Like many American Muslims, Mohammed couldn't sleep on Tuesday night. As he mulled the implications of a Trump presidency, he remembered the day, two years ago, when his wife called to say that a stranger in a grocery store parking lot had ripped off her hijab and wrapped it around her throat, trying to strangle her.
"I feel that, from now on, it’s OK to attack someone like my wife, with a bigot in power,” Mohammed said. "This is my main concern."
At midday on Thursday in Southern California, Mohammed wore a fitted, light gray suit, on lunch break from his job in IT. (Because his family never went public over his wife’s assault, Mohammed asked BuzzFeed News to withhold his last name and precise location.) He moved his hands emphatically as he spoke; on his right hand, he wore a wide ring bearing an engraving of the Islamic shahada in Arabic: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger. Mohammed’s mother gave him the ring when she arrived in the United States seeking asylum. Now she worries, along with her son, that her case may be hopeless under a Trump administration.
Mohammed is an Iraqi Muslim immigrant who became a naturalized American citizen this year, partly so he could vote in this election. "I had zero doubts that Hillary would win," he said. "I thought it was a given. I know there is a divide. I know there are people who are misguided by stereotypes. But I never expected it to be half of America. That's shocking to me."
Growing up in southern Iraq, Mohammed was a computer nerd with a picture of Bill Gates pinned to the wall of his bedroom. Iraq was war-torn from the year of his birth, 1982, when Iran began shelling his city from across the border during the Iran-Iraq war. In 2003, in Baghdad, his college education was interrupted by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
For several years after the invasion, Mohammed, who speaks English fluently, made a living by working with U.S. journalists as an interpreter and a technician. He was injured by suicide car bombs, rockets, and mortar shells. “I beep at every metal detector from the shrapnel I have in my body,” he said. Like other Iraqis who worked with Americans, he became a target of Al Qaeda, which put a $10,000 bounty on his head. On one occasion, militants broke into his condo and set it on fire.
In 2008, he applied for a visa to come to the United States. It was finally approved in 2010. He arrived in California without much: “My wife, my children, and two suitcases. That's it.”
But it was enough. “This is the end of being in constant fear,” he thought at the time. “This is the end of being a target.”
Things went well for Mohammed. He got an entry-level, clerical job — a much less prestigious position than he could have held in Iraq, but something nevertheless. Over time, work got better. His family now owns a house and cars, and his kids go to good schools. He found that his relationship with Islam grew clearer. “I resented my religion when I was in my country, because of those extremists,” he said. “Until I got here.” His wife began to wear the hijab.
The day she was assaulted, Mohammed rushed home to find her with her neck scratched and bruised. She told him that the stranger had grabbed her scarf from behind her and, once it was around her throat, pulled hard enough so that she couldn’t scream. Then he ran off with it. “As a souvenir — right? Because he did something heroic.”
Even after the attack, Mohammed’s wife continued to cover her hair with a scarf. That changed after this week’s election. Rather than wear a hijab, Mohammed said, she will hide her hair with a hat. Mohammed sat down with his children. “You have to be careful,” he told them. “Don’t say that you’re a Muslim when you don’t have to. Just keep it to yourself.”
"I feel that, from now on, it's OK to attack someone like my wife, with a bigot in power."
Over the course of Trump’s campaign, perhaps the thing that worried Mohammed most was the candidate’s claim that ordinary American Muslims do not report terrorists and radicals in their midst to the authorities. This assertion is false: Many domestic terrorism cases have originated with reports from Muslims. The implication, Mohammed said, is equally false and deeply troubling: “Even if I wasn’t a terrorist, I’m a sympathizer, because I wouldn’t report any terrorist activity,” Mohammed said. It’s part of what makes him fear that violence against Muslims will be considered acceptable under Trump.
“If the leader of this nation believes that Muslims are a threat, then eventually, even people who think it’s ridiculous now — the culture will shift,” Mohammed said. “People who are discouraged from hurting people like us, now they’ll feel they’re obligated to do so."
Even though he remains devout, Mohammed has only gone to a mosque a handful of times since he moved to the United States, because he’s wary of surveillance. “Now it’s not a concern,” he said. “It’s a fact. After this, I’m not going to go to a mosque. I feel like I will be marked if I go to a mosque."
In spite of all this, Mohammed stressed that he retains his faith in America's commitment to religious liberty. He believes there’s a decent chance that Trump’s worst statements about Islam — that he would ban all immigration by Muslims, and that he would put those already here in databases on the basis of their religion — were merely bluster designed to prey on people’s fears for the sake of winning votes. Even if that’s not the case, Mohammed expects the coming dark period to last two years, after which he hopes a Democratic congress will check Trump’s ambitions. And even until then, he said, Trump’s efforts will be frustrated at every turn. “We have the Madisonian Model, right? He’s not a CEO anymore. He doesn’t know what he signed up for.”
“I'm very optimistic about the future,” Mohammed said. Then he paused.