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FIRE Q&A: ‘Hero in a hijab,’ Amina Amdeen

The media dubbed University of Texas at Austin sophomore Amina Amdeen the “Hero in a Hijab” for physically shielding a Donald Trump supporter from attacks at a post-election “Love Trumps Hate” rally at the Texas Capitol on November 13.

The Austin American-Statesman, Amdeen’s hometown paper, reported that the 19-year-old Amdeen wedged herself between 6-foot-6-inch, 350-pound Joseph Weidknecht and half-a-dozen of her fellow anti-Trump protesters who surrounded him. Those protesters, who were later arrested, stole Weidknecht’s red “Make America Great Again” hat and two protest signs, and tried to light his T-shirt on fire.

“I can handle myself in a brawl,” Weidknecht, 24, said at the time. “But when they brought out the lighters, I was genuinely scared for my life.”

But after Amdeen defended Weidknecht and helped calm the violent scene at an otherwise peaceful protest, the Statesman reported, there were hugs and a new sense of mutual respect between the two unlikely allies:

“I do not stand for what he stands for,” a shaking and tearful Amdeen, 19, said of Weidknecht minutes after the incident. “But I know his fears and concerns are valid. I love this country so much, and I don’t like what I see coming. We are not being civil to each other.”

Amdeen tells FIRE that while she personally felt “overwhelming fear” at Trump’s win, she also knows firsthand of something worse: the scourge of intolerance and censorship she witnessed as a girl growing up in Iraq under the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein. She doesn’t want to see it happen in America, a place that has offered Amdeen and her family a new start.

Amdeen talked to FIRE about the importance of free speech and understanding in tumultuous political times, her enduring friendship with Weidknecht, and her hopes for the future of open discourse in America.

Some questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

FIRE: You’ve been called a hero for your actions on November 13. What was it like for you?

AMDEEN: In all honesty, I don’t believe what I did was anything extraordinary. There were plenty of others at the protest that reprimanded the individuals who were being aggressive towards Joe, repeating the slogan of the march, “Love Trumps Hate,” and generally asking them to back off.

I was some distance away in the middle of the crowd when I noticed the shouting and confrontational gestures toward Joe, but I decided to stay out of it because it hadn’t gotten physical yet.

When they snatched his red hat off his head is when I couldn’t stand by any longer. This was a clear violation of his right to his physical person and it didn’t sit right with me. I saw myself in him. I remembered what it felt like when one of my classmates tried to snatch my hijab off my head in fifth grade and I just couldn't stand idly by. I also did it for everyone else in the group that marched for several hours for peace and love, and now a select few were deciding to act in a confrontational and aggressive manner.

The name that we had given to the protest and the signs that we were holding was that “Love Trumps Hate.” That was the message that we wanted to convey and they were kind of distorting that message. And that nothing short of enraged me because, as a Muslim in America, I am misrepresented a lot. People generalize me to be with the terrorists a lot, so I did not want that to happen for me as a liberal. I did not want radicals to misrepresent who I was.

When the individuals who had acted aggressively towards Joe refused to hand me back his sign or his hat, and were refusing to back off of him, I put my arm in front of him and screamed my lungs out. I really lost it then.

The next thing I remember is a clearing in front of me, three studio-size cameras, and a crowd of shocked faces. The crowd thinned after about ten minutes, and I was standing at the same spot with Joe and about five other people, speaking to a correspondent for the Austin Statesman, and another for The Daily Texan. A lot of hugs were exchanged, and the positive energy was so beautiful and moving that I couldn’t hold back tears. Eventually we joined the rest of the protesters by the steps of the Capitol and I ended up taking the megaphone and doing my best to speak without my voice breaking. There were more hugs after that.

Amdeen at the November 13 rally in Austin, Texas. (Courtesy: The ‘Austin American-Statesman’)

There have been many prominent community leaders and important figures warning the American people against falling prey to the politics of hate and fear. I just believe that the silence of the moderate is not only deafening, but incredibly dangerous. I saw an opportunity to break out of the moderate prison and so I did. My hope is that I will get the opportunity to do it again and again. Perhaps someone else will realize that they can too.

FIRE: In such a divisive climate, what is it about you and your background that’s provided this kind of clarity?

AMDEEN: I was born in Baghdad in Iraq in 1997. I’m the oldest of my three siblings. I have three younger sisters. We came here in 2007. Through the hard work of my father, he got to the highest position he could get, from working and building up his resume. We’re U.S. citizens now, and my family lives in a pretty nice house in a good neighborhood in Chicago, and my sisters go to good schools.

