The 2016 presidential election has stirred up and exposed frightening amounts of xenophobia, racism, and bigotry in the United states. Among the groups that have felt particularly targeted are American Muslims. At an event I attended recently, female Muslim activist Linda Sarsour detailed several atrocities that have been inflicted against Muslims in recent months: Two imams shot dead in New York. Mosques defaced and burned. A woman in hijab assaulted while pushing her baby in a stroller. A foiled plot to blow up a Somali housing complex with car bombs. This repulsive list grows almost daily.
What is happening to this country? This is not the America I grew up in. This is not the America I recognize. We are better than this.
But perhaps the more pressing question is: What can be done to counter this wave of fear, hatred, and violence?
For many Muslims in Ohio, part of the answer lies in making their voices heard. As Sarsour declared: “If you are not part of the conversation, the conversation is about you, without you!”
Several weeks ago, I learned about MOPAC, or the Muslims for Ohio Political Action Committee, a relatively new organization devoted to helping Muslims reclaim their voices. In the weeks leading up to the election, MOPAC has worked tirelessly to encourage Muslims to stand up for themselves and their faith, and to become more involved in the political process. It has brought activists to speak at events around the state. It has hosted rallies against hate. It has helped take Muslim voters to the polls.
Last weekend, for the American Religious Sounds Project, I had the opportunity to document some of these efforts, as MOPAC volunteers and others teamed up to help drive Muslims to the Franklin County Board of Elections for early voting. I followed several women as they assisted members of a Somali community from the west side of the city, many of them elders. After voting, many of these individuals, beaming with pride, asked me to photograph them as they posed with friends and their voter pamphlets. The afternoon concluded with an enthusiastic chant: “USA! USA! USA!” Afterward, I went out to lunch with a family of female activists, who are involved in a number of initiatives to help the local refugee community.
I came home that afternoon physically exhausted, but mentally and emotionally refreshed. I’ve since been thinking about a conversation I had about Islamophobia with Izzy, one of the activists. People fear what they do not know, we said, almost simultaneously.
Our exchange reminds me of why it can be such a privilege to be a photographer. The camera provides a continual opportunity to meet people from diverse backgrounds, to form meaningful cross-cultural relationships, and to learn to see past cultural and religious differences. Another valuable thing about photography, though, is its potential ability to take viewers on a similar journey.
Thanks for reading.