The women stood out like rainbow prisms of refracted light against the wet gray sky, covered from wrists to ankles in embroidered scarves and sarongs of green, fuchsia and mango. Some wore expertly wrapped hijabs in more muted colors, others temporary head coverings in deference to Friday services as they flowed into the Islamic Center of East Madison. Many pulled children in tow, some dressed as miniature versions of their mothers, most in the uniform of American children: graphic T-shirts, leggings with cartoon patterns and the tiny Velcroed tennis shoes lined against the entryway inside the mosque. A young black teenager in jeans and a Milwaukee Brewers sweatshirt grinned greetings of “asalamu alaikum” (peace be upon you), as he shucked his shoes and joined the sea of button-shirted men in their separate prayer room.
In many respects, it was just another Friday, and the weekly service known as jumaa was about to begin. But it was also Jan. 20, 2017—Inauguration Day—and many things were about to change.
From my guest perch on a wooden chair in the corner, I had a front-row seat to Islam’s vast diversity as its women touched their foreheads to the carpeted floor. With 3.3 million Muslims living in America (and 1.6 billion throughout the world, nearly a quarter of the global population), U.S. Muslims are the most racially diverse religious group in the country. Madison’s estimated 10,000 Muslims represent countries from all over the world, from West Africa to East India. Here on the east side of town, where there’s a greater concentration of Gambian immigrants, the traditionally dressed African women sat side by side, occasionally shushing squirming children in the universal language of families at worship. After the message, they invited me to join them as they lined up to pray. When I demurred, a mother reached out to pull me between herself and her children, pressing her shoulder against mine and nodding, letting me know, in no uncertain terms, that I was welcome here—Muslim or not.
This acceptance of a stranger seemed to me an act of bravery, considering the times. Although it was still more than a week before a 27-year-old white French Canadian would open fire at a Quebec mosque, killing six Muslim men, there have been other high-profile acts of violence against people of faith. In that moment, I thought about convicted white supremacist Dylann Roof, who’d been welcomed inside to pray with the nine African American churchgoers he ultimately shot and killed for being black. I also had the words of U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil fresh in my mind from when we’d met at a west side coffee shop two weeks earlier, three months before he was abruptly asked to resign.
“Muslim communities are much more likely to become victims of hate than they are to become perpetrators of any crime,” says Vaudreuil. At the time, Vaudreuil was seven years into his federally appointed position as one of two U.S. Attorneys for the state of Wisconsin (and one of only 93 from Maine to Guam). Vaudreuil’s job, among other responsibilities, was to prosecute both acts of terrorism and civil rights “hate crimes”—like the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in which a white Army veteran from Cudahy, Wisconsin, likely mistook for Muslims the six people he killed. His caseloads involved criminal acts committed against individuals or institutions based on perceived race, religion, creed, place of origin, gender or sexual orientation.
But it’s Muslims who are often portrayed by American media as a direct terrorist threat, a perception that doesn’t play out statistically. According to the FBI, 94 percent of terrorist attacks in the U.S. from 1980 to 2005 were executed by non-Muslims. Vaudreuil said his office had only one case on the docket related to Islamic terrorism: a white Madison resident who wanted to join ISIS and was arrested at O’Hare International Airport in 2015. (This man—Joshua Van Haften—was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison on Feb. 17, 2017.) Reported hate crimes, on the other hand, have spiked 6 percent nationwide since 2015, including a 67 percent increase against Muslim Americans; the result, activists claim, of the anti-Islamic rhetoric that permeated the recent presidential election cycle, and continues.
Since his appointment by former President Barack Obama in August 2010, Vaudreuil made it his mission to reach out to Wisconsin’s typically marginalized communities—“all the groups I could think of who might be victims of civil rights hate crimes,” he says. Over the past seven years, Vaudreuil, a Wisconsin native, crisscrossed his territory of 44 counties spanning the western part of the state, visiting Native American reservations, LGBTQ community groups, NAACP and Urban League meetings, Jewish temples and Islamic mosques (including the Islamic Center of East Madison, as well as the two others in the city, plus Marshfield, Barron, Altoona and Janesville), hoping to put a friendly face to the Department of Justice name.
When we met, Vaudreuil was uncertain how long he’d hold his position. It’s normal for incoming presidents to make their own appointments; and Vaudreuil had said Obama eventually replaced about 70 percent of U.S. attorneys when he appointed Vaudreuil. Three days before Inauguration Day, Vaudreuil and his colleagues received a business-as-usual notice stating they’d be allowed to remain in place until either a successor was appointed or they chose to leave. A little more than half, including Vaudreuil, chose to stay, even as acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates was fired shortly thereafter for defying one of eight executive orders issued by President Donald Trump in his first week, and despite the panicked onslaught of news articles reporting massive upheaval, lawsuits, protests and collective uncertainty.
“I took this job to represent the Department of Justice, and I will do it to the best of my ability until they tell me not to do it,” he said the day after Yates was replaced. He emphasized that he believes in the system of shared power and the difference between bad policy, remedied by the ballot, and unlawful acts, remedied in courts. “My concern is, I want to make sure people know we’re still in the game. That you can’t commit hate crimes. That you can’t punch a Muslim or a Hispanic because you think it’s OK now. And that’s the message I’m going to keep pitching.”
But on March 10, Vaudreuil was asked to resign immediately, along with the 46 remaining U.S. attorneys.
Back at the Islamic Center of East Madison, which also serves as a school and food pantry, several letters of support from an array of secular and faith communities are pinned to the bulletin board. After the service, the center’s head of school Kemo Ceesay, imam (Muslim prayer leader) Driss Akawn and U.S. Army veteran Mustapha Touray gathered in a lower-level office to answer questions about their faith—something they say they are willing to do with anyone, anytime. They say they’ve also received threatening letters like the ones Vaudreuil investigates, but they try not to focus on the hate. Their neighbors know who they are.
“They see we’re involved within the community, within our neighborhoods, within work. They know that we are Muslims, they know we pray, they know we fast for Ramadan,” says Akawn, a Morocco-born U.S. citizen whose children were born and raised in Madison. “And they know our action, it speaks louder.”
The men point out that the word “Islam” stems from “Aslam,” the Arabic word for peace. At the center, which is open to anyone, they rely on the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad to guide followers in their daily lives. As legal U.S. residents, says Akawn, they believe in the Constitution that protects them, and that “if your actions align with what this country stands for, then you are on the right path.”
“When you say Islam, you say peace,” says Kemo Ceesay, who came here from Gambia. “So if your religion is peace, then you also have to be peaceful, in your action, in your dealing, in your speaking. Whatever you touch has to be peace.”
Touray, who was stationed in Germany for over three years during which he was deployed to Iraq for 18 months, and was medically discharged from the Army due to injuries sustained from special forces training, emphatically echoes Ceesay’s sentiment. “I want people to know we are not terrorists,” he smiles. “We have government workers here. Factory workers here. Doctors here. Professionals here. Military personnel, active duty, right now. So we love America as any other citizen loves America.”
As their very existence becomes a political talking point—a surreal feeling to which many non-Muslims likely cannot relate—the men focus instead on the faith that sustains them, and on supporting the local community through volunteer work and weekend classes. They take comfort in the fact that they’re surrounded by thousands of average, everyday Muslims who call Madison, Wisconsin, home—a diverse and eclectic bunch of ordinary people living their lives, attending school, going to work, raising families, shopping for groceries, rooting for the Badgers and watching the news. Wondering, like everyone else, what’s next.