Religion & Politics in Trump’s America | Critical Thinking Skype Session

As-salāmu ʿalaykum and hello everyone. Thank
you for taking the time out this evening and joining us this evening. We’re here with Sughra
Ahmed to discuss religion and politics in Trump’s America. So Sughra sent around 2 pieces
for everyone to look at and one of them was ‘Science is not a betrayal of faith’ and right
at the bottom of that there’s a little bio which I’m just going to read out so… Sughra Ahmed brings together a unique blend
of experience in academia, policy and community activism. She is a Yale Greenberg World Fellow
at Yale University, as well as a Research Associate at St Edmund’s College, University
of Cambridge. Ahmed was formerly Chair of the Islamic Society of Britain, a national
grassroots organisation. She specialises in interfaith relations, is a public speaker
and regularly contributes to media discussions, particularly on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought
for The Day’ programme. She recommended everyone watch episode 5 of
CNN’s Believer, where Reza Aslan dives into Santa Muerte, which is Saint Death and that
was all around religious encounters and religious immersions which is exactly what Sughra’s
been doing in the Bible Belt in Trump’s America so take it away Sughra! OK so I’m going to in the next 10-15 minutes
at least, talk a little bit about my journey in the US throughout the Bible Belt and I
want to also sort of focus a little bit about the way people have responded to the sudden
changes that have taken place, mainly in the United States, that have effected the world
over. I say this in light of having experienced Brexit last summer. And knowing that Austria
elected a socialist and France just elected Macron over Le Pen so it’s a mixed picture. My purpose really was to understand how the
people who are making these decisions on the ground, how they decide where their alliances
lie, where their allegiances lie, how do they decide on major decisions like electing a
president, a prime minister, and so on, and major decisions like leaving or staying within
the European Union? And one of the things I guess that really
drove me to do this is that I saw what happened here in the UK last summer when we voted to
leave the European Union, and basically a lot of us spent a lot of time looking at each
other, thinking well, “who voted that way because I didn’t, and neither did my neighbours,
nor did my family so what on earth is going on when the country is voting and I don’t
recognise the way it’s voting?” And I went to America last August and I caught
the presidential debates and then obviously the elections in November. And then I travelled
between the election and the inauguration across the south of the US. I started in Utah
and worked my way down into Southern California, and then almost state by state, worked my
way across to the east coast. Just talking to regular folk, getting to know them, having
cups of… I was going to say tea, but not really… more like coffee and iced tea and
lots and lots of different meals in different spaces, including their homes, which they
were very very warm and welcoming about. And so it was an incredible experience, it
was a real gift to be fair for two months to be able to do that, to try to put my finger
on the pulse of the US, just in terms of those states and the cities in those states because
the picture is so different from one state to the next, from one part of the country
to the next, compared to other parts of the country. And it was mainly the Southern states
voted Republican. The main point of the trip across the South
was to understand plurality in the American South and by doing that to understand myself
because by stepping outside of my own bubble and my own shoes for a little while it gave
me an opportunity to figure out how are people feel, what happens in their day to day life,
their political motivations so You know I feel sometimes as British Muslims
we are living in a bubble, a very small bubble. It’s interesting for me to understand how
do people see us on both sides of the pond, how to people view British Muslims. That kind
of gets me thinking – how do we see them? When we think about the Bible Belt for example,
it’s a catchphrase, it kind of generates all sorts of stereotypes in people’s minds but
what are those stereotypes, how do we see those people? How do we think that they might
see us? I feel that when minorities see themselves
in terms of how the wider context perceives them, and when they can understand that perception,
right or wrong, it makes no difference, but when they can at least appreciate how wider
society sees them, it can actually help in our own growth in our own development, in
a very sort of critical way rather than through the lens of victimhood, or this kind of attitude
that I might be here but this place is not mine because other people don’t allow it to
be mine. So it gives us a much stronger sense of confidence and maybe even critical dissonance
when we’re able to see how others perceive us. And so it was really important within this
trip for me to recognise that we all have our own little worlds and that by stepping
outside of them we’re not only learning about other people that we’re engaging with but
we also learn an awful lot about ourselves. And I certainly did. There were times, in Utah for example, which
is Mormon central, the vast majority of Utah is Mormon, and they’re very practicing Mormons
