Getting elected would be the epitome of this work.

Maytham Alshadood, 32, is a registered nurse in Denver, Colorado, who also helps resettle refugees through the International Rescue Committee. He immigrated to the U.S. after working as an interpreter for American troops in Iraq.

I was born and raised in Baghdad. In 2003, when the invasion happened, I graduated high school and went to the College of Veterinary Medicine in Mosul. I was only able to finish two years because violence there escalated. I decided to postpone my studies and go back to Baghdad. My best friend and I decided to work for the U.S. Army as interpreters.

I was a part of an advisory and training team that helped to establish the New Iraqi Army. After doing that for three years, I came to the United States through a special immigrant visa. I had already been screened and cleared to work in a very sensitive position. I proved my loyalty more than once. I experienced IEDs, firefights, and constant threats. But I still had to go through the rigorous vetting process. It took me almost two years to get through the process and be granted a visa.

I’m very proud of the work that I have done for the United States. I was in a unique position where I served my old country and my new country simultaneously. I want to continue serving my community here. The United States is a global force, and our actions have ripple effects. I work in refugee resettlement, and I think we can take more responsibility and refine the work that we do. We receive families one at a time. I think there are things that can be done at the city, county, and state level so we can help more than one person at a time. A lot of people see refugees and immigrants as burdens. However, they usually become productive members of our communities. I think we can do a better job of showing people what refugees have to offer.

If we restrict the entry of refugees and immigrants, we’ll be less exposed to other culture and ideas. I want to run for office because of that lack of representation, to bring more diversity into the political process. There is a perspective that’s missing, and I feel like I can bring that perspective to the forefront.

Fatou-Seydi Sarr, 42, is a community organizer based in Detroit. She is a single mother who grew up in Senegal.

As a community organizer, I know that there is only so much you can do in the trenches. For example, Michigan voted to take away driver licenses from undocumented people in 2008. Detroit approved a municipal ID, but it doesn’t allow them to drive. To further the work I’m doing, I have to be able to impact the legal side of things, to think about what legislation is needed and how it is being written. Are we really thinking of the people that live in our district or are we just thinking about money or simple ideology? I think we need to go back to the basics — understanding social welfare as something that we all aspire to, regardless of where we come from, regardless of the color of our skin, regardless of how much money we make.

I am an African immigrant and I am a woman. I am a single mother. I’m a Muslim also. I know that rhetoric can be used against me. People might say I’m just newcomer, I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe my values don’t align with what some people would call “American values.” Maybe some people will think, because I’m a Muslim I might be a liability. People equate Muslims with terrorists.

Negative stereotypes are always going to exist. But I believe that people also see beyond bias. They know when you are lying, and they know when you are being authentic. I think the key is being authentic and being who I am and showing that I care about the issues — about folks that look like me and those who don’t but are encountering the same struggles. At the end of the day, we are living under the same system, and we all want the same basic stuff for our families.

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Combustion Engines

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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