Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said last month that Muslims should be banned from entering the country for security concerns. Earlier, he argued that he would “strongly consider” shutting down U.S. mosques in response to the Paris attacks.
To counter this and other types of growing negativity, nearly 20 congressional Democrats invited Muslim guests to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union last night including U.S. Congressperson Mark Pocan who hosted Madison Alderperson Samba Baldeh. “We did this to show that this is the real face of the Muslim community in America,” Pocan told Madison365 in an interview from his congressional office in Washington D.C. “It’s not at all like what some of the [Republican] presidential candidates are putting out there in order to pander to an extreme element of voters. Muslims are our neighbors, our friends and our community leaders. In Samba’s case, he is a community leader at multiple levels.”
Baldeh represents Madison’s far northeast side and was elected last year. A software engineer and entrepreneur with two businesses, he also has an extensive record of community involvement including volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Dane County and the AIDS Network. Baldeh has held leadership roles in the local Senegambia Association and the African Association and is a member of the 100 Black Men of Madison.
“Samba is the reality; not what Donald Trump and Ted Cruz say. The fact that their vitriolic rhetoric is out there is disheartening,” Pocan said. “We want to make sure that people understand that that is not the position of leadership in this country or of the people of south central Wisconsin. I’m just really honored that Samba is here to enjoy this moment with me.”
Pocan is no stranger to State of the Union addresses but he said that he enjoyed this one quite a bit because it was Obama’s last one.
“At a time when our country faces complex challenges both home and abroad, the president delivered a positive, aspiring message on how we can meet these challenges through constructive cooperation between elected officials, community leaders and everyday Americans,” he said.
The Obama administration also invited a Muslim guest: Refaai Hamo, a newly arrived Syrian refugee who lost his wife and daughter in a missile attack. He sat in first lady Michelle Obama’s box last night.
Members of Congress get a chance each year to invite a guest to the State of the Union address and Baldeh was extremely happy that Pocan chose him.
“This has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me,” Baldeh told Madison365. “This is President Obama’s last State of the Union address ever, so it is very important.”
The political atmosphere on refugees and terrorism has been contributing to a further deterioration in the perception of Muslims among Americans, and that’s why Baldeh said Pocan’s invitation was so significant.
“What Mark is doing is very important. America is a nation of immigrants,” Baldeh said. “I have been to all of the mosques in Madison and all of them are getting letters from neighbors and community members supporting them and telling them that if they are hearing of any problems that they are here to help.”
Around the nation, religious institutions have been getting hate mail and graffiti and women who wear head scarves are getting teased and accosted. Baldeh said that he has had a few e-mails initially from his constituents that have not been nice, but nothing to deter him. “I’m not afraid to go about my day,” he said. “And those e-mails have died down.”
“It was important for [Congressman] Mark [Pocan] to come forward and for me to come forward to show people that in many ways we are very normal and that this is our country as much as it is your country,” he added. “Muslim Americans know that this is the best place to raise a family. We know that many people are very accepting of us and we don’t want Donald Trump and people like him to scare them.”
Baldeh is an immigrant from the West African nation of Gambia, where roughly 90 percent of the population is Muslim. He is the second Gambian-born elected official in the United States.
“If you look at any group of immigrants in the United States through its history there has always been some discrimination towards immigrants,” Baldeh said. “But we are optimistic. Most of the time, American people on the whole do not discriminate. I’m very hopeful that all of this furor will soon die down. When Americans really figure out what is going on, they will say, ‘No, this is America. We are not going to move forward like this.’”
More than half the nation’s governors – most of them Republicans – said they would refuse to accept Syrian refugees. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have called for granting refugee status to Syrian Christians.
“When somebody says something that is not right factually or morally, we have to speak out. Just because these people are pandering for votes among some extreme elements of voters doesn’t justify it that it’s real,” Pocan said. “We need to stand up to it … because if we don’t it could become something that people eventually accept. We’re a country of immigrants and we welcome immigrants and we welcome refugees. We have this great reputation internationally for over 200 years. We don’t want to throw that away for the short-term gain of a few politicians that want to get votes for a presidential race.”