There were many chilling conversations with those who – not knowing my faith background – told me they wished for violence and concentration camps
“We should exterminate them.”
The words rolled off the voter’s tongue as though he was merely discussing a pest invasion in his home. He was talking about Muslims.
I froze as I became suddenly aware of my own Muslim identity, my long hair just barely covering my necklace that bears the name of Allah in Arabic scripture.
The conversation had begun just as any interaction with a voter does. The man had come to see Rand Paul speak at a luncheon in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and I approached him to gauge his thoughts on the Kentucky senator’s candidacy.
It was when the topic turned to national security, which he listed as his top priority, that he expressed his desire to purge Muslims from the United States.
When you say exterminate, do you mean we should kill Muslims living in America? I followed up, masking my incredulity as I’ve been trained to do as a journalist.
Yes, he confirmed. If they don’t leave, we start killing them.
I had never feared for my personal safety while on the road covering previous US elections. But it occurred to me in that moment I was traveling alone, clocking in countless hours in my rental car across a state I did not know.
Although his words remain with me 19 months later, I didn’t make too much of it then. Only now, in retrospect, does the encounter foreshadow the anger and fear that was a dominant theme of the 2016 campaign.
I was among the hundreds of reporters who spent nearly two years living out of a suitcase and hotel rooms to cover an election that soon became the biggest story in the world. But as a Muslim, I was just one of a handful.
I covered candidates as a member of the traveling press – first Marco Rubio, then Hillary Clinton. In between the shuffle of rallies, buses and planes, I pursued stories on the ground in battleground states seeking to capture the mood of the electorate.
Unlike my friend Asma Khalid, who eloquently chronicled her experience, there was nothing obviously Muslim about me. I don’t wear a hijab and, to most who have a certain image of what Muslims look like, the woman in the sleeveless, knee-length dresses wasn’t it.
It was perhaps because they did not make the connection that voters often opened up to me with their candid thoughts about Muslims.
There were many more chilling conversations with those who, like the man in South Carolina, wished aloud for violence and concentration camps.
Others were somewhat humorous, like the sweet old lady who pulled me aside at a New Hampshire diner. She warned me that Isis was looking for brides and was genuinely concerned I might be kidnapped. Tell your editors to get you some security, she lectured.
But as the campaign dragged on, so did the toll of separating my personal identity from my professional obligations.
I recall the day when Ben Carson stated in an interview he did not believe a Muslim should be president of the United States. I went about my task of gathering reaction from the other 16 Republican presidential contenders almost robotically, until the tears dropped on my keyboard as I typed.
That same week, I kept myself composed when offering political analysis of the moment on MSNBC. But I nearly lost it again later when my cousin’s daughter, raised as my niece, bounded over to me at a family party.
She was seven years old at the time and typically watched my television appearances to see what I was wearing or to admire the glossy makeup and hair.
But this time she had a question.
She asked: Is it true someone said we can’t be president?
I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut.
To this American-born Girl Scout, then in just the second grade, someone hadn’t simply said a Muslim shouldn’t be a president. Someone had said sheshould not be president.
I told her not to worry – she could be anything she wanted to be, even president.
Cynically, I didn’t believe my own words and was tempted to tell her parents perhaps she shouldn’t watch my segments during the election. But that seemed an overreaction. Beside, I thought, how much worse could it get?
On the evening of 7 December, I was in the midst of dinner when Donald Trump called for a total ban of all Muslims from entering the US.
Sparking controversy was nothing new for the Republican frontrunner, but I thought surely this time he had been taken out of context. It was then that I switched to CNN, where there Trump stood at a rally in South Carolina, reading the statement himself.
I had hesitated to use my personal voice in the election, mindful of maintaining my professionalism. But it dawned on me that some newsrooms in America had one or two Muslims at best; most of them had none.
I’ve always advocated for more diversity in the media. What good came from pushing editors to hire more minorities, only to feel it would be somehow inappropriate for us to share certain perspectives unique to us?
And so I sent a tweet noting my family was American but had spent 10 years living abroad in Italy during my childhood. Would we not be allowed to return home under Trump’s proposal today?
His campaign soon clarified the ban would not apply to US citizens. But it would affect all Muslim foreign nationals until, as Trump put it, the US government could figure out “what the hell is going on”.
I tweeted once more about how much of my family would still be barred from coming to visit.
My goal was not to push an agenda, but to make clear who would be affected by such a proposal. Even to some of my colleagues in the media, Muslim-majority countries can conjure frightening images.
They ought to at least know that my version of people coming from Pakistan is my aunts, uncles and cousins joining our family for Thanksgiving or spending their summer holidays here. And so it is for the vast majority of Muslims who enter the US, as tourists, students or workers.
I carried on, as usual, reporting the news that stemmed from Trump’s comments: the politics, the policy implications, the condemnation from members of his own party that had become routine.
It was always at the night’s end, as I settled into another hotel bed, that it hit me. I was often so exhausted that I could no longer remember which part of the country I was even in, and yet there were so many nights I simply couldn’t sleep.
The more Muslim profiling rose to the forefront of the debate, the more I wrestled with how to navigate my background.
The week before the New Hampshire primary, Marco Rubio criticized Barack Obama’s visit that day to a mosque during a rally. His comments drew instant headlines and posed an obvious follow-up question when he appeared before reporters the next day.
Since I was embedded with the campaign, I knew I would get a question and indeed I did. I prepared to ask Rubio why he took issue with Obama’s visit and if he was suggesting he would not go to a mosque as president. But something came over me.
With the nominating contests in full swing, there was a much larger media presence and I hesitated upon realizing I was the only Muslim there. Am I going to be the Muslim reporter asking the Muslim question? I thought.
I chose a different topic, certain that one of the many reporters there would ask the senator about the main reason he was in the headlines that day.
But as the press conference came to an end, the question went unasked.
I realized my error immediately, not as a Muslim but as a journalist.
When George Stephanopoulos asked Rubio to clarify his comments about Obama’s mosque visit at a Republican debate days later, it was an instructive moment for me. It was a valid question, and I should not have doubted my authority to ask it.
My reticence was born in part from how my increasing visibility on the campaign trail was met by a faction of readers.
On any given day, some following my work, most of them Trump supporters, would fill my mentions with photos of suicide bombings and other violent images from terrorist attacks. I dealt with threats which I reported to Twitter, but they were often of the variety that were batted away as part and parcel of social media, where anonymity allows for no limits.
There were times when I felt as though I may not have it in me to continue.
I had been hired by the Guardian to cover the campaign and jumped at the chance to go out on the trail. On the surface I was having the time of my life, but internally I struggled a great deal.
That’s not to say it was not an unforgettable experience. I learned a lot by traveling to parts of the country I would not have otherwise seen, built lasting friendships and grew as a reporter.
I realized, too, that my community was counting on me.
There was the Syrian couple who approached me at a Rubio rally in Virginia asking me to keep at it, and the Bangladeshi immigrants who told me at a Hillary Clinton rally in Iowa they were pleasantly surprised to see a Muslim face on TV talking not about national security but about general politics.
There were also routinely words of encouragement, from friends, professional acquaintances and strangers who came from both parties, spanned all backgrounds and reminded me why my parents chose America as their home nearly 40 years ago.
I’d be lying if I said that alone was enough to make up for feeling at times like an outsider in my own country. It didn’t change that I underestimated just how many of my fellow Americans wouldn’t say aloud what they really think of Muslims or immigrants.
My approach to eradicating Muslim stereotypes has always been to try and put forth the best version of myself. I learned from this election that the real work begins now.
Written by Sabrina Siddiqui.