in my experience, the people that I met – Uber drivers, shuttle bus drivers, people who worked
in hotels, people who ran restaurants and cafes, regular professionals who took public
transport, we ended up in conversations and sometimes we got into quite deep and meaningful
conversations. The attitudes that some of these people had towards women for example,
and gender rights, felt very uncomfortable to me – extremely uncomfortable, and my initial
reaction, even though this was supposed to be a listening exercise, was to respond and
say, “You’re talking to me as a woman. Surely I get to decide how my own sense of agency
feels to me? And how I reflect upon that especially through the lens of gender right, but the
religion lens was incredibly important to them. And it is important for so many people
including lots and lots of Muslims on both sides of the pond. And so the response would
be, that’s all well and good sweetheart but I’m not having my taxes pay for the right
for a woman to perhaps have an abortion. No matter the circumstances, not my concern,
because my God says abortion is not allowed, and therefore abortion under any circumstances
should not be allowed. And this is exactly one of the pledges that trump made. And at
the time, after the election, lots and lots of people in this part of the world were super
excited because according to their own narrative and their own reflections, he was going to
be doing God’s work. And surely there’s nothing more important than God’s work when you are
a person of religion, a person of theology, who is conservative in your theology (which
the majority of the people in this region, I felt, was) then that becomes your be all
and end all, despite the consequences or risks. For example, we talk about this idea of the
wall. And lots and lots of people, Mormons and others, Southern Baptists, Evangelical
Christians, Pentecostal Christians, who I met across the different states would often
talk about the fact that the wall was a bit of a gimmick, and it wasn’t really going to
happen and they were prepared to take the risk. Because we talked about the rights and
wrongs of it but also the possibility, hypothetically this is a pledge that had been made, so let’s
play hypothetical for a little while and imagine the wall would be built, how would you feel
about that? And many people talked about how that was a small price to pay for the bigger
issues and that is about religion, and religious identification, and understand that this man
represents your sense of religiosity and your sense of who you are as a religious person
on earth, and the purpose you have to fulfil. And so there were some things that were just
worth the price and sometimes it was the wall. When I talked about one of the pledges being
putting Muslims on a list so that the nation would know who was Muslim in the country,
a lot of people knew my religious identity, we talked about that, they were quite open
in saying how such a thing was just ludicrous and surely Germany was an example to us all,
the history that Germany had and therefore America would not be so naive or so silly. I would love to go back and have those conversations
with those people now, 100+ days on and see how they feel. I made a short trip back to the states recently
and from the little I gathered from taxi drivers and shopkeepers – I like to talk to those
people a lot because they’re the real people for me on the ground – a lot of those spoke
about the fact that the media has been very harsh towards the administration and this
idea of ‘fake news’ was a fact, they believed this
was absolutely true. And they were all the more fervent behind their President because they felt that the media, globally was against him and the administration and so therefore their loyalty had to be increased that much more in order to really be true to their vote and how they decided. And a lot of people talked about how, you know, I was able to have more fluid conversations with, actually the idea of saying that maybe I was wrong, and maybe I voted in the wrong direction, Or I disagree with what’s happening now is a direct inference to my own inability to make good judgements and good decisions and so you know for a lot of people this stage is probably just too soon to be able to sort of critically reflect and think about how executive order after executive order has made people across the globe feel, but particularly, you know, refugees who have gone through clearance for a period of 2 years, are mid-air and they land at places like JFK and other airports around the country and upon landing they realise that border control has just been issued with an executive order to say that actually, no more refugees or no more people are allowed from these countries certainly. So that kind of confusion, that kind of chaos, that ensued after that got me thinking about the way that different types of people have responded and this idea of taking over or making your voice heard in a creative way or in a traditional way through a protest or a march in privately owned public spaces or public spaces that belong to everybody has been really, really interesting. So at the tail end of my trip at the end of January, the executive order to stop refugees from coming in had been signed and there was chaos at the airports. And I just think the day that I was leaving, there was a march, but at that stage