From being called a “terrorist” to an “elected member”; Nabeela Syed speaks

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Nabeela Syed, a 23-year-old Muslim Indian-American woman, made history and left people baffled after becoming a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, the youngest ever to run for office.

The Indian-American Democrat defeated Republican Party nominee Chris Bos to win the US. Medium term elections.

Nabeela is from Palatine, Illinois and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a double major in political science and business.

Syed is dedicated to empowering young Muslim women to take leadership roles within their faith community and promotes interfaith dialogue at the Northwest Suburbs Islamic Society.

Maktoob approached Nabeela and asked her about her sudden interest in politics and her life as a Muslim in the US.

What motivated you to enter politics?

What motivated me was the year 2016, we saw a very hateful man become president of the United States. We watched Donald Trump come to power, and seeing him use divisive rhetoric, harsh language, and the terrible beliefs that he held and continue to hold, and watching him come to power made me very upset about where we’re headed as a country. And that’s when I decided that he needed to get me involved in politics. That someone who looks like me, someone who is Indian, who is Muslim, and who is young, needs to participate in the political space here in the United States. That was, for me, one of the biggest reasons I turned to politics.

What challenges did you face during the execution of your campaign?

I think campaigning, in general, is a very difficult thing to do. In particular, we converted a Republican district to a Democratic one. The district leaned Republican. And people didn’t expect a Democrat to win here, but luckily we were able to make it happen.

What was the reaction when people saw a hijab-clad young woman running for election?

In general, in general, people were very friendly and excited. They were excited to see someone as young as me at their doors, and they were hopeful and pleased when they saw someone asking for their support and about the issues that matter most to them. So it meant a lot to me to see so many people excited when I showed up at their doors. And I think it reminds people, reminding us over and over again, that when you’re running for office, it’s very important to engage in those conversations, to talk to people and ask them what matters most to them. So I think it’s essential to do that, continue to reach people.

When you grew up in the US, did you experience discrimination as a Muslim?

Yes. I think growing up, there were instances where I was called a terrorist, either jokingly or seriously. And it would hurt, especially as a young person who believes in doing good and caring about the community, and people could make you look mean or have bad intentions. And for me, it was sad to see that sometimes that was the case. But overall, I’d say growing up in America, I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to even run for office. I think that’s the beauty of this country, and the selection is a way of showing that this is democracy in action. It’s very good to see.

And if I were to tell you about one incident, it would be one time I was in DC, I was there for an internship, and someone spat at me, which was a terrifying experience. The spit didn’t hit me, but the person did try to spit on me, right? Like they’re trying to hit me with their spit. So those cases, I think, are what happened when you normalize the hate that came after the Trump presidency. If I remember correctly, it was a person in a Trump hat, I think he was wearing a Trump hat. I don’t even know if he was. I don’t want to say that and then be wrong, but someone who hated me tried to spit on me and it annoyed me.

What is your opinion on the current situation of Muslim women around the world? Especially in France, where the hijab is prohibited, and in India, where there is controversy about the hijab.

The most important thing I want to say is that hijab is a choice and women should have the choice to wear hijab or not. That choice should not be taken away.

The terrorist attack of September 11 made a huge tooth in the image of Muslims living in the United States and everywhere else. Did it impact you as a child?

Yes, I was two years old when 9/11 happened. I grew up in a post-9/11 world where we saw many people respond with fear, and some respond with intolerance. And sometimes, I felt like people made all Muslims very hateful and generalized all of us as terrorists. And that was hard to see, to feel like a community that I love and care about and the people that I meet, the Muslims that I meet in my community care about helping others.

They care about donating and giving to charity and they are good people. And many people in the Islamic faith are good people. But then you have some people who caused so much damage, and everyone assumes that the whole group is bad because of it, and that’s what we see in all the different communities. That’s what you’re seeing towards different minority groups. And it has to stop because that kind of hateful rhetoric breeds violence.

Do you want to give an opinion on the situation of religious freedom in India?

I don’t want to comment on things I don’t know very well.

Have you ever visited Hyderabad?

Yes, I visited a few times when I was younger. Not recently. I guess I might have been twelve when I last visited Hyderabad.

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