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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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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