marches were not unusual because they had been going on since the day of the inaugration and this march was the “No ban, no wall” march. and it’s still continuing that protest movement, it’s still continuing, so this is after the Women’s March and so on And this is particularly against those 2 issues – the wall and banning people from entering the country for no good reason And so I was at Battery Park in New York and we were marching, and the types of people, I probably don’t need to explain to you were from every single walk of life you could imagine. And they were every generation, of every colour, were all gathered and it wasn’t just in Battery Park, it was also in at JFK airport, it was also at a number of airports across the country, and a number of different cities across the country also. And so, and there were smaller marches outside of that context, outside of the US too So, you know, this idea that, we have this perception of who people might be and we might actually consider our perception as Gospel that surely from the movies that I’ve seen or the books that I’ve read or the lectures that I’ve listened to or the programmes I’ve undertaken as study, I know what a Red Neck is. Or I know who the Deep South are It’s a complete misnomer so when I was talking to people in Mississippi for example, one of the poorest states that I visited, it was incredibly, incredibly difficult, more difficult than Louisiana which is still recovering after natural disasters, but in Mississippi it was incredibly interesting because I sat on a public bus which interestingly picks you up from your door and drops you off at the door that you want to that’s a public service, just in that particular state, I think we can learn something from that. And This bus picked me up in the morning, and I sat on the bus for 3 hours, and got to know the driver really well She was very accommodating. She obviously realised this was an unusual request for a complete stranger and a foreigner to want to sit on the bus for 3 hours, and she picked people up from their homes, and their businesses, their places of work, essentially and took them to their supermarket, to their employment, their doctors, their dentist, to where their children had to play for the day And basically covered the entire city of Natchez, which is where I was staying and that was my one way of getting to know Natchez and the people of Natchez It was really interesting, and I asked her about this, every single person who boarded that bus in those 3 hours, and there were a lot of people, none of them were white And I felt that was interesting because where I was staying, and the places that I frequented the day before, there were not that many black people, actually most people were white and so she talked at length about the issues around poverty, and the devestation that that was bringing into the lives of people who were getting onto the bus and were clearly showing signs of extremely poor health. To the point where I had to help them get their shopping back onto the bus and then drop it into their homes because they were on their own, they couldn’t manage the task themselves. It was really interesting to talk to those people and find out why they voted Republican and why the Hispanics I met in New Mexico, in places like Santa Fe, why would they vote Republican because actually they have the same history in terms of their movement, north of the border, settlement and now probably a 2nd generation, maybe even 3rd so why would they support a president or a pledge that not just promises to build a wall, but actually plans to uproot 11 million undocumented migrants many of whom would be from south of the border from Latin America. And a lot of those people again referred straight back to God, that this is God’s work and therefore these people don’t deserve to be here because God talks about abortion, and the right to life, and about pro-choice, and these are incredibly important decisions that we feel should supercede any other consideration that we might want to make And so that’s a little bit about my trip and a little bit about what’s been happening since then in terms of the demonstrations and the protests But I found that the, particularly, the use of public spaces really interesting. That we are living in unusual times and we are responding in an unusual way also and I found that quite empowering and quite powerful. Thanks so much Sughra for that. That was so interesting to hear. Does anyone have any questions based off of what Sughra’s just said? One thing that really came to mind was that people’s main concern was religion and thought that what Trump said aligned with their religious views but I wonder what they thought about Trump’s history and how he hasn’t been very consistent, so what he’s now saying, he may not actually follow through on, things like abortion and things like that So do they ever think that Trump hasn’t ever appeared to care about religion before so how can we take his word for it and that’s what I’ve always wondered. Interesting, because you would look at somebody and expect them to embody a certain sense of religiosity or at least an allegiance or leaning towards your kind of religiosity. But Trump doesn’t display that. His rhetoric talks about that, at length, and talks about God an awful lot, did in the Presidential debates and continues to do so. And that’s not unusual in America but this was