It's hard for Zahra Ahmed to understand why Donald Trump would have her carry a Muslim ID card. The 24-year-old was born in Texas. She's never left the U.S. And if she does ever decide to go on an overseas holiday, Trump said he wouldn't allow Muslim Americans to come back to the U.S.
"It's just crazy to me because America is the only country I know," Ahmed, 24, told me. "I've never traveled outside the U.S., and so to feel some people think I don't belong here or like I'm different, that hurts."
In the month since Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists attacked the heart of Paris and killed 130 people, Muslims Americans have been forced to defend not only their religion but also their place as Americans. That's only been heightened since the San Bernardino shooting Dec. 2, where 14 people were killed by Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik—both Muslims. Malik allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS before the attacks.
The Center for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) says it has received multiple reports of alleged anti-Muslim hate crimes every day since the attacks. There have reportedly been at least 63 alleged incidents of vandalism or harassment this year so far—the highest yearly number since 2009 when CAIR began tracking these cases. Just this weekend, the FBI opened a hate crime investigation after a California mosque was graffitied with the word "Jesus" and a fake hand grenade was left on the steps. There have been threats made against mosques around the nation: a firebombing in California; a pig's head in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Trump isn't the only politician spewing anti-Muslim rhetoric. Ben Carson said he didn't think a Muslim American should be allowed to be president (before walking back his comments), while Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush say they would rather accept Christian refugees from Syria over those who are Muslim.
Despite overtures made by Muslim leaders—including condemning violence following terrorist attacks, and a Muslim American group raising $134,000 for the San Bernardino victims' families—Muslims like Ahmed are frustrated that they continue to be the target of xenophobic politics and, in some cases, hate crimes in their own country.
"I don't know anything else. I'm just as American as you are," said Ahmed.
On the Saturday evening after the Paris attacks, someone drove by the Baitul Aman Mosque in Meriden, Connecticut, and fired several shots from a firearm powerful enough to send the bullets through three interior walls and into the prayer area where people usually gather. Luckily, the mosque was empty that day: congregants—including the Tahir Academy, made up of children 6 to 15 years old—had traveled to New York for a national conference. Officials didn't notice the damage until the next day, when people arrived to pray and found bullet holes in the building.
Wajid Danish Ahmed, 35, is president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association's Connecticut Chapter. He told me that explaining the attack to the children who attend Tahir Academy was difficult.
"I mean the questions are like, ‘Are we going to get shot again?,'" he said. "These are pretty young kids. They were actually pretty scared to come back to the mosque and so we had to work with their parents and the children to explain that we shouldn’t let this worry us. That they shouldn’t be scared."
But when kids are being asked, "How was your weekend trip to Paris?" it's hard, he said, to tell them not to worry, that their actions prove that they're not like the extremists. "It is a tough time right now for these kids."
On a routine flight home to Houston from New Jersey, Dr. Bilal Rana, 36, wore a South Asian outfit called a shalwar kameez (a long tunic worn with pants), something he has done while traveling for years.
After the plane touched down in Houston, Rana said, four police officers boarded the flight and frisked him, questioning him before taking him to a waiting police car on the runway. Only two days after the Paris attacks, a fellow passenger had become suspicious of Rana's texting during the flight.
It was a humiliating and surreal experience, he told me, but before describing what's become all-too-familiar in the American minority experience: the sinister sense of mass surveillance, that any move or any word said anywhere in this country could be used as recrimination for a violent act of terror they had nothing to do with.
"I was very calm on the outside," said Rana, who heads the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community's national youth organization. "I knew I was being watched and I was being judged and that really hurts. It really hurts. But it was OK. I knew that just like as a child that if I over-reacted it would actually tarnish my image more. So just stay collected, just stay calm, rise above it."
After being interrogated for a few hours he was released, Rana told me–but he took the opportunity to tell the police officers and FBI agents about the community work that he's been doing, including diversity training for the Houston police academy, and a campaign called Stop the CRISIS, which specifically aims to fight radicalization among young Muslims.
One of the officers in particular seemed unconvinced, Rana said, telling him he wasn't doing enough. "I told him, 'Frankly it’s frustrating and I don’t know what more you’d like me to do," he said. "And he told me, ‘I’d like to see you climb a minaret and shout it.’ And then he got up and he left the room. That’s bigotry. But the thing is he can get away with it."
A week after the Paris attacks, Muslim leaders and scholars from around the world came out with a joint statement condemning ISIS' reading of Islam. "You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder," the letter said. "This is a great wrong and an offense to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world."
The FBI's most recent Hate Crimes Statistics Report said that while hate crimes overall have decreased in the U.S., hate crimes targeting Muslims are on the rise. In 2013, there were 135 reported hate crimes, which rose to 154 in 2014. The 2015 report might reflect an even higher number if it's in line with what CAIR has observed so far.
After listening to Trump and Carson make divisive statements about Muslims over the past month, Alaa Abdeldaiem, 18, told me she feels they don't know anything about her life as an American Muslim. She's a student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and the vice president of the Muslim Youth of North America. Abdeldaiem was raised in Indiana–her parents moved to the U.S. from Egypt before she was born.
"It makes me very angry especially because they don't know me. To classify ISIS with Islam or the refugee population in general, to me it’s ignorant," she said. "It’s disturbing to see that people with such twisted views are campaigning to run this country. That’s not the kind of person that I want representing me." The only politician she's been impressed with since the Paris attacks is Bernie Sanders, she told me.
“Our job is to build a nation in which we all stand together as one people,” Sanders said at an event at George Mason University, after a Muslim student asked him what he thought of the rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. “And you are right. There is a lot of anger being generated, hatred being generated against Muslims in this country."
Momin Bhatti, 31, said that in this atmosphere, he worries about the world that his two young daughters will grow up in. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he still lives and works as a TV station manager. He said he's aware that people might be stereotyping him every day, and he's concerned about what that kind of prejudice will mean for his daughters growing up as Muslim American women.
The reality of being held accountable for acts of violence that have nothing to do with his community seems unfair, he said.
"I know when we live in a time when the average American Muslim is expected to speak out and condemn these actions of these lunatics in different parts of the world just because they also claim to be Muslims," he said. "It’s just a unique expectation. You have to respond to things that have nothing to do with us."
Each of the young Americans I spoke to told me they condemn everything ISIS has done, and that the group's interpretation of Islam is abhorrent and offensive to them as Muslims. And to Trump, Carson, and anyone else who judges them based on the actions of terrorists, they have a clear message: get to know us better.