Former VP Joe Biden (right) got some attention for using an Arabic phrase that means 'God willing' during his Sept. 29 debate with President Donald Trump

When 16-year-old Inshirah Abdus-Saboor watched Tuesday’s debate and heard Joe Biden use an Arabic word in the colloquial sense, she felt seen.

“It was just, like, a moment where this older white guy I really didn’t think I can relate to on a personal level said something that is a big part of my life,” the Germantown high schooler gushed.

Somehow, between what many saw as nonexistent policy talk, failure to condemn white supremacy, and personal insults that robbed the American people of an opportunity to vet their future leader, there managed to be — for the politically-engaged Philadelphia teen — a spot of light.

It was a unique moment of visibility for many Muslim Americans when former Vice President Biden interjected “Insh’Allah” after President Donald Trump promised to turn over his tax returns. The word translates directly to “if Allah wills it,” and is often used in conversation sarcastically.

“For a lot of Muslim kids, we grew up hearing it from our parents,” Abdus-Saboor explained. “There’s me recently saying, ‘Mom, can you buy me a car when I get my license?’ Insh’Allah kind of means, uh, it’s not happening, sis.”

Biden, who kinda butchered the pronunciation, could have meant it literally, said Muslims 4 Humanity founder and president Isa Shahid.

“[The moderator] asked him about his tax returns and [Trump] said, ‘You’ll get them.’ [Biden] responded ‘Insh’Allah.’ God willing,” Shahid said. “It’s not a term that should be taken lightly.”

Others labeled the quip cultural appropriation. Abdus-Saboor saw on social media some Muslims criticizing the candidate for potentially trivializing a serious term.

But Biden’s use of the term could make a difference in Philly, where an estimated 10% to 15% of the city’s population practices Islam.

It also illuminates a stark divide between Biden and his Republican opponent. Trump’s policies have alienated Muslims around the world, and he verbally attacked Philadelphia on Tuesday night. (Before he tested positive for the coronavirus, the president was slated to be in the city on Sunday, visiting the firefighters union that controversially endorsed him.)

Trump’s attacks on Philly voting seen as anti-Muslim

For Shahid, of Muslims 4 Humanity, Trump’s repeated attacks on the integrity of Philly’s voting process are a direct affront to the city’s Islamic population, since voters just elected a Muslim city commissioner, Omar Sabir, last November.

“Right now, we have three city commissioners. One of them happens to be a Muslim,” Shahid said. “To make that type of attack towards the newly elected people that are in office, it wasn’t fair.”

Since Trump took office, Shahid said his organization has noticed an uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment and discrimination in the suburbs, especially against women who wear hijab or other Islamic coverings.

Jacob Bender, the Jewish-American head at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has observed the same. CAIR saw a doubling of reports of religion-based assault and harassment over the past few years.

CAIR serves both Muslims in Philly, about 70% of whom are African American, as well as the largely immigrant Muslim population in the surrounding suburbs.

That community of immigrant-born Muslims, Bender said, has become more inclusive and socially conscious since the 9/11 World Trade Center terrorist attack, after which Muslims and other religious groups were targeted by hate crimes. The progression continued when Trump took office and enacted policies seen as discriminatory.

In general, Bender said, he’s noticed political priorities for many immigrant Muslims shifting to align with a lot of Black American Muslims’ priorities.

“The Muslim community has matured,” Bender said, “to the extent that they’re not just concerned about specifically narrow Muslim issues such as the travel ban, but have a wider appreciation of the interaction between Muslim issues and general issues of social justice.”

Existing and potential travel and immigration restrictions are still a top priority. But so is child separation at the U.S., Mexico border, a policy enacted by ICE under the Trump administration, and under which at least seven Latin American immigrant children died.

At Muslims 4 Humanity, which is nonpartisan but participates in voter registration drives and other GOTV efforts, Shahid said election priorities revolve around acknowledging Muslim Americans in a number of industries, including education and healthcare. He’s waiting, he said, for the national government to recognize Islamic holidays, something Philly did in 2016.

Abdus-Saboor, the high school senior from Germantown. was involved in model U.N. last year and said she posts “something about politics or social justice every day.” She can’t vote, but believes the next four years will shape the rest of her life.

“Whatever person is leading our country is definitely going to change me and affect me,” said Abdus-Saboor. “I’m a little nervous. If Trump’s reelected, I just feel like a lot of my life is gonna be different.”

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...