This article is a 2017 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism award winner for Best Long Hard Feature, Silver
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.
To be Muslim in Madison
Madison Magazine cover story, April 2017
I first got the assignment to write profiles on a handful of “average, ordinary, everyday” Muslims last year, well before election day. Although the election rhetoric had become increasingly hostile towards immigrants and Muslims, it was still largely perceived that candidate Donald Trump was a long shot to win the presidency and that threats to “ban all Muslims” were just hyperbole, however painful to those they targeted. Even the interview with U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil, while conducted post-election and pre-inauguration, wasn’t expected to be a particularly dramatic thread in the overall story. He mostly talked about his job over the past near-decade; what stereotypes he’d encountered and crushed in his travels across Wisconsin and abroad and how wonderful and diverse the Muslim community is. The sources themselves mostly spoke about their faith, not politics. There was a general sense that we were just highlighting the contributions of our everyday neighbors, as we often do in a city magazine.
Then, the first so-called “Muslim Ban” executive order was issued after the story was already written and turned in, which required some last minute finagling. Next came the announcement of the sudden firing of U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates. The same Friday night we closed the magazine to go to press, all 46 remaining U.S. Attorneys—including John Vauldreuil—were abruptly, immediately dismissed (some apparently found out about their firings on CNN). After a few past-the-last-minute tweaks on Monday morning, we did the best we could to put out a story that is far from over.
I’m indebted to Masood Akhtar, a local energy entrepreneur and community leader who extended his trust capital to connect me with many of these sources, and provided deep background from the start. Most of all, I’ve grateful to my neighbors who take risks like this one and put it all out there, especially those who never made the decision to “get political” simply by existing as they are.
—Maggie Ginsberg is an award-winning freelance writer in Madison, Wisconsin