The room grew tense before Donald Trump spoke, as the American Muslims who had gathered to watch Tuesday’s GOP debate collectively drew a deep breath.
“Here we go,” said Rabiah Ahmed, the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s communications director. “Brace yourself everyone.”
Ahmed had organized the debate “watch party” in northern Virginia, asking 15 middle-aged professionals to gather in the spacious living room of Aamir Rasheed and Saira Sufi, a married couple with young children.
Several women blended headscarves with stylish shoes. The men wore button-down shirts and blazers. A camera crew from Al Jazeera circled the living room, reinforcing the idea of a faith community swimming in a fishbowl.
As GOP candidates and media incessantly talk about Muslims, Ahmed said, it was a moment for Muslims to return the favor.
The group assembled to watch the debate is enmeshed in American life, with growing families and thriving careers. But since terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, and the political finger-pointing that followed, many said they feel ostracized and alienated.
“What we’ve been hearing so far from Republicans – I have lived here 24 years,” said Shoeb Rehman, a telecom executive originally from India, “and I have never experienced anything like this. It scares me for the next generation, for our children.”
Rehman, 48, brought his 17-year-old son, Yousuf, to watch the debate. Yousuf said many of his Muslim friends seem nonplused by right-wing political rhetoric, such as Trump’s proposal to halt Muslim immigration, spy on mosques and maintain a database of Muslim citizens.
“I tell them that we can’t shrug that off,” said Yousef, who was accepted to Duke University this week. “If you look at American history, we’ve put people in internment camps, like the Japanese during World War II.”
The room hushed during the national anthem. As the song reached its climax, “the land of the free …”
“Except for Muslims,” one woman interjected. Some laughed. Others looked down.
Nearly every candidate mentioned ISIS or Islam in their opening remarks.
“Do they think they get extra points if they mention Muslims?” asked one woman.
“It’s like someone gave them a booklet with a bunch of Islamic terms in it,” said another.
Farhan Syed, 40, who works in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, nodded vigorously during Rand Paul’s opening remarks. “If we ban certain religions, if we censor the Internet … the terrorists will have won,” Paul said.
Syed said he voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But like others at the watch party, he said the GOP has pushed minorities – especially Muslims – away.
And then it was Trump’s turn.
As if in self-preservation, the room began to talk over him, drowning out the GOP front-runner.
“He’s a clown.”
“It’s like that Ben Franklin quote,” Syed said. “Those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither.”
“If we just replace the word ‘Muslim’ with ‘Jew,’ none of them would be saying this. None of this would be happening,” said Ilhan Cagri, a human rights advocate from Silver Spring, Maryland.
Several in the room nodded.
“Who are these Muslims who supposedly support his immigration plan?” asked one woman.
In an interview with CNN last week, Trump said his Muslim friends “are so happy.” He later said they are happy he is confronting radicalization but not pleased with his immigration proposal.
The room quieted as Jeb Bush began to jab at Trump. The immigration ban is “not serious,” he said, and the United States needs Muslim allies to fight ISIS. He called Trump a “chaos candidate.”
The room erupted.
“I can’t believe I agree with a Bush,” one man said, eliciting laughs.
As the debate wore on, some in the watch party drifted toward the kitchen for second helpings of pizza, or to avoid the candidates’ arguments.
“Is this just a debate about ISIS, or are they going to talk about other things?” asked Omari Grey, a 37-year-old teacher and entrepreneur.
“This is how I watch the debate,” Safia, a mother of three from Ashburn, Virginia, said as her hennaed hand scrolled through Facebook on her smartphone. Headlines from Mother Jones and other liberal-leaning publications populated her feed.
Watching GOP candidates in real time is too upsetting, said Safia, who asked that CNN not disclose her last name because her husband is a contractor for the Department of Defense.
“Let’s call it what it is: This is hate speech. This is racism. If someone said this at the workplace, this is actionable. They could actually be fired.”
Safia said her children, who are 14, 11 and 5, have dealt with “micro-racism” – small acts of bigotry – at school. She would not let them watch the GOP debate and had laced her running shoes to go to the gym before Ahmed called to invite her to the watch party.
Others, though, kept their attention on the television, especially during the argument over the USA Freedom Act. The act, which passed in June, modified some aspects of the Patriot Act, setting limits on how the government can collect data on U.S. citizens.
The issue is personal to Asim Ghafoor, an attorney from northern Virginia.
In 2010, a federal judge ordered the government to pay Ghafoor $20,400 for monitoring, without a warrant, the attorney’s phone calls with his client, a Saudi Arabian charity.
Four years later, Ghafoor found out he had been spied on again, when documents stolen by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden became public.
Ghafoor groaned when Chris Christie cut off the surveillance debate, complaining that his “eyes were glazing over.”
“He’s wrong,” Ghafoor said. “What’s wrong with America is that we are glossing over the debate. Is surveillance really helping us, keeping us safer? Obviously not.”
As the clock ticked toward 11 p.m., many Muslims had filtered out, returning home to their families. But Sarah Cochran stayed to watch.
Every candidate on the stage likely knows a Muslim or has one working on their staff, Cochran said. She worked on former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie’s unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate last year.
But Muslims make up a small fraction of the American population, so candidates can disparage the faith with no political consequences, Cochran said. In fact, they may benefit from it.
“Muslims hate Republicans these days, and Republicans hate Muslims,” Cochran said with a sigh. “So, it’s really difficult to be a Muslim Republican. I’m a bit of an oddball.”