reason number 1 as far as I heard across the South that you know, he will do God’s work and it’s about time we had a President that was prepared to do God’s work. And so we’re going to take a risk. Yelena has asked has there been a generational shift in these areas and are the young as right wing or as supportive of Trump as the older generation? That’s a very good question and there was a generational shift. And it was mainly the older generation and even sort of middle-aged people were very conservative in their religious and political views. and even in their social and cultural values, family values, were considered conservative even by American standards. And their children or their grandchildren in the main, in terms of the people I met, mainly in places like New Mexico Southern California, New Mexico and Texas and Savannah in a state called Georgia, the younger generation were really struggling with their parents, their views, their rhetoric, and I was in family homes where there would be a conversation and then somebody would bring up something that was remotely connected with Politics and everybody would go quiet. I was in a situation once where I realised in a family home that the father works in energy, so he worked in coal And i got really excited because I thought we could talk about renewable energy and what an exciting time it is to think about climate change And his son looked at me, and I recognised the look straight away, and afterwards we talked about it and he said you know My family don’t believe in climate change. As strange as that might sound to him, to them it was almost sacrilege to question using coal energy because that energy had paid for their home For the education of their children For their own lifestyle, and the lifestyles of other people that they supported over the years, And so it was directly connected to their sense of emotion. It wasn’t just an intellectual decision. And so they couldn’t even talk about. And even in Southern California, I stayed with a friend of mine’s family, and her mum was of a similar mindset And we had very uncomfortable conversations about that. So there was definitely a generational shift and the kids voted Democrat, and the parents and grandparents voted Republican And they couldn’t talk about it at home at all. And that says an awful lot in terms of how families were feeling fractured, communities were feeling disconnected and there was a real sense of fear in the air that I don’t want to sacrifice my relationships but I know if we have this conversation, it’s not going to end well and that happened many, many times. Lots and lots of younger people, shared their conversations with their parents and either had to stop before the conversation got well under way, they knew they had to pull back because they were not going to come out well from that. Can I ask a question? Basically, how informed were they, in a sense, about the world opinion and the media and all that? because at the time even the Pope was condemning Trump about his “punch him in the face” and all that Do they get that sort of information or are they in a world of their own? How do they reconcile this? It varies again considerably. For example, in some of the states, I stayed with people who were quite wealthy who were very well-educated and they were friends of a friend or you know, somebody I met somewhere said do I have an aunt, or my parents live in this state, so I kind of met people organically, and that meant I met a cross-section of people from different walks of life, so some of them were quite affluent, had had a high-level of education and professional jobs were either heading towards retirement or were in retirement and as I got deeper and deeper into the South, more and more people were too poor to have an education they couldn’t afford to buy a car, they couldn’t afford to shop in a way that was beneficial for their health they were relying on cheaper goods and therefore high level of sugar and fat in their diet, couldn’t really tear themselves away from that because they were in this perpetual cycle of poverty so news consumption and media consumption differs dramatically. So where you have, in places like Texas where I met the more well-educated people, they consumed media but like the rest of us, they were very selective about what they consumed. So we were sat in a home one evening and there was a reality TV kind of programme, that was like The X Factor, and then it changed over to the news and it was Fox News, and not to be stereotypical but it would never be CNN in that household or even MSNBC. But Fox News was probably one of the, in their minds, one of the more liberal progressive news outlets that they felt they were consuming in quite a critical way Now my perception looking on to that was completely… it was fascinating, because there’s a whole breadth of media and Fox News does not sit on the left or even in the centre I wasn’t prepared to have a conversation about it. It was 10 o’clock at night, we’d had a long day and they deserved some piece of mind after my constant conversations and questions, but then I got to the Deep South and people consumed the kind of media that was presented to them So if they were on social media, whatever their algorithms were sending their way, they were not critical about how they explored that So they explored a different kind of media, consumed a different kind of media but were