Washington - In President Donald Trump's first weeks of office, after he signed an executive order on what has been called a "Muslim ban," he said he would prioritize the protection of persecuted Christians. But his first big international rescue of an American citizen was a Muslim woman.
Aya Hijazi, a 30-year-old US-Egyptian dual citizen, was released last week after spending nearly three years in an Egyptian prison. That Trump helped make it happen has surprised some Muslims in the United States, many of whom have considered his administration openly hostile toward them.
Hijazi, who grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, and graduated from George Mason University, started a foundation aiming to shelter and rehabilitate street children in Egypt. She and others from her foundation were taken into custody in 2014 and imprisoned on child abuse and trafficking charges that human rights workers and US officials widely dismissed as false.
Hijazi was acquitted last week after backroom negotiations between the Trump administration and representatives of the Egyptian government.
While there's no indication her Muslim faith was a factor in the Trump's administration's decision to prioritize her case, it has been noted by those bothered by Trump's treatment of Muslims. Trump's revised executive order blocks citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, and many Muslim leaders have expressed concern about those in Trump's administration who have been seen as anti-Islam.
Trump could have put the spotlight on how Hijazi was put in inhumane conditions because of her humanitarian work, said Dalia Fahmy, a political science professor at Long Island University at Brooklyn. Hijazi's Muslim identity has become relevant as part of a larger shift toward identity politics, Fahmy said.
"Historically, we never would've been saying, 'Oh wow, Aya's a Muslim, and she was saved,' " Fahmy said. "Instead of taken for granted that the president should advocate for every citizen, there's an undercurrent of not belonging in the language of the travel ban."
While many don't connect Hijazi's release with her religion, Trump missed a rebranding opportunity, said Wajahat Ali, a writer and attorney. He said Trump could have played up her Muslim identity because his followers probably would not have abandoned him either way. "You got a passing 'Good for him. It would be even better if he weren't so Islamophobic' " from Muslims.
Many Muslims are concerned by Trump's embrace of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, which Ali thinks nullifies any warm feelings toward Trump over the release of Hijazi. "He's fine with bear hugging and supporting a strong-armed dictator," Ali said. "We're not diluted into believing he's turning the page on Muslims."
But Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen and former political prisoner in Egypt, said Trump's work on behalf of Hijazi makes him hopeful that the president could change his direction on Muslims.
"It's a welcome departure from Trump's otherwise discriminatory policies and rhetoric," he said. "I hope it's a positive sign that the president sees he's responsible for all Americans."
Soltan, who worked on behalf of Hijazi, was released in 2015 after spending 22 months in an Egyptian prison. "I was in a prison cell almost dying . . . and now I'm free, so I'm probably the wrong person to ask about hope," he said. "I'm extremely hopeful."
While Trump has taken credit for Hijazi's release, Soltan said it's the culmination of efforts by the Obama administration, NGOs, Congress and others who have long advocated her release. As long as Americans continue to mobilize, he said, they can pressure the president to change course on policies.
"Aya and I are living proof that when enough people mobilize, they're able to force even the strongest government to act in line with their values and principles," Soltan said. "This is a good win. We can build on that."
In an interview published on Sunday, Trump asked Associated Press reporter Julie Pace, "Did you see Aya?" When asked if he could describe how the release had come about, Trump said, "No, just – you know, I asked the government to let her out. . . . You know Obama worked on it for three years, got zippo, zero."
The Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to pressure the Egyptian government for her release. Earlier this month, Trump embraced Sissi at the White House, calling him "fantastic" and offering the US government's "strong backing."
Last week, Trump dispatched a US government aircraft to Cairo to bring Hijazi and her family to Washington. During a meeting with him in the Oval Office, she didn't wear a headscarf, a symbol for many Muslim women, so her Muslim identity was not immediately visible to many observers.
"I think this part of their story is incredibly important, and especially underreported of late, in addition to their dual US-Middle Eastern heritage which they are very proud of," Wade H. McMullen Jr., managing attorney of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, which has been handling media requests, wrote in an email. He said family members are not doing interviews yet.
Many Muslims, including Abbas Barzegar, a religious studies professor at Georgia State University, say Hijazi was a specific case that has no wider implications for Muslims. He compared Hijazi's release to feelings many had during the missile strikes in Syria, something Muslims fought for under President Barack Obama that they did not necessarily expect to happen under Trump.
"This was a clean-cut of a case of an American being detained," Barzegar said. "It may raise some eyebrows in some alt-right circles, but the overarching framework of the administration speaks for itself, and people are still concerned about that."
American attitudes toward Trump vary sharply by religion and race. White Christians are much more likely to hold favorable views of Trump, according to a February survey from Public Religion Research Institute. Of Americans who belong to non-Christian traditions – a group that includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others – 71 percent have an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Just 35 percent of Americans supported a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, according to the poll.
Nina Shea, who directors a center on religious freedom for the Hudson Institute, fears that the unpopularity of Trump's executive order is why the administration has not prioritized persecuted Christians overseas. As Hijazi was being released, Hudson said she was working on travel visas for an archbishop in Iraq who was denied entry into the United States. Although Coptic Christians in Egypt were killed on Palm Sunday, Trump expressed confidence in Egypt's government to protect them.
"I'm bewildered about who's making decisions," Shea said.
Trump has not made appointments related to religion or religious freedom, including the ambassador for religious freedom, a position held by Rabbi David Saperstein under Obama.
"I was hopeful based on President Trump's statements that he was going to help them, not at the expense of others," Shea said. "So far, there hasn't been attention to it."