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Here’s What It’s Like to Be Muslim in the Bible Belt in 2017

Mother Jones

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In August 2012, a mosque opened in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a bustling college town outside of Nashville that is home to students, long-time residents, refugees, suburban families, and everyone in between. The national headlines for the stories about the event suggested some of the conflicts that had led to this moment: The New York Daily News wrote, “Tennessee Mosque Opens After Years of Controversy,” the New York Times wrote “After a Struggle, Mosque Opens in Tennessee”, and NPR wrote “Murfreesboro Mosque Finally Opens.”

But the summer day when it opened was peaceful and harmonious, with the exception of a lone protester, wearing an “I Love Jesus” hat and a shirt bearing the 10 Commandments. The day was one for celebration, and the members of the Muslim community who had gathered were not dwelling on the fact that during court battles over permits, Rutherford County had spent more than $340,000 in legal fees fighting the right to build this place of worship. Or that the lieutenant governor of Tennessee at the time, Ron Ramsey, had described Islam as a “cult” while voicing opposition to the mosque.

The community itself was split between those attacking the approximately 300 families of the mosque for being Muslim and those who banded with their Muslim neighbors. The peaceful community was the target of a bomb threat—the anonymous caller, later found to be a Texas man, promised it would go off inside the office space where the community was worshipping in the interim on Sept. 11. A vandal scrawled “not welcome” across a sign announcing the construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Construction equipment used to build the walls of the mosque was set on fire, its charred remains a warning to worshippers that they were not safe. But after two troubled years, the mosque finally opened, and residents began to take its presence on Veals Road for granted.

Then Donald Trump was elected, and the anti-Muslim rhetoric that once inflamed the Bible Belt town of 126,000 was reignited.

Murfreesboro is home to a very small fraction of American Muslims, but it was primed for a backlash in a unique way. Most residents remember the saga of the mosque, and the Baptist church next door made its anti-Islam position very clear by erecting 13 10-foot-tall crosses into the ground “to make a statement.” There are residents of Murfreesboro who stood with their Muslim neighbors, leaving flowers and handwritten cards at the front door of the mosque, but there are increasingly louder voices that threaten the safety of others who happen to be Muslim. It’s a sort of microcosm of what has happened across the country, where tensions and even violence have escalated against Muslims in the wake of the inflammatory rhetoric of President Donald Trump.

“People are afraid, and they won’t tell others about harassment,” says Saleh Sbenaty, a leader in the Muslim community, who was deeply involved in the struggle to get the mosque built. “It’s really scary and dangerous.”

He added that some members of the mosque have told him they are considering not attending services because they are frightened of the possibility of an attack. When news broke that a mosque in Texas had been set on fire shortly after Trump announced an executive order temporarily banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries, they prayed for safety. When a shooting at a Quebec City mosque by a 27-year-old white male who was reportedly “a right-wing troll who frequently took anti-foreigner and anti-feminist positions and stood up for U.S. President Donald Trump” left six dead and more injured three days after Trump’s executive order, they felt their worst fears were being confirmed.

The Sbenaty family left Syria because it was unsafe, and they wanted a better life for themselves and their children. His daughter Dima was born in Damascus, but her mother brought her to the United States when she was eight months old to join Saleh, who was earning his PhD at the time. Their son, Salim, was born in Murfreesboro. A week after the election, 20-year-old Salim, was waiting tables at a local restaurant when he was asked, “Son, where are you from?”

“I was born and raised here in Murfreesboro,” he replied.

The response was abrupt. “You look foreign.”

“My parents came from Damascus a long time ago,” Salim said. The man stared.

“I’m going to the car to get my gun.”

Later that night, he told his father, who was horrified, and asked how he responded. Salim said the man had probably never met anyone who looked like him before, and he did not want to deepen his hatred. Saleh says many people in the Muslim community in Murfreesboro would have done the same, although he encouraged his son to report the incident.

During his campaign, Trump went back and forth on a proposal to create a “Muslim registry.” When he was asked about it in November 2015, he said, “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques.” Later, he said he wanted to have a database on Syrian refugees who immigrate into the United States. Less than a month later, in December 2015, he proposed banning all Muslim immigration. Trump has consistently talked about the threat of “radical Islam,” and in an interview with CNN last year, he told Anderson Cooper, “I think Islam hates us.”

Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has also been vocal about his views on Islam. “We are in an outright war against jihadist, Islamic fascists,” Bannon said in a 2014 speech. He also said the religion was metastasizing—like cancer.

Some Tennessee lawmakers have spouted similar claims—Tennessee state Sen. Mae Beavers told town hall attendees on Feb. 16 that Muslim terrorists were “infiltrating churches” and planning jihad in the Bible Belt. She also has expressed support for Trump’s “Muslim ban.” Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who served as a vice chair of Trump’s transition team, said Trump’s immigration order was a “security test, not a religious one.”

“Our intelligence and security agencies must ascertain the scope of the Islamic terror threat in order to develop proper refugee vetting protocols—if possible,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Tennessean.

And now, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate groups have tripled since 2015.

Ossama Bahoul, the former imam at the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said there is a big difference between what the Muslim community in Middle Tennessee went through when the mosque was being built and what is happening now. Back then, the government was on their side—it defended his people’s right to worship and promised to take swift action against anyone who threatened them. Now, he hears the Islamophobia that used to come from the mouths of protesters coming from the government. “It is really disturbing for me to be talking about this,” Bahloul said. “The people who are supposed to protect us are singling our community out. That’s tough.”

Bahloul and Saleh Sbenaty tell Mother Jones about women who had been threatened for wearing the hijab and sometimes, Bahloul said, people have tried to assault them. Schoolchildren have come home crying because other children asked if their headscarves are hiding a bomb. Other Muslims have told him they have heard mutterings of “it’s about time to clean up America” and “go back home” when they pass by.

Recently, when another student at school referred to one of the children in his congregation as “Bin Laden,” Bahloul found himself at a loss. “Our kids were born in America—they don’t speak any language but English,” he said. “They are American kids, and they will come at a very young age and say, ‘Why do they hate us?'”

The effects of Trump’s comments about Muslims is not restricted to the random acts of violence directed at Muslims in the United States. The executive order he signed banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly-Muslim countries—including Syria—mean the Sbenatys and other families fear they’ll be separated from family members for quite some time. Saleh hasn’t seen his mother, who is 83, in 11 years. He wants to bring her to America, but the recent events make that seem unlikely. His siblings got married after he left Syria, and he has nieces and nephews he has never met. Minutes after the Ninth Circuit Court filed a preliminary injunction against Trump’s immigration order, effectively putting it on hold, Trump tweeted, in all caps: “See you in court, the security of our nation is at stake!”

“Now there is no option for me to go and visit or for them to come over here,” Saleh told Mother Jones before the court ruling. “It’s something you cannot explain in words.”

Dima Sbenaty, Saleh’s daughter, is a 27-year-old clinical coordinator for the stroke unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. The week after Trump’s “Muslim ban” took effect, she spoke at a vigil in support of Muslim Americans. Thousands showed up. “Islam taught me to give back…As a Muslim, it is my obligation to you to be strong, to uphold justice, and to protect your rights,” she told the crowd that night. “That is how America raised me.”

Recently, she decided to start wearing a hijab, and because of the outward signifier that she is Muslim, she has encountered some animosity in the workplace. Sometimes, when she’s out running errands, she gets an uncomfortable sensation, like she’s being watched by someone with less-than-friendly intentions. But she’s determined not to let fear rule her. “I’m practicing my freedom by covering my hair; I’m practicing my freedom by saying that I’m Muslim and going to the mosque,” she tells Mother Jones. “That’s my freedom as an American, and I don’t think I should be afraid…Refugees are leaving a place where they’re being dehumanized. They’re coming into America to seek refuge, and they’re entering another hell.”

As for Imam Bahloul, he is still wrestling with how to explain to the community what is happening and how to deal with being targeted. “For a girl to cry and say, ‘I want to cover my hair, but I’m scared,’ that girl must not be scared in America,” he said. “We’re part of the American fabric.”

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Here’s What It’s Like to Be Muslim in the Bible Belt in 2017

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8 People Who Owe Their Lives to Obamacare

Mother Jones

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President Donald Trump has vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (ACA)â&#128;&#138;—â&#128;&#138;a move that could leave some 30 million Americans without health insurance. ACA literally sustains millions of livesâ&#128;&#138;. Without the health insurance it provides, many people wouldn’t have access to medicine and procedures that they need to survive. When we asked people on Twitter and through healthcare advocacy organizations to share their stories of how ACA keeps them alive, we were overwhelmed with responses. We heard from people waiting for organ transplants, from cancer survivors, from people with debilitating mental illness, and more. They told us about the toll that disease has taken on their lives: Before the ACA, some were forced to skip treatments because of the price; others couldn’t get insurance at all because they were already sick. Here are a few of their stories.

