By Zainab Chaudry
Monday night’s presidential debate – the first ahead of the 2016 election – is officially on record as the most-watched debate in U.S. history.
This isn’t really news to most of us – the stakes are higher now than ever, and concerned Americans are paying attention.
Monday evening, millions of viewers braced for a contentious 90 minute standoff. Neither candidate disappointed – exchanging zingers on topics ranging from birtherism to stamina.
Like most Americans, Muslims were also transfixed to television, computer and phone screens, alternating between astonishment, dread, amusement, anxiety, disbelief and dismay. Many of us organized debate watch parties in states from coast to coast – as much to hash out candidates’ remarks on key issues impacting our communities as to encourage political engagement and voter turnout.
In Maryland, I joined some 25 Muslim community members at a debate watch party in Baltimore co-hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the United Maryland Muslim Council. Before the debate began, we discussed the spike in Islamophobia during this election campaign season and the impact of anti-Muslim rhetoric from candidates running for public office.
Organizations tracking hate crimes and bias incidents against U.S. Muslims have confirmed 2015-16 to be the most hostile period for our communities in recent memory.
The pre-debate introduction also focused on the importance of registering to vote, casting ballots on Election Day, and encouraging friends, neighbors, colleagues, family and community members to also vote.
As Sec. Hillary Clinton and Mr. Donald Trump traded retorts during the course of Monday night’s debate, their positions on issues like national security, immigration and racial profiling underscored the urgency of mobilizing our communities to make a sensible decision at the polls this November.
Many Muslims had braced themselves for plenty of anti-Muslim sound bytes during the debate. But our group was somewhat surprised by both candidates’ restraint in not throwing Muslims entirely under the bus for the duration of the 90 minutes.
There was, however, collective dismay at Sec. Clinton’s comment that “American Muslims are valuable allies in the fight against terror,” implying that our communities are valuable for our role in counterterrorism efforts and not otherwise worthy of respect for simply being American.
However, one Howard County resident, whose family is from Pakistan and who plans to vote for Sec. Clinton, observed that both candidates’ foreign policies leave a lot to be desired, remarking “we’re left with a bad choice that means we have to pick the lesser of two evils.”
While guests sipped coffee and snacked on home-baked goods, I snacked on orange skittles – consuming one from my hidden stash for each time Mr. Trump interrupted Sec. Clinton or questioned her stamina. Needless to say, my supply dwindled quickly.
Predictably, reactions from guests at our debate watch party revealed a general consensus that Sec. Clinton is the better-suited candidate who will work for our communities’ and allied communities’ best interests.
But, she still has to work harder to reassure voters she is up to the job. There was a sense of frustration that Sec. Clinton was constantly interrupted and bulldozed by Mr. Trump because she is a woman.
“If Hillary Clinton were a man, she would enjoy overwhelming support and be elected in a landslide,” said Nasrin Rahman of the Baltimore County Muslim Council. “Look at what she has done her entire life for people compared to her rival [candidate].”
Rahman encouraged Americans to support Clinton and love one another despite race, religion, or gender. “America is about love thy neighbors as you would love your family.”
United Maryland Muslim Council President Rizwan Siddiqi did not publicly favor either candidate, but instead encouraged Muslims to do their research and make an informed decision at the polls. “Muslims should register and get out the vote to choose the right candidate for ourselves and our children’s future.”
For most viewers at our debate watch party, there really is no choice. As one guest put it: “I’m with her. For my children’s sake, for my country’s sake. We can’t afford any different.”