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Loveland political writer balances Muslim faith, heated campaign season

Saja Hindi estimates that she has done thousands of interviews dating back to her days as a reporter for the high school paper — an endeavor she started at her father’s encouraging.  

In this interview, however, Hindi admits to being a bit nervous. That’s because she’s not the one asking the questions but the one answering them.

 “As a journalist, you’re taught to stay out of the story,” she said. “You’re not the focus. I’ve tried to do that for the most part.”

To that end, now a beat reporter for the Loveland Reporter-Herald, Hindi has worked hard, cultivated relationships and emphasized accurate, balanced copy — traits relatively common for the profession — while covering northern Colorado politics.

But by virtue of her heritage and faith, she’s had challenges to overcome that most journalists don’t, hurdles atypical for the job description. Hindi’s name, face and not long ago, hijab, are outliers among her surroundings — she is a Muslim journalist.

And that’s why she agreed to tell her story.

“It’s sharing a story that’s personal to me that I don’t generally share with other people,” she said. “But at the same time, there are so many misconceptions and stereotypes about Muslims that if we don’t share our stories, nobody else will. You don’t want to leave it to other people."

That story includes being patient with the public and sources, she said, while they get comfortable with what is a rarity in predominantly white Loveland and Larimer County.

“It can get exhausting being that token Muslim, the person who almost constantly is having to explain herself,” said Hindi, 28, born in Kuwait and raised in North Carolina since she was 2.

“But three years later, I’d say no, I’m not dealing with it as much as when I first started. … I’m still a little bit different — I still stand out and get questions from people and that’s OK. But I feel like we’ve gotten past Saja the Muslim, and we’ve gotten to Saja the reporter.”

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Though she’s earned acceptance — and Reporter-Herald editors say, respect — locally for her work, Hindi confronted potentially daunting obstacles in the 2016 election season as hard right sentiments nationally tilted to Donald Trump’s populist message.

Journalists and Muslims were under fierce scrutiny then, as they are today. In the midst of the campaign, Hindi was tasked with covering several Trump events in the area, including appearances in Loveland and Greeley by the candidate who’d become president.

At the time, she wore a hijab, or head scarf, separating her from thousands of Trump backers.

“It was a little tough and there were points in time when even my coworkers were saying, ‘We really don’t want you to go to this rally alone, we’re going to send somebody with you, just in case,’” she said. “For the most part, people were fine.”

“The rallies weren’t as bad as I expected. I had people staring, but that’s kind of normal.”

The Trump events, Hindi said, never became physical and she was never concerned for her safety. That’s not to say there weren’t unusual moments, even some bordering on the surreal, like the time a Trump supporter asked to take a selfie with her.

Hindi politely declined, explaining her role was professional, not participatory.

“I think a lot of times people just haven’t really encountered Muslims, so it’s very different for them,” she said. “A lot of people have these preconceived notions and they don’t really know, almost, how to deal with you.”

“People would say, ‘Oh, you’re not really what I imagined a Muslim would look like.’ People sometimes have these notions of what I should look like, what I should say, very different perspectives about who I am. But I’ve always told people, ‘I’m American. I’m as American as you. My face being different doesn’t mean anything else.’”

Mike Brohard, the Reporter-Herald’s veteran sports editor, accompanied Hindi to a Trump rally in Loveland, covering the event with her by filming video so Hindi could focus on interviews and reporting. He volunteered for the assignment, he said, almost as an exercise in anthropology.

“I was kind of curious how people would react to her,” said Brohard, who has been with the paper since 1992. “I don’t know if deep down I was worried for her — I thought it being a public place nothing bad would happen to her — but I was curious how people she interviewed might react, and if they wondered what her motives would be.”

He said it wasn’t unusual for Hindi to get “sideways” glances from Trump supporters, and there were occasional muttered words directed her way, but his colleague maintained her professionalism, displaying maturity and a focus on her work.

“I totally respected it because of what the national narrative was … and how Muslims were being treated by some Trump supporters,” Brohard said. “She took it on and she went out there with no fear. She did her job and did it really well. … She worked it like a fair journalist.”

“I wonder if I could do the same … if I knew people like me were being targeted where I was going. … But she didn’t seem to care in the slightest. She just took it as, ‘I’m going to go, do my job and ignore it if anything is said.’”

Hindi’s stories from the events are exactly what readers should expect from a seasoned reporter — framed within proper context, observational, with statements from key players, crowd reactions for color, all the standard facts, figures and information quality copy is made of, and without bias or personal leanings.

Fake news, they were not.

Hindi, a North Carolina State graduate, is also the newspaper’s Sunday edition editor.

Managing Editor Jeff Stahla said he didn’t have any hesitation about sending his promising staffer into a potentially hostile environment because he was confident in how she, and to a degree, the crowd, would interact.

“I knew and certainly trusted her reactions to whatever would be thrown at her,” he said. “We knew going in that any member of the press was going to be called out and castigated, and we were prepared for that.

“Many people, individually, are polite. It’s only in the crowd, when it gets drummed up that it’s, ‘Hey, there’s the lying press, let’s boo them.’ That’s when people let loose and take it out on the abstraction of the press rather than the individual they talked to 10 minutes earlier.

“It’s easy to target the abstraction of the media or the abstraction of a Muslim, but when you have someone standing in front of you who is a polite Muslim reporter, you realize, ‘Oh, hey, I need to check myself.’ People’s behaviors then change considerably.”

The anti-Muslim sentiments vented throughout the campaign continued into this year when Trump tried pushing through immigration reform.

Hindi, however, has never used the heated political landscape as a basis for straying into commentary pieces about Islam.

“It’s difficult for me because as journalists we’re taught to stay out of the story — you’re not the story, you’re there to report the story,” she said. “… But people sometimes just don’t realize we all want the same things, we all want to live peacefully, and it shouldn’t matter what your faith is.”

Another personal choice at the intersection of her faith and work was her decision not long ago to stop wearing a hijab. She’d worn the traditional cover since middle school, but set it aside in February.

It was a personal choice, she said, not a way of buckling to public pressures.

“I didn’t feel it was something I had to wear as a Muslim woman to be a Muslim,” Hindi said. “You should be able to wear it if you want, but it had almost become a political statement. … I almost felt, not that I could do a better job necessarily (without it), but that I could get people to trust me a little more.

“It had just gotten harder to wear it over time. … It was something I’d been thinking about.”

Hindi said she’d like to stay in political journalism, though perhaps branch out someday into more investigative and enterprise work.

She said the 2016 election provided invaluable experience moving forward.

“Even though I, of course, deal with some challenging situations as a journalist who’s Muslim, I’ve also been surrounded by coworkers and even sources who have been very supportive,” she said.

“I don’t want to make it sound like everyone has a bias against a Muslim reporter, including all those at Trump rallies. … Oftentimes it’s just people asking questions. (It was) definitely not all negative.”

Editor's note: Since the time of writing, Hindi has accepted a position with The Coloradoan.