Muslims in Delaware have long been active in the community through service or outreach, but now see the importance of being more politically active.
Delaware Muslim and community activist Iram Shaukat said culturally Muslims believe if you work hard, help your neighbors and community and stay quiet that good things will come naturally.
Good deeds notwithstanding, the FBI’s 2015 Hate Crime Statistics report shows that attacks on mosques and against Muslims are at an all-time high nationwide, since 2001 after the September 11th attacks.
Shaukat said those numbers coupled with President Trump’s proposed travel ban from Muslim-majority countries earlier this year prompted Delaware’s 10,000 Muslims to unite.
“We just did not see how important it is to step up, to be right there in the center and say ‘okay, now is the time.’ And yes, the rhetoric of course it pushed the agenda further. It was always in the works, but we just did not see the urgency of it. Now we do,” Shaukat said.
Shaukat and Imam Arqum Rashid are founding members of the United Muslim Americans of Delaware, an umbrella group representing the state’s 12 mosques.
“We needed a platform for a while now. And I believe that the Muslim community has been working for a while to try to unite the different mosques in the state and bring them together,” said Rashid, with the Islamic Society of Central Delaware. “Any time something happens to the Muslim community or any time the Muslim community want to call for statewide support, they have this network.”
The newly-formed group hosted a unity rally on the steps of Legislative Hall in Dover last month. Hundreds of Muslims, religious and community leaders and elected officials stood in solidarity.
“There is only one race. It is the human race and all of us are created equal in the sight of God,” said Imam Sheikh Abdul Hadi, with Newark’s Islamic Society of Delaware.
“We are one people. We are Muslims, we are Jews, we are Christians, we are people of non-believers, we are all Delawareans,” Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware said.
Shaukat said Muslims typically pursue careers as doctors or engineers, but they now see the need to be represented in fields like politics, law and journalism.
At just 25-years-old, Rashid is not only the Imam at the Islamic Society of Central Delaware, but is also the director of the Delaware chapter of Emgage. The nonprofit’s mission is to empower American Muslim communities and “build the next generation of civic leaders,” in Delaware and across the country.
Crises and alliances
The Muslim community’s public crescendo began last summer when the Delaware Council on Global and Muslim Affairs endorsed political candidates for the first time ahead of the September primary and November general election.
At the time, Dr. Muqtedar Khan, president of the Delaware Council, said he was concerned about the hostile political environment he believed was scapegoating Muslims.
“The best way to fight Islamophobia is to engage and so we are engaging the community,” said Khan, in August.
Then Muslim leaders sent an SOS to religious leaders across the state to protest the President’s travel ban from seven Muslim-majority countries in January.
“My synagogue came out in huge number, but we had Christians, we had the governor, both Senators, our Representative – it was just the response was so quick and heartfelt, very Delawarean,” said Rabbi Michael Beals, with Congregation Beth Shalom.
Beals said the Muslim community’s clarion call alone showed how far the group has come since 9/11.
“I used to serve in Los Angeles and after 9/11 I expected such a call from the local Muslim community in my area of Los Angeles and it never came,” recalled Beals, who said Muslim leaders privately expressed their disapproval to him. “I think the Muslim society has learned going it alone isn’t a smart move, but it takes time to learn these things.”
The rabbi said like the Muslims, the Jewish community had to learn over time that it needed to find its voice.
“In 2017 we’re already into our third, fourth generation in this country. And so we’re much more comfortable with the media, we’re much more comfortable with creating alliances,” Beals said. “I think the Muslim learning curve has been a lot faster, frankly, and all the more credit to them.”
Beals said Muslims in Delaware showed their support when Wilmington’s Jewish Community Center kept receiving bomb threats and the Jewish community returned the favor when state Senator Dave Lawson walked out of the Senate chamber during a special Muslim prayer.
“I fought for this country, not to be damned by someone that comes in here and prays to their God for our demise. I think that’s despicable,” said Lawson, R-Marydel.
When asked, Lawson respectfully declined to make a statement about the prayer walkout. Republican Senator Colin Bonini, R-Dover, also walked out with Lawson. He explained that his staying in the chamber would validate the mistreatment he said women and minorities endure in Muslim-majority countries.
Beals said no one understands better the fear and worry that comes from being scapegoated than Jewish people, so supporting Muslims in a no-brainer.
“When we dehumanize people, it’s very easy to eradicate them. As a Jew that makes me frightened because that’s only 70 years ago that was our story. So I think we have a historic responsibility when people are talking about the potentiality of Muslim bans or Muslim registries. Oh my gosh, have we learned nothing,” Beals questioned.
“We’re going to be out there and we’re going to be actively involved so that anytime anything happens and this Muslim-hate rhetoric is said, everybody around us knows no, they’ve been here, they’ve been doing all the good, they know how to stand for themselves,” Shaukat said.
Rabbi Beals chairs the Delaware Council of Faith-Based Partnerships and said he’s grateful to President Trump for creating an environment that has led to all of these new alliances among minority religious groups.
The organization was created five years ago by Gov. Jack Markell to represent all three counties and include at least one person from each religion in the state.
Beals pointed to Lawson’s and Bonini’s walkout as an example of how much work needs to be done to educate people statewide about Islam and all of the different religions represented in Delaware.