After a rough presidential campaign, two generational perspectives from Baton Rouge’s Muslim community

When Hannah Alkadi heard the words back in December 2015, she couldn’t believe them.

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States. …”

At 22, she was an optimistic, free-spirited and tech-savvy millennial. But when she heard those words—from Trump himself while reading a statement during a campaign stop—she was floored and disheartened.

It was a disqualifying remark in her mind.

“That was scary,” Alkadi says. “Especially when you think about World War II and the rhetoric against Jews that came up before that. That’s how it starts, with one little comment that seems totally outrageous, and then the next thing you know, people are in camps and being executed.”

Alkadi, a Baton Rouge native of Lebanese descent, converted to Islam in 2012.

As the results came rolling in Nov. 8, 2016, and began to tilt Trump’s way, Alkadi forced herself to go to bed and prayed she would wake up to the first female president of the United States. 

When she awakened to the news the next morning, something broke in her. She couldn’t keep it together in her first class that day.

“There’s a guy in my class—I know he voted for Trump,” Alkadi says. “He has these stickers all over his laptop that indicate that. The day after the election, he couldn’t even look at me. Could not look at me.”

She found herself sobbing in the bathroom outside the classroom. She was devastated. For the entire week, she wept.

Alkadi’s family isn’t Muslim, but when she first read the Quran back in 2012, it just made sense to her.

“I felt fulfilled when I fasted and when I prayed in the special way that Muslims do,” she says. “I also felt like I would be a better person if I practiced it. And I like to think that I am. It has been the best decision of my life.”

She began embracing her faith more in 2015, studying it more frequently. An active student at LSU, Alkadi was part of the Muslim Student Association. Now, as a recent graduate, she remains part of the Young Muslim Sisters of Baton Rouge, a local chapter for which she also does web design work.

Alkadi sometimes worships at the Islamic Center of Baton Rouge right off campus, which she considers a welcoming place in a conservative state. 

She says she is often stared at or asked about where she’s from,
assuming because she wears a hijab—one of the most visible indicators of her religion—she isn’t American. When she had to get a new photo for her driver’s license, the woman taking the picture asked if the reason she was wearing a hijab was that she had gotten married and was forced to in accordance with Islam.

“It’s knowing that I belong here in this world and knowing that I am loved by people who don’t even know my name, who pray for me five times a day.” — Hannah Alkadi, 22, recent LSU graduate
“It’s knowing that I belong here in this world and knowing that I am loved by people who don’t even know my name, who pray for me five times a day.”
— Hannah Alkadi, 22, recent LSU graduate

While Alkadi’s faith has led to misconceptions locally, she’s heard the stories about the hostility it has led to elsewhere in the country. In the weeks after Trump’s election there has been a spike in hate crimes and incidents of harassment, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. News reports told stories like that of New York transit employee Soha Salama, who wears her hijab to work. In December, a man harassed her, reportedly saying, “You’re a terrorist. Go back to your own country.” After she got off the train, the man followed her and pushed her down a flight of stairs.

The New York Times has even begun tracking daily incidents of hate crimes after the election, noting this distinct rise in anti-Muslim sentiment. Some incidents have ranged from graffitied slurs to letters being sent to mosques calling for Muslim genocide.

“After [the election], I’ve carried mace in my hands every time I was outside on campus,” Alkadi says. 

Trump has since walked back or revised many things he said during the campaign, including the ban on Muslims entering the country. In November, he engaged in a back-and-forth with reporters over the possibility of a Muslim registry in which he was never quite clear about his stance. That only fueled more rhetoric and left many American Muslims terrified.

But Alkadi doesn’t let Democrats off the hook for Islamophobia and pandering, either.

“At one of the debates, Hillary Clinton said that Muslims are on the front lines of fighting terrorism,” Alkadi says. “I’m in the front line of a coffee shop, not terrorism, lady.”

While Clinton was not her first choice, Alkadi accepted her as the better alternative to Trump. She was shocked that nearly half the country’s eligible voters ended up not casting a vote in the election at all, signaling that the alarming rhetoric during the campaign wasn’t enough to move them into action.

“That’s just as hurtful,” Alkadi says. “How do I get people to care about me?”

Finding support and compassion for Muslims is a difficulty many members of the Baton Rouge community experience.

Zee Mohamed, 60, is the president of the Islamic Center of Baton Rouge. Hailing from Guyana, he was raised Muslim, and has lived in America for 40 years now. Alkadi and other members of the Baton Rouge Muslim community look to him as a leader for his years of experience connecting the center with greater Baton Rouge, but he’s far too humble to accept that title.

“It’s not that you want to be a leader, but people see the work you do and kind of push you into it,” Mohamed says. “I just believe in humility and trying to help people. In our community, we need a lot of that leadership.”

Mohamed notes the ongoing work the Islamic Center does to improve Baton Rouge, such as hosting blood drives, donating to food banks, participating in charity events and even helping to rebuild houses after the August floods.

He also works hard to fight misconceptions about Islam. Earlier this year, he participated in an event called “A Dialogue With Muslims,” in which he and other local Muslims explained their faith and answered questions about everything from terrorism to hijabs to dispel negative perceptions of the religion.

Where others might have a hard time with difficult questions, Mohamed welcomes the opportunity to continue educating the community about Islam.

“Islam is not about praying five times a day and being oblivious to your surroundings. Islam is about humanity,” Mohamed says. “It’s how you help humanity grow and prosper. The biggest thing is to give blessings each day and be thankful that you have another day where you can serve the community. By serving others, you feel strong in your faith.”

The election stirred negativity, fear and hate-mongering on both sides, Mohamed says. 

But he has a message of hope to his community: “This is a nation of immigrants, and if we all come together in this country, there’s nothing we cannot do. Islam is very simple. It’s a way of life and the way of life is: There’s hope. There’s mercy. And there’s love of God.”

While the election results have shattered some of Alkadi’s spirit, she prides herself on resiliency. Islam is her hope when she has none.

“It’s knowing that I belong here in this world and knowing that I am loved by people who don’t even know my name, who pray for me five times a day,” Alkadi says.

She wore her hijab the day after the election, and has every day since. She will continue to wear it every day in the future.

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of 225 Magazine.