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Living in a sea of red: Muslims in Lehigh Valley fear four more years of Trump

In eastern Pennsylvania, a spike in support for the president is laying bare deep-rooted social divides
Hasshan Batts says he's worried about a culture of hostility spreading across the valley (MEE/Azad Essa)
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Allentown, Pennsylvania

In the Lehigh Valley, one of the few districts of eastern Pennsylvania that escaped a sea of Republican red in 2016, a continuation of a Donald Trump presidency is not just conceivable, it's entirely plausible.

Though Allentown, a one-time manufacturing hub near the New Jersey border, has remained Democratic for the past 20 years, many of the surrounding counties, including Berks, Schuylkill and Carbon, have become Republican strongholds.

'When we say we are facing prejudice and discrimination, white people don't believe it because they just don't experience it' 

- Hasshan Batts

And according to the town's Muslim residents, there is little to suggest that this election will be any different.

"This is a volatile time, there is an air of hatred and violence and quite frankly I am worried about a culture of hostility spreading across the valley," Hasshan Batts, the 45-year-old executive director of non-profit Promise Neighbourhoods, told Middle East Eye.

"President Donald Trump has woken something in people and made it acceptable for hatred to reign; more important to me is to see people stand up and stick up for humanity and compassion."

Like many Muslims in the Lehigh Valley, a bi-county considered pivotal in the race to the White House, Batts, speaking in his personal capacity, said he was hopeful that Trump would lose the election, but added that the fear felt by those in the area extends beyond the man as president. 

Lehigh Valley Map

"This is about the people who have elected him. Trump is one man. Even if he goes, what about everyone who supported him?" Batts asked rhetorically.

Since becoming president, Trump has instituted different iterations of a travel ban on a series of Muslim-majority countries, has presided over some of the worst abuse of migrants and refugees on the US-Mexico border, has vilified Representative Ilhan Omar, among others, and has emboldened and refused to condemn white supremacy. 

"What has always struck me about him is his continuous misogyny and hateful remarks about women. I can't accept that," said Sarah Baig, a 18-year-old student from Allentown. 

On the foreign policy front, Trump has fraternised with authoritarians including Brazil's President Jair Bolsanaro and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost erased the Palestinians in a set of new deals in the Middle East.

In 2020, his poor handling and mixed messaging during the Covid-19 pandemic has left more than 220,000 Americans dead, a majority of whom were people of colour.

His time in office has also ushered in a 16-year-high in hate crimes across the US and left the country bruised and immensely polarised.

According to the 2018 census, there are 369,000 people in the Lehigh Valley, with more than 82 percent of its residents being white. In Allentown, a series of racist incidents have loomed large for people of colour and Muslims who live there. 

"I can say that it has become more hostile and scarier than before. It is not shocking because as a Black Muslim woman, the microaggressions have always been there," said Amaris R, a 20-year-old student from Allentown now studying in New Jersey.

Large swathes of rural Pennsylvania are full of Trump signage (MEE/Azad Essa)
Large swathes of rural Pennsylvania display Trump signage (MEE/Azad Essa)

As a swing state, Pennsylvania is considered critically important in the race to the White House.  

In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania by just 0.7 percentage points or 44,292 votes. A series of strategists and analysts predict that the winner of the state this time will have an 80 percent chance of winning the presidency.

Others say that this part of Pennsylvania is so important that whoever wins the Lehigh Valley's neighbouring Northampton county usually wins the election. 

Philadelphia, Allegheny., as well as the Lehigh Valley, were among the counties that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it is possible that it will remain marginally Democrat this time around too, yet Muslims, who number about 5,000 in the community, aren't taking any chances. 

"There is a lot of mistrust towards Muslims, towards Black people, towards Latin folks. And when we say we are in pain, when we say we are facing prejudice and discrimination, white people don't believe it because they just don't experience it," Batts says. 

Allentown affluent
Residents say they are seeing Trump increasingly endorsed by more affluent white American families (MEE/Azad Essa)

War of the placards

Across large swathes of rural eastern Pennsylvania, Trump signs are displayed on store fronts, hanging as flags from light poles, and affixed as placards on lawns outside homes, farms and warehouses.

For many people of colour in Allentown, including Muslims, the spike in open support has raised the spectre of a second Trump presidency. 

"At the very least, more people seem more comfortable expressing support for him than they did four years ago," Batts said.