Amdeen, left, and two of her sisters in an undated photo taken in Baghdad, Iraq in the early 2000s. (Courtesy: Amina Amdeen)

When I was born, my parents were very young. They had married young which was typical of people to do in that time and that place. My mom had dropped out of school and my dad was struggling in college. But now he’s a computer programmer. He pretty much taught himself how to program computers at that time. It was the 90s so they were a new thing, so I’m very proud of him for that. We lived in Baghdad through the Saddam regime, and then Saddam fell in 2003 and I remember that distinctly. I remember the coverage on TV and how happy people were.

And then after that, when the Americans were in Iraq, my dad started to work with them. He worked with the embassy, helping them with computer things and translations. And that’s when we began to be targeted by the extremists. And I like to note that they’re not Iraqis. They’ve never been Iraqis. People who seek to benefit from a destabilization of my country were never our own citizens. They targeted him. Considered him a traitor. But I didn’t know this until we came to America. So after working for a couple years with the Americans, they offered him a visa to the United States. I remember the first time my dad told me and I said “Oh! Where Legoland is?”

He’s like “Yes.”

“Where Disneyland is?”

He’s like, “Yeah, that too.”

So we were very excited to come here.

Amdeen, left, and two of her sisters in an undated photo taken in Baghdad, Iraq in the early 2000s. (Courtesy: Amina Amdeen)

FIRE: What was it like to live under such an oppressive regime, and then to come here to America where things like freedom of speech are protected by law?

AMDEEN: I hadn’t lived for a long time under the Saddam regime which was when speech was obviously stifled. Only until I was six. But I heard stories from my parents about how much they couldn’t say. I mean, my maternal grandfather had been targeted by the regime because they suspected him of being part of an insurrection. And he disappeared.

He was a religious scholar, and the Baathist party saw religion as a threat. He had gotten married two years earlier and my mom was only a baby at the time. My grandmother refrained from looking for him out of fear that something would happen to her daughter, my mother, and so she never found out what happened to him until after the regime fell in 2003.

My mother and grandmother would go to the abandoned governmental offices and places where records of prisoners were kept to find out what happened to my grandfather. I remember accompanying them. I remember the dusty cabinets and dirty floors. It took them about a year after the fall of Saddam to find his records, and he was indeed executed. Two of his brothers were imprisoned and tortured for similar reasons, and two others escaped to Iran, but eventually came back to Iraq after 2003.

But I didn’t know what happened to my grandfather until we came to America, actually.

For more than 20 years, it was a secret in our family, where he was. Whenever I asked, they said he was away on a trip. Even things like that, you couldn’t say out loud. You couldn’t say “He’s gone. The government took him.”

Then you contrast that with America where the value of freedom of speech is enshrined in every single period of American history. It’s a core value, and that’s a very hard thing to erase from a country. It’s hard to say that America’s not about free speech because it has been from the beginning, and it’s been a point that was repeated. So, when I see that the freedom of speech, on a small scale, that it’s being attacked, I believed that it was important for me to stand up and say that we have to maintain that freedom. We have to remember what our country is about. We have to internalize the fact that we have to listen to each other and we are all citizens of the same land.

If we begin to reject that American identity, then what else is going to hold us together? America is a very diverse country. We have to hold onto one thing that unites us.

FIRE: You’ve lived in America since you were 10, you and your family are now American citizens, and you’ve pointed to the contrasts you see in terms of personal freedoms. Does it frustrate you that some other Americans—specifically college students—might not appreciate the freedoms they have?

AMDEEN: I don’t like to exalt myself, but I do believe that this has been sort of a gift, the fact that I know what it’s like on the other side of the spectrum, where America is considered sort of a haven for free speech and democracy. I know what the other side looks like. So I can realize the kind of privilege I have in America.

So yeah, you’re right that other college students do not realize this. And this has been since the beginning. Even since I was in middle school. People here don’t realize what they have. Even at 12, I thought “This is an amazing country and people are not taking advantage of it.” You know, when teenagers here skip school, or whatever.

So, it was frustrating in the beginning when I was younger, but I just tried to focus on myself and to talk about it as often as I can. I mean, saying “Hey, you’re lucky to be in America” doesn’t really do much, but I can’t not say it. And I’ve tried to take advantage of it myself as an individual. To help my family and my friends take advantage of it as well.

