Chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” I joined 25,000 of my fellow Americans in downtown San Jose, Calif., as part of the worldwide Women’s March on January 21 to assert our rights against the unacceptable presidency of Donald Trump. We were among the more than 2 million women, men and children who rallied in almost 700 marches in 50 states and 32 countries in the world’ s seven continents to demonstrate against the harrowing possibility of fascism taking root in the “land of the free and home of the brave.”
It took us almost two hours to march from City Hall to Plaza de Cesar Chavez but what a march of swirling, energizing, kaleidoscopic humanity it was! The witty and incisive posters told the story as well as any narrative could: “Avoid Unwanted Presidencies,” “Girls Just Wanna Have FUNding for Planned Parenthood,” “Don’t Poke Mama Bear,” “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance,” “Let Me Choose My Own Path,” “We Are Here to Stay,” “Tiny Hands Won’t Hold Us Back,” “What Would MLK Do?”, “I Ain’t Going Back to the ‘50s,” “Women Are the Wall and Trump Will Pay,” “I Choose a Democracy of Justice & Compassion, Not a Trumpocracy of Cruelty & Greed,” “Science Before Stupidity,” “Tyrannical, Racist, Unscrupulous, Misogynistic, Plutocrat,” “He Grabbed Us by the Caucus!”, “Real Men Love Feminism,” “I Revolt Because He is Revolting,” and the incomparable, “Dear World, Majority of Americans Did NOT Vote for Him … We are Sorry.”
At the Plaza, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo declared that San Jose, a city not known globally for its activism, “has awoken.” He spoke of his recent trip to Washington, D.C., where, he said, “I did not stay for the inauguration because I just couldn’t but I did take a long look at the White House before it turned into a hotel and a casino.”
“This great city,” he said, “will not confront its peace-loving Muslims with a registry, but embrace them with equality.”
Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said the march represented the new civil rights movement of our time.
“Promise yourself,” she said as the thousands roared their approval, “you will remember where you were when you changed history.”
Maha ElGenaidi, founder of Islamic Network Group and a Bay Area activist, quoted a verse from the Quran: “‘We made you into nations and tribes so you may know another.’ This means diversity is built into the Divine plan,” she explained. “This also means we must cherish our diversity, irrespective of our faith, race, gender, and sexual orientation.”
There were many more speakers whose messages of solidarity, compassion and resistance in the face of tyranny, misogyny and kakistocracy (government by the worst persons) fired up listeners who filled the plaza with a vow that seemed to reach up to the sky: “We are here to stay.”
I only had to look around at the river of humanity to know in my gut that the movement against the Trump presidency had only just begun.
As a Muslim American, I was drawn to posters held aloft by Jews and Christians in our support. Two in particular caught my attention: “We Stand With American Muslims,” and “Would Muhammad Ali Have Signed Trump’s Registry?” I expressed my gratitude to the woman and the man holding the two posters but because of the crush of the crowd, could not exchange names, although we managed to hug.
While my spirit was lifted by these selfless Americans driven to defend us from injustice, I also found myself growing sad and somewhat despondent. Where were the local Muslim Americans? I counted just 10 that included my wife, but even if I missed others, the number could not have been more than a hundred. That would be about three Muslims per thousand in the march. “Pathetic” was the only word I could think of. The million dollar question, of course, was, “Why? Why did so few of my fellow Muslims choose not to participate?”
From my three decades of interaction with Muslims in the Bay Area, I knew it was not from a lack of concern for the well-being of America, nor from a lack of gratitude for what other Americans did for us.
The day after the march, I asked some Muslims friends why they were not at the historic event.
“Well, we knew you would be there, so …” a few said guiltily. Others told me they were uncomfortable in big gatherings.
“But you were there when Christians and Jews came to our Islamic Center to express their solidarity with us after we received that hate mail last November,” I reminded them.
It dawned on me that many Muslims were comfortable being gracious hosts when people of other faiths come to visit our mosques, but when it is their turn to visit churches and synagogues and events like the Women’s March, they rely on a few “interfaith experts” to represent them. To me, this is nothing but a lack of self-assurance, with a little bit of insecurity and arrogance thrown in.
In all fairness, I must admit that they are in the minority. But what is clear is that we Muslim Americans must shed our sense of entitlement (let others go to bat for us), insecurity and arrogance to be full participants in American democracy. Otherwise, we will not move past a permanent and debilitating sense of victimhood that will be a tragic loss for us and for America.
photo credit: Hasan Zillur Rahim