From being called “terrorist” to “member-elect”; Nabeela Syed speaks

Nabeela Syed, A 23-year-old Indian-American Muslim woman, has 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 candidate Chris Bos to win the most recent US midterm elections.

Nabeela is from Palatine, Illinois and is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a double major in Political science and Business.

Syed is dedicated to empowering young Muslim women to assume leadership roles within her religious community and promotes interfaith dialogue at the Islamic Society of Northwest Suburbs.

Maktoob reached out to Nabeela and asked about her sudden interest in politics and her life as a Muslim in the USA.

What motivated you to join politics? 

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

What challenges did you face while running your campaign? 

I think campaigning, in general, is a very difficult thing to do. In Particular, we flipped a Republican district into a Democrat. The district leaned Republican. And people did not expect a Democrat to win here, but thankfully, we were able to make that possible. 

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

Overall, in general, people were very kind and excited. They were excited to see someone as young as me at their doors, and they felt hopeful and pleased when they saw someone asking for their support and about what issues 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 so important to engage in those conversations, talk to the people, and ask them what matters most to them. So I think it’s essential to do that, to continue to reach out to people. 

When you grew up in the USA, did you go through discrimination as a Muslim?

Yes. I think growing up, there were instances where I was called a terrorist, whether jokingly or seriously. And it would hurt, especially being a young person who believes in doing good and caring about the community, and people might make you out to be evil or to have bad intentions. And to me, it was sad to see that sometimes be the case. But overall, I would 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 that shows that this is democracy in action. It’s very cool to see. 

And if I were to tell you one incident, be that one time I was in DC, I was there for an internship, and someone had spit on me, which was a scary experience. The spit didn’t hit me, but the person did try to spit on me, right? Like they were trying to hit me with their spit. So those instances, I feel like, are what happened when you normalize hate that came after the Trump presidency. If I remember right, it was a person wearing a Trump hat, I believe 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 felt hatred towards me tried to spit on me and that was upsetting for me. 

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

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

The 9/11 terrorist attack made a massive dent in the image of Muslims living in the USA and everywhere. 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 were seeing a lot of people respond in fear, and some responded with bigotry. And sometimes, I felt like people made all Muslims out to be very hateful, and generalized us all to be terrorists. And that was difficult to see, to feel like a community that I love and I care for and the people that I know, the Muslims that I know in my community care about helping others.

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

Do you want to give any opinions about India’s religious freedom situation? 

I don’t want to comment on things that I don’t know too 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 the last time I visited Hyderabad.