Wall Street Journal
By Ian Lovett
March 17, 2017
HONOLULU—With only a few thousand Muslim residents, Hawaii would seem an unlikely place to challenge—and halt—President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Only a half-dozen of refugees are settled here each year. The small Muslim community has quietly thrived, away from the conflicts on the mainland. They built a mosque in the hills overlooking Waikiki, celebrated the end of Ramadan on the beach and enjoyed good relationships with neighbors in this multicultural state. Anti-Islamic threats or hate speech was virtually unheard of, Muslims here say.
But all of that has abruptly changed in recent weeks, as Hawaii’s Muslim community has found itself at the center of the nationwide battle over immigration and Islam’s place in American society.
Anti-Muslim incidents have jumped since late last year, Muslims here say, and members of the community have been separated from their families by Mr. Trump’s travel ban.
The state of Hawaii—along with the imam at the mosque here, Ismail Elshikh—sued to stop the revised ban from taking effect, saying it was motivated by religious animus toward Muslims. On Wednesday night, a federal judge agreed and put the order on hold.
Mr. Trump, who has said the ban is necessary for national security reasons, has said he would appeal the Hawaii ruling. The administration Friday appealed a similar ruling by a Maryland judge.
For Mr. Elshikh, who is of Egyptian descent, the effects of the travel ban were personal. His mother-in-law is in Syria, one of the countries targeted by the ban, and the executive order could prevent her from visiting her grandchildren in Hawaii.
“This is a great day for democracy, religious and human rights,” Mr. Elshikh, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a text message after the judge’s order was issued. He was pleased, he added, “that this Muslim ban will not separate families.”
Even Muslims here who don’t have relatives overseas say that—after decades of feeling safe in Hawaii and largely avoiding the political fray—they were driven to action because they have become targets in the months since the election.
A Muslim cabdriver was attacked by three men who called him “Osama” in Waikiki late last year, said Hakim Ouansafi, president of the Muslim Association of Hawaii; the driver has since moved away from the state.
In February, a middle-school girl in a hijab, or head scarf, was followed off a bus by a man shouting profanities at her; her family is now also considering leaving Hawaii.
A Honolulu Police Department spokeswoman said both incidents were being investigated as possible hate crimes. But Muslims across the island said small expressions of hate in recent weeks—from drivers giving women in hijab the middle finger at red lights to men yelling at them to go back to their country—have become commonplace.
Mr. Ouansafi, a Moroccan who has been in the U.S. for three decades, said that the executive order, along with Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, has transformed the atmosphere for Muslims in Hawaii.
After the mosque began receiving threatening voice mails—one anonymous caller said, “Killing Muslims is God’s work”—he submitted an affidavit in the lawsuit opposing the travel ban.
Since the start of the year, the mosque here has added security cameras, and there are now plans to install a fence and floodlights, which will cost $25,000.
Over 20 years in Hawaii, Mr. Ouansafi has seen the Muslim community here grow up from a collection of fewer than 1,000 people.
Before Mr. Elshikh arrived in Honolulu in 2002, Mr. Ouansafi—who is the executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority—spoke at Friday prayers, because there was no full-time imam on the island.
Now, roughly 5,000 Muslims from more than 40 countries call Hawaii home. There is a mosque on all four of the most populated islands, Mr. Ouansafi said, and Friday prayers in Honolulu usually draw around 400 people, including a handful of tourists. Locals at the mosque will sometimes advise visiting compatriots on the best beaches or hikes.
No one nationality predominates. Rather, Muslims have come to Hawaii for the same reasons many others have: jobs, family, the weather, the island lifestyle.
Many say that the island’s multicultural makeup and “aloha spirit” had made it an easy place for Muslims to live.
Japanese-Americans make up a sizable portion of Hawaii’s population. Many here have relatives who were interned during World War II, and see a link between that history and opposition to Muslims today.
“Hawaii for decades has endeavored to consign to history the memories of Japanese internment and the Chinese Exclusion Acts,” Doug Chin, the Hawaii attorney general who sued to block the travel ban, said in an email. “That is a dark path in history we must avoid.”
Still, the Muslim community here retains a small-town feel, even as it has continued to grow.
“Someone I’ve never met in my entire life will come up to me and hug me and say ‘Assalamu Alaikum, sister,’” a traditional Muslim greeting, said Esma Arslan, 21 years old, who moved here from Los Angeles when she was 9. “If you see another Muslim, it’s like rude not to greet them.”
Ms. Arslan was the only student at her high school who wore a hijab. It posed certain challenges, like running with it on in the tropical heat during her paddling team practices. But few people ever gave her a hard time, she said. She was voted best dressed on the team every year for matching the color of her hijab to her leggings.
More difficult, she said, is avoiding pork on an island where spam is a celebrated dietary staple.
“People are shocked when I tell them I don’t eat spam—which is disgusting, by the way,” Ms. Arslan said. “But I don’t feel like we’re dissing the Hawaiian culture, because Muslims eat a lot of seafood, which is perfect here. There’s no restaurant where they don’t sell fish.”
It is only since the election, Ms. Arslan said, that she has been subjected to taunts because of her hijab. People on the street have started shouting at her to go back to her country. Ms. Arslan was born in Pennsylvania.
Mohamed Zakaria Khairane, 48, had lived in Hawaii for 23 years without encountering much anti-Muslim sentiment in the state.
At the start of the year, he began letting his two children, a 14-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy, ride the public bus home from school, something they had long asked to do. It lasted less than two months.
In February, a man on the bus began shouting profanity about Islam at his daughter, who was wearing a head scarf. When the kids got off the bus, the man followed them, and only left when a woman called the police. The kids now get a ride to school, and the family is now considering moving to Morocco, where Mr. Khairane, a U.S. citizen, is originally from.
“The bigotry and ignorance is starting to come out now,” Mr. Khairane said. “We thought this was the best place to be. We thanked God to live in Hawaii, with its multicultural identity, its diversity.”
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