FIRE: You’ve said that the political climate is divisive, and, especially as an immigrant and a Muslim, there’s some level of fear. How have you decided to be so open about your views despite that fear?

AMDEEN: That environment of fear is something that I make a point not to let myself feel. I’ve been relatively lucky in that I haven’t been targeted physically, as of yet. But, I make it a point not to feel fear.

I mean, I grew up in Iraq, so I know what it’s like to come to grips with the fact that I may be facing death any day. And that’s kind of a freedom, I believe, that I’ve developed here over the years.

For me, one part of it has been that anything else pales in comparison to what happened in Iraq. Any kind of danger. Any kind of—I hate to say this, but—any kind of discrimination against me, it kind of just pales in comparison. None of it is really of significance to me because I’ve seen so much worse.

Amdeen in her cap and gown on graduation day at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. (Courtesy: Amina Amdeen)

FIRE: You’ve also talked about being stereotyped as a terrorist because of extremist Muslims. What do you want people to know about you? What might surprise them? Who are you?

AMDEEN: That’s a funny question: “Who are you?” Because everybody’s trying to figure out who they are. It’s an ever-evolving process.

Maybe some things that would surprise people are that I love classic rock music. I love 60s music, like The Beatles. They’re my favorite band. I have a huge poster hanging up of them in my room.

I just consider myself a normal student.

And also, you know, I’ve always been open to questions. I don’t consider any question too ridiculous to be asked of me. I love when people ask me questions because it’s better than assuming things. Like, don’t go to the internet!

That’s maybe the one thing I want everyone to know: If you want to know something about someone, don’t go to the internet.

FIRE: For those who might not know, how would you describe your religious beliefs?

AMDEEN: I’m definitely a Muslim. Among Muslims there’s Sunni and Shia. I don’t like to say that I’m either. My family is Shia. I was raised Shia, which is the majority in Iraq. But I don’t like to perpetuate that division that was not supposed to be there in the first place. There’s a very slight difference and it’s not important.

The Prophet stressed it very, very much. He said, “Do not divide yourselves. You are one people. You are one religion,” and he included the people of the world. But what do you know, he dies and then right after, we divide ourselves.

So I say that I am just a Muslim. So, I don’t know. I’m doing my small part to end it. Who knows if it will work.

FIRE: And what do you want to do after college?

AMDEEN: After I graduate I want to go to law school. I would like to be a human rights lawyer, which is kind of fitting to this whole thing, isn’t it? Or an international lawyer. Something of that sort.

My mom wants me to be a doctor. She’s always wanted me to be a doctor because that’s what all the Arabs want their kids to be. I told her “Don’t worry, mom! Lawyer is just as good.” Because when she thinks of lawyers she thinks of what lawyers did in Iraq which was basically nothing. But I said, “No, no. It’s a huge deal here!”

FIRE: What’s your hope for the future of free speech in America? Both on campuses and beyond?

AMDEEN: I hate to be a cliche, but it’s really important to listen to each other.

The fact that liberals had silenced the white middle-class people that were struggling during the Obama years, the way that we silenced them by saying “Oh, you’re privileged,” or “Your concerns don’t matter,” that, in my mind was a very big contributing factor to the election of Donald Trump. Because those people felt alienated from the political process.

So I believe moving forward, our best bet for healing those divisions are to listen to each other. And, you know, a trend in America is that more people identify as independents than before, so that might be a starting point where more of us reject what the political parties decide for us, and we begin to decide for ourselves.

The more that we reject those establishments and the biases that they push on us, the more that we are closer to the truth and the more we can relate to each other and take control of our government and our country’s future.

FIRE: Here’s what I really want to know: Do you still keep in touch with Joe?

AMDEEN: Yeah. In a sense, yes.

We’d done a radio interview together and we became Facebook friends after the protest and we talked a couple of times. And we’re just respectful of each other. And it’s funny because I’m like his resource now on the liberal side.

He was like “Can I ask you a question? What is up with the Women’s March?” And so I’m like, “This is what’s happening. This is what they’re doing. Here’s the message that they’re trying to send.”

And I mean, I get it. I get why he comes to me exclusively for these questions because others of my age might be a little scary. It can be off-putting to ask some people what’s going on, or ask them to explain their reasoning for things because they can be so, I guess, accusatory. Especially towards somebody who voted for Trump.

So, I’m glad he asks me those questions. And I answer them.

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