Interview: Abdullah Antepli Discusses the Upcoming Election

Next week, the DOCE is bringing Haroon Moghul to speak about the role of Muslim Americans in the 2016 election. Our Senior Fellow, Abdullah Antepli knows Moghul well and sat down with our Civic Engagement Fellow, Lucia Constantine, to preview Moghul’s talk and share his own reflection on the election. 

LC: You have noticed the posters advertising Haroon Moghul’s lecture say “This election is about me.” What does he mean by that and do you agree?

AA: I think Islam as a religion and Muslims as people in American society have been central to this presidential election. But this is not a conversation unique to the situation of Muslims. American society has seen many versions of this story. This is a story about hate. About pluralism. About inclusion. Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry is nothing other than a different manifestation of racism, anti-Semitism or anti-Catholicism. It reflects the natural tendency of American society to be resistant to a different religion or a different community in its initial stages of arrival. This creates a kind of fever and society must determine whether or not we’re going to stick with our commitment to pluralism. Whether we’re going to stick to our foundational commitment of idealism. That this country will be about what you do, not you you are. That you’ll be judged on your actions not on your ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. These concerns are at the heart of this election. It comes down to one major question: is Islam an acceptable religion in the United States? Are American Muslims equally American citizens? I don’t think we as a society have given clear answers to these questions.

This is clearly something that’s been simmering in the US and Trump has brought to the forefront. In some ways, it’s forcing people to confront these questions head-on.

Absolutely. Trump didn’t cause this. A lot of people think he is the problem; no, he’s an outcome of the problem. He’s a symptom of the sickness which has been infecting our country for the last 15 years. Since 9/11, American society in general and American Muslims in particular weren’t ready to have a reasonable conversation about Islam and Muslims in the face of terrorism and bloodshed around the world. Since then there has been a very irresponsible and unhealthy conversation about us. Islam is evil; Muslims are terrorists. Different versions of this have been repeated over and over. Society latched on to the language of hate and inclusion. Trump is only giving voice and face to this problem. He’s irresponsibly and opportunistically abusing and manipulating an existing situation.

How has the conversation this election impacted your daily life?

It has impacted the daily life of any American Muslim from age seven to ninety-seven. Suddenly our loyalty is at question. Suddenly, our place in American society is at question, suddenly we have to go a few extra miles to prove that we are upright and loyal citizens. We have to go through scrutiny and questions. When asked about civil liberties and religious freedoms, around ninety percent of Americans agree that people should be able to practice their religion as they see fit. This value of religious freedom is so ingrained in the DNA of American because it’s how we came to understand secularism. However, the same Americans who believe in religious freedom, when asked specifically about Islam, only fifty percent believe Muslims should be able to practice their faith. When asked would you feel comfortable having mosque in your neighborhood? Would you feel comfortable having a woman with hijab as your next door neighbor? Would you feel comfortable in a working environment being with someone who’s visibly Muslim? Our commitment to religious freedom declines.

To give you an example from my own life, my wife is a nurse and on the night Osama bin Laden was killed,  she left the hospital late and while coming home a few people in pick up trucks saw her with her hijab head cover and they almost causing an accident, showing fingers and hurling insults. They saw her a visible Muslim and they immediately affiliated her with Osama bin Laden.

What give you hope in this election?

As one of my colleagues here at Duke put it, every presidential election is a collective CAT scan. Every community, every society goes through a CAT scan during elections which show what’s in us. What has grown over the past four years. I think these painful and troubling conversations are ultimately doing us a favor by showing us the hateful and exclusionary voices that still persist.

How do we work toward changing the monolithic narrative about Islam and creating a more nuanced understanding of Muslims?

In the past, success came not when the target community got their acts together but when American society as a whole said, we will not do this. American society moved the furniture in their minds and said we will not talk about Jews like that any more. We’re not going to talk about African Americans like that anymore. We will not use certain pejorative terms. But now you can say anything and everything about Islam and it goes.

Muslims have a role to play, of course. They have to educate and provide positive examples about what this religion and the American Muslim reality is all about. Hopefully, real change will happen before things get really nasty. Because regretfully if you look at our previous success stories, the collective response only came when things got really really ugly.  I always tell a Turkish redneck joke. A Turkish redneck sees a huge slipper banana peel on his walkway. He sees this banana peel and says, “shoot, I’m going to fall again.” Since we have stepped on these banana peels and fallen many times, I’m hoping this time we will see the banana peel but somehow as a collective, American society we’ll pick it up and throw it into the trash without stepping on it and falling again.

How does Haroon Moghul fit into the narrative?

One of the blessings of the antagonism Muslims have faced is the emergence of strong public figures to serve as our ambassadors and as our voices and faces in public. Haroon Moghul is one of these heroes. With his profoundly articulate voice, he’s trying to shake the imagination of American society and tell a different kind of story. We need to amplify voices like his, give them more media coverage and more attention in academia, where we train future leaders to engage with intellectuals. Haroon teaches us not to shy away from the bad and the ugly but instead to welcome the opportunity for healthy, productive discussion. By bringing Haroon Moghul to campus, the Duke Office of Civic Engagement is modeling more civil, humane and inclusive ways of addressing societal problems.