Claudette Williams

Claudette Williams, 58, Orlando, Florida: I lost my job in 2005. After that I decided to purchase a policy. I found them online. They had a gentleman come to my house, and we talked about my blood pressure medications. The insurance was almost twice what they had quoted me because of the medication, and also because of my condition. I eventually couldn’t afford it any more. I was uninsured, except for one year when I qualified for Medicaid. I ended up in the emergency room on a few occasions for heart trouble. I also developed diabetes. I couldn’t afford to have regular mammograms. In 2014 I signed up for Obamacare. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of last year. The lumpectomy alone was billed at $40,000. I have four more chemo sessions to go, and after that, I have to do radiation. Luckily my cancer is only a stage one, so my prognosis is pretty good. But it is really scary thinking about my insurance being taken away. This is a fight for my life.

Charis Hill

Charis Hill, 30, California: When I was 25, in 2012, I had a series of unexplained and undiagnosable respiratory challenges that felt like the flu or bronchitis or pneumonia. Doctors just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. My condition got worse and worse. I visited urgent care a few times. I thought I was having a heart attack once. They tried to blame it on anxiety.

Eventually reached out to my dad, who was estranged from me. I knew that he had a severe health condition. The first words out of his mouth were, it sounds like you have what I have, which is ankylosing spondylitis (AS). I knew that I would need health insurance to be treated. But if I were to get a diagnosis before getting health insurance, I would have the preexisting condition working against me. So I got the cheapest plan that existed. I wasn’t getting all the tests done or getting all the treatments. Then, ten months later, the ACA was implemented, and because of my income, I was eligible for a subsidy to purchase health insurance on the exchange in California. I got a better plan for less than I was paying before, which meant that I could access more treatment and not skip medication.

I have infusions of a drug every eight weeks. I have to go to an infusion center for 2.5 hours. There’s no generic. There’s no way to get those treatments unless I have insurance. They slow down the progression of my disease. I also take anti-inflammatory medications orally. AS is a severe inflammatory condition. It primarily affects the spine. It causes a lot of pain and fatigue from the body trying to fight that inflammation. I’m permanently disabled. I was a college athlete, and now I’m not even able to run. I use a wheelchair sometimes. As hard as I fight to be healthy, I’m never going to be healthy, and I’m always going to have to rely on the medical system to keep me alive.

John Weiler, 27, Oakland, California: I got HIV when I was 19. When I was in college, I was on my parents health insurance, so when I started meds when I was 21, I took it for granted that I was going to have insurance that would cover it, because it was so easy. When I went to grad school, I naively accepted a position without asking any questions about how the insurance was structured. When you do a science PhD, it’s typical for the school to pay your tuition, pay your health insurance premium, and give you a stipend. In my program, the stipend is about $30,000 a year. So when I enrolled and started to look at my insurance situation, I realized the policy offered to students provided up to $10,000 worth of prescription coverage per academic year, and that was it. But in 2013, the student government got together and petitioned the university to change across the UC system. The students basically said, ‘We don’t care if our insurance premiums are higher, we don’t want these things that the ACA offers to not be part of the insurance plan for the school.’

I was on a med cocktail called Complera, and that one was $22,000 a year. HIV meds are super expensive. I switched to a different medication since then, called Stribild, and I don’t know exactly what it is this year, but if I remember correctly, that one was closer to $27,000 a year.

I’m about to graduate and find a job, and, let’s say worst case scenario, first Congressional session they manage to totally gut the ACA and revert to how things were before. If that were to happen and I were to get a job, it would be totally legal for an employer to be like, ‘Hey, yeah, we’re not covering this.’ I’d be looking at close to $35,000 a year in medical expenses just for maintenance, let alone if I got sick.

Ruth Linehan

Ruth Linehan, 26, Portland, Oregon: I graduated college in May 2012. I was 22. About a month later, I started an internship as a software developer at a Portland startup. Thanks to ACA I was on my parents’ insurance. After four months I was offered a full time job, but the insurance didn’t start until 6 weeks after my first day as an employee. On my first day I was diagnosed with Burkitt’s Lymphoma. I looked like I was 7 months pregnant. I started chemo the day after I was hospitalized. This is an incredibly fast-growing cancer. I was in the hospital for seven weeks. I received about four rounds of chemo. After four months I was declared in remission. I continue to be in remission. The hospital bills were about half a million dollars. I only had to pay about $10,000 because I was on my parents’ insurance.