"Trump has brought out many of the hidden thoughts of people through his hate speech, which encourages political violence. At the end of the day, Donald Trump is the accelerant and the reason we can see such aggressive and violent political ideals," said Nadira Kaleem, a 20-year-old student from Allentown.

Though many Muslims aren't particularly excited by the prospect of a Biden presidency, most are expected to vote for him, in a bid to get Trump out of office.

Community organisers in the Lehigh Valley lament the Democratic Party's outreach to Muslim communities and even the larger Democratic electorate, pointing to the fact that ahead of this election, Biden did not choose to visit the district, instead making stops in Bucks and Luzerne counties over the weekend.

'Some are actually in shock that they are surrounded by red necks'

- Mirza Baig, Allentown resident

Since Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, Democratic support in the Lehigh Valley has declined, though polls do show Trump trailing Biden.

One Muslim restaurant owner, who asked not to be identified, said he felt as if he had no choice but to vote for Biden.

"I do have reservations about Biden; we are in a two-party system and so everyone has reservations about who they are voting for," said Amaris R.

As a former manufacturing area of Pennsylvania, the working classes of Lehigh Valley have in recent years fallen on hard times.

In 2019, the poverty rate in the district was 13 percent, almost three percentage points higher than the rest of the country.  

Whereas Trump has been typically linked to lower-educated, white working-class Americans, in the Lehigh Valley many have begun to notice the number of signs supporting the president popping up outside bigger houses in more affluent suburbs as well.

"These are physicians, nurses, professionals who are supporting Trump, despite knowing what he has done with Covid-19, for example, and despite knowing everything that has happened over the past four years," said Mirza Baig, Sarah's father and president of the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley.

Allentown Mirza
Mirza Baig says a spike in Trump signs in suburbs around Allentown is a sign that more affluent white people are on board with Trump (MEE/Azad Essa)​ 

Baig recalls that in September he noticed one of his neighbours put up a Trump sign outside his home. He responded with a Biden sign. The next day Trump signs popped up across the neighbourhood. "Every one of them. It was surprising. These are all well-educated people," Baig said.

"Something has changed. When September 11 happened, we saw nothing like this. But now, we wonder if they were holding themselves back then, because clearly they want to show how they really feel, and how they see us, too.

"Inherently, they feel that the immigrants have taken over. It is bringing out the white supremacist values in them. The people around us have been taxed more under Trump, so it can't be the economy. They support him for some other reason," he added.

Baig says that part of the reason Trump signs dominate the landscape is because of the reluctance of persons of colour and Muslims to demonstrate support for Biden.

"Some are actually in shock that they are surrounded by rednecks," he added.

First time voters

According to the US Elections Project, more than 73 million Americans have already voted early in person or submitted their mail-in ballots, meaning that almost 53 percent of registered voters had cast their ballot ahead of 3 November. Almost two million have done so in Pennsylvania.

For first-time voters, like Sarah Baig, Nadira Kaleem or Amaris R, all 20 years old, the prospect of casting their first vote to stall the march of white supremacy still felt a "little surreal".

"I think I would be very disappointed in our country if Trump had to win. It would be messed up. I think we would lose a lot of hope as young people if the country actually put this guy back in office," said Sarah Baig, who studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

Still, many of her peers, mostly white, are supporting Trump.

Amaris R said: "It is just scary to see people my age adopt some of these far-right ideals, despite having had the same education.

"I don't believe Trump cares about the plight or the success of Black people or Muslims, or those at the intersection of the two."

Allentown Nadira Kaleem
Nadira Kaleem says she knows many young people who have decided not to vote because of their distrust of the candidates and the electoral system (MEE/Azad Essa)

Over the weekend, a cavalcade of vehicles - cars, pick-up trucks, motorcycles - draped in Trump paraphernalia and American flags paraded down the highways of eastern Pennsylvania.

On Monday, Trump delivered remarks to a packed crowd in Allentown. Before the event, hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the venue before dawn amid frigid conditions to ensure that they got good spots to watch Trump speak. 

Kaleem described the scenes playing out in the town as "extremely disheartening".

"It would be naive to think that white supremacy did not exist prior to our current presidency, but it is still unbelievably shocking to see how this rise of Trump has promoted such a violent and cult-like following that can result in mass uprising, even civil war.

"It makes me think about how many friends, employers, teachers, and others I have interacted with from the area always had these beliefs but never shared them," Kaleem added.

"I do not think that feeling will ever subside for me."