equally less critical or not critical at all about that so when you talk about the Pope, I think the Pope said what he said after maybe a couple of weeks ago, or maybe even longer… I can’t remember Shahed. But certainly not immediately after the inaugration. It’s about how if he had said something about his mother, I would punch him too, you know, it was before And so when I asked people, who talked about the Bible, when we talked about the Old Testament, you know I didn’t give a very literal reading because I’m not sure that they would also accept that but we did talk at length about the character of Jesus and the life that he lived and whether you’re a Catholic or an Evangelical or a Southern Baptist or a Pentecostal Christian you can connect with those stories at some level which was my hope but actually I ended up at a Pentecostal Bible reading in Austin in Texas one evening and there were probably about 40 black people in a side room of what looked like a small church so it wasn’t a service, it was mid-week and they were having this Bible reading and the Pastor spent 2 hours talking to them, and it took 2 hours because it was a dialogical sort of setting so the audience was constantly speaking back and talking about their problems a lot of what he preached about was about monogamous relationships, and making sure you have a lawful income, and being good to each other as family members, and I asked him afterwards how do you choose what you talk about? Is it something going on in those communities that makes you pick these subjects? Are you inspired by some kind of a Christian teaching elsewhere abroad or within the United States? And he said these are the problems that we’ve had for generations and that we will continue to have and I have to keep talking about them. But interestingly, towards the end of that conversation, I said “Look, Pastor, I’ve listened to you for 2 hours and we’ve talked for a while I just want to ask you a question. In your idea of heaven, if that’s what we’re all working towards, if that’s the name of the game, that’s the ultimate goal, no matter your path of how you get there but that’s what we’re aiming for, in your idea of heaven, is there room for someone like me?” And he knows I’m Muslim and he knows we’ve chatted at length about all sorts of different ideas. He can tell that I’m not a traditionalist or Conservative with a capital C or anything like that but he struggled to answer that question. He laughed nervously. I felt really guilty then because I thought I’m making him feel uncomfortable but then he in a sort of roundabout fashion eventualy said no. There’s no room at inn kind of thing. And I said that’s really interesting because in my idea of heaven, the work that you’re doing, just in terms of trying to take people away from a way of life that you feel may not be good for them, stealing and theft, and that sort of thing and trying to help them rethink, recalibrate how their life could be, and having the opportunity to take that moment in the teaching to think I’m going to redress the way I make my decisions If I was at the pearly gates and I was at the front of the queue and I was about to go in and I realised you were somewhere behind, I’d come and find you, I’d take you by the hand and I’d take you to the front of those pearly gates and if heaven is worth it’s salt then I’d like to think that there would be room for someone like you – that’s my idea of heaven. And he was shocked. Because he had never heard anybody speak in a plural fashion before. And he tried to communicate this and then said Look can we keep in touch, can I get your email address? Before that, I could tell he was attempting to convert me and there were all sorts of things going on I’ve been doing interfaith work for a long time, and so I actually find it quite intriguing, and really good fun. It was probably someone’s third attempt to convert me. The first was a Mormon, and then there was an Evangelical Christian, and then a Pentecostal Christian so I found it really good fun, but he struggled with, or at least it gave him food for thought with, the way that I responded to his teachings. So there was lots and lots of things going on. The Pope is influential to me. I find the Pope inspiring and I think there’s a whole host of people like that who may not be Catholic necessarily, but really are inpsired by his teachings and the way that he articulates his philosophy Particularly his tweets, and so when he says what he says about Trump or to Trump, it consolidates our love for him and what he represents basically in terms of social justice and so on, but I was at a loss to find that connection amongst these people, the older generation, they were very dismissive about that I have a feeling that if it was one of the previous Popes then I wouldn’t have felt that sense of dismissiveness. The younger generations however were very inspired by the Pope’s teachings. And they weren’t Catholic, the people that I spoke with Thank you so much. It’s been a really interesting seminar so far and I’m really interested in the role that the Church plays in the politics – the localised church like that’s both in educating and how much they would try to influence, because I know some of our religious institutions tend to be a bit more netural but whether they were neutral or whether they played a big role? Huge role. Huge.

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