If I lose my job and the cancer comes back, what am I going to do? I worry about illness down the road. I’ve had cancer at a very young age and a lot of very harsh chemo. I worry that I won’t be able to get affordable insurance, or get insurance at all.

Larry Sterlingshires, 35, Tennessee: I have a condition called hidradenitis surruptiva—look it up, do not look at pictures, because it’s not a good time—it’s a chronic skin condition that’s ultimately debilitating. As it progresses, it causes tissue degradation on the skin layer that doesn’t heal, like normal wounds do. Sometimes it creates lesions that don’t heal for a year and half. It’s debilitating because it’s painful—the tissue underneath is exposed without that protective layer, so it bleeds regularly. You have to keep everything patched and bandaged, and it easily gets infected. But because of the ACA, I can have medication that can’t completely undo the symptoms, but it seems to have halted its progression, and even promoted some healing. Complications related to the tissue damage and infections can be fatal.

The medications I’m on right now, in addition to just my normal medications for diabetes and hypertension, will help me survive longer. This lets me afford something called Claravis, and another medication called Humira. Humira runs approximately $7300 a month, and the Claravis is about $4000 a month. Those basically keep me functional without being completely disabled. That’s no exaggeration. If you check the disability schedule, it’s so painful and considered debilitating enough that you can qualify for full disability with it. The Affordable Care Act covers all of that medication in full. I come from poverty, I’m just now getting used to having insurance for the first time in my adult life, and now that seems like it might evaporate.

Debbie Lynn Smith, 59, Las Vegas, Nevada: I was a TV writer and producer. In 2000 I was diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans. It’s also called popcorn lung. I got it from buttered popcorn. When you work in TV, you work 15 hour days. They provide snacks and things. Microwave popcorn is one of the things they give you. I ate a lot of it. It just so happened that I was susceptible to this disease.

I was in remission for 16 years, but I was living with 50 percent of my lung capacity. I couldn’t do TV anymore, couldn’t put in those long hours. I really had a hard time working and being reliable because I would get sick. So I couldn’t get insurance through work. I had insurance through the high-risk California program and I was paying $2,000 a month for that. My husband was on it, too, he had prostate cancer. We moved to Nevada. When the ACA came around we were ecstatic. We were both out of work at the time, so we went on ACA.

This year, in April, my disease came out of remission. I am now down to 30 percent of my lung capacity and waiting for a lung transplant. So you can imagine the fear I have—being so close to getting a transplantthat they might repeal the ACA right away, and I will no longer have access to insurance, and I won’t be able to get my transplant. I am extremely stressed. I was so stressed before the election that I could not take anything else. I was working for Hillary and I ended up in the hospital.

Michele Munro

Michele Munro, 64, Southern California: I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997. I was 44. I was a single mom with two boys. I had Kaiser insurance. It wasn’t a bad cancer, and we caught it early. Then seven years later I was diagnosed with a different type of breast cancer. That was 2004. I also had a hip replacement. The Kaiser premium doubled, so I went without insurance for the first time in years. I was working as a freelancer, and insurers told me I was uninsurable. In 2011, ACA started to kick in. It was not allowing insurance companies to consider preexisting conditions. I applied and was accepted into Aetna. The first thing I did was go for a mammogram, and, sure enough, I had a triplenegative tumor. Very aggressive. It was small and early, so we caught it just in time. I had a double mastectomy and chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, all covered through ACA. I went into the hospital seven times total for infections. The billing was $900,000. Aetna settled and paid out $180,000.

I’m feeling really good right now because December was the fifth anniversary of being cancer-free. I exercise a lot. I’m doing everything I can on my end. But there is only so much you can do. I’m scared for myself, and also for my children. My parents had to claim bankruptcy for health insurance reasons. They were not covered for a medical emergency.

Suzanna Moore, 29, Fairfield, Iowa: When I was a baby, I had a stroke. I recovered well, but I would always have issues afterward. Throughout my childhood, it always a concern if I would have proper health care. I grew up in a pretty poor family in New England. With Obamacare, I went to an orthopedist for the first time in forever and got a prescription for orthotics to alleviate chronic pain in my knees and ankles on one side, because my right side was affected more from the stroke than my left side. The pain built up for a while, but basically throughout my twenties, I was never able to get it addressed, because I was living on my own in Tennessee and was unable to focus any money toward my personal health care.

I also had a meniscus tear during that time. Had I had surgery on that on my own, it would have been like $15,000 or more. With Obamacare, we still had to prioritize, but we didn’t go in debt over it.

My husband has a rare condition called achalasia, which means the muscles in his throat stopped working the way they were supposed to, so he had trouble swallowing and eating. He had to force food down his esophagus with air and water. After a while, it got so painful that he was eating less and he was losing weight rapidly. It was hindering his quality of life, and, left untreated, it could contribute to throat cancer. So he had to have surgery about eight months after I had my knee surgery. We were able to afford all of it. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without Obamacare.

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8 People Who Owe Their Lives to Obamacare

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The President Is Determined to Be Presidential

Mother Jones

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The New York Times tells us about President Trump’s TV strategy:

One West Wing official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about strategy, said the administration craved the split-screen television images of Mr. Trump at round-table discussions with business executives every few days on one side, and the vehement protesters of his administration on the other.

This sounds right. Trump seems to believe that sitting around a table with powerful business executives is “presidential.” It’s basically a child’s idea of what a president looks like. So that’s what he does. I don’t think it’s even cynical image manipulation on his part. He really does think this is what makes a president presidential.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have this:

A day before delivering a high-stakes address on Tuesday to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Trump will demand a budget with tens of billions of dollars in reductions to the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, according to four senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the plan. Social safety net programs, aside from the big entitlement programs for retirees, would also be hit hard.

This is obviously the work of Mike Pence and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney more than it is of Trump himself, but Trump will nonetheless be the master showman selling this plan. It’s also more symbolic than anything else, but it’s symbolism that matters since it means Trump is signaling that he’s willing to go along with Paul Ryan’s feverish devotion to cutting spending on the poor. We already know that Trump is also eager to cut taxes on the rich, so it appears he and Ryan are entirely on the same page. The next few months promise to be bloody.

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The President Is Determined to Be Presidential

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The Dead Pool – 26 February 2017

Mother Jones

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Man of the people that he is, Donald Trump likes to pick rich guys for high-level positions in his administration. Unfortunately, that poses a problem:

President Donald Trump’s nominee for Navy secretary, investor Philip Bilden, is expected to withdraw from consideration, sources familiar with the decision told Politico, becoming the second Pentagon pick unable to untangle their financial investments in the vetting process….Like billionaire investment banker Vincent Viola, who withdraw his nomination to be secretary of the Army earlier this month, Bilden ran into too many challenges during a review by the Office of Government Ethics to avoid potential conflicts of interest, the sources said.

To become Secretary of State, maybe all this divesting of huge fortunes is worth it. But Navy Secretary? Probably not.

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The Dead Pool – 26 February 2017

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Donald Trump Obliterates the Deficit!

Mother Jones

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Behold the echo chamber. Here is Gateway Pundit two days ago:

Here is Herman Cain this morning:

Here is Donald Trump shortly afterward:

The strangest thing about this is that…it’s true. I’m not really used to that from Trump. I guess accidents do happen, though.

Now, it’s also meaningless, and not just because Trump hasn’t actually done anything yet. The deficit bounces up and down monthly depending on how much the government happens to spend and how much tax revenue it takes in. For example, take a look at the following chart:

The month of April is shown in blue. Let’s make that into its own chart:

Impressive! During Obama’s presidency, he turned around America’s finances. We went from a deficit of $80 billion in 2010 to a surplus of over $100 billion in his final year. Why didn’t the mainstream media ever report that?

Because who cares, that’s why. You know what happens in April? Everyone pays their taxes. Does that mean the deficit is in great shape every April? Of course not. That just happens to be when a lot of the money comes in.

But it doesn’t matter. As I’ve mentioned before, Trump’s tweets are for for his fans, not for us. And his fans now think that in his very first month Trump has erased the deficit. The guy promised action, and by God, he’s delivered. It just goes to show that all this deficit stuff wasn’t really so hard to solve after all. It just needed a man of action to go in and straighten things out.

Not that the FAKE NEWS media will ever admit that, of course.

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Donald Trump Obliterates the Deficit!

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