Monday, April 22, 2013

My experience as a young Muslim Arab-American post-Boston Marathon...

It's been exactly one week since the bombs went off in Boston and I'm still not back to reality. As a young, vocal, Muslim American this week has been exhausting. 

At this point, we've all read the articles about the wave of dread Muslims felt upon finding out that an attack happened in Boston, hoping & praying that the perpetrator wouldn't identify with our faith. Yet even before any information had been gleaned, before we knew if it was one individual or a team of individuals, phrases like "Islamist militants" & "Al-Qaeda affiliates" were being thrown around (though quickly followed up with "But we still don't have any information!") The seeds were planted, the assumptions legitimized, and the hatred circulated. And aside from the fact that the media preemptively put the spotlight on Muslims, labeling these individuals as "extremists" or "radical Muslims" is not right. The media is fostering the belief that a violent branch of Islam does exist. That these terrorists are following a sect of Islam, and that is simply not the case. These people are following no branch of Islam. They are deluded individuals who are suffering from mental health problems or have been completely brainwashed by said crazy individuals. The rhetoric surrounding these situations are adding to this negative cycle, and the media has a responsibility to stop feeding into what people want to hear. To hear reporters say "extremists" "Islamists" and "Saudi national" is to further engrain the preconceived notions people have.

I woke up on Wednesday morning to tweets about the suspects being identified as Chechen & Muslim. Exhausted & unable to face the world, I went back to sleep for a few more hours. I don't know how to articulate what it feels like being a Muslim in this post-9/11 era. I remember seeing the events unfold on 9/11. I remember saying the pledge the next day & having a moment of silence. What I don't remember is the moment I put together that I was a  Muslim, that the attackers also called themselves Muslim, & that the trajectory for my life was permanently changed. I spent the majority of my pre-3rd grade education in Islamic School (save for half of 2nd grade) so coming to a predominantly white public school, I felt different as it was, regardless of 9/11. 

It can be really hard to be a Muslim in this society. I've lucked out in that I haven't had any hate crimes committed against me or my family specifically (and I PRAY that it never does), but I have experienced people telling my aunt to go back to her country; being pulled aside from a plane upon landing home from London & watching my mom get questioned by a security official as to "what our business was in the country" and "why we had spent time abroad". Those situations changed me. When they happened I felt the wind being knocked out of me. It's not merely a figure of speech to say that it felt like somebody had punched me in the gut. My heart would start beating so fast, & my palms would immediately moisten. 

The worst of all though, are the accusations & leading questions asked by those who know nothing about Islam. The individuals who don't ask out of genuine curiosity, but with an agenda. How am I supposed to react or respond when people ask why my religion preaches hate? When they misquote the Quran, slander my Prophet (pbuh), and make the mistake of labeling all people of color as Arabs, which intrinsically means Muslim which intrinsically means terrorist? Where does one even start? People ask why Muslims don't speak up against terrorism, not realizing that we do. That most, if not all, of our most prominent figures have and continue to speak against it. The media & world just aren't interested in hearing it. At least not until now. We are finally being heard just a little more. (And if you are reading this today April 22nd, I recommend you tune into CNN tonight at 9pm Eastern time as Suhaib Webb one of our most prominent Imams will be speaking).  Digging deeper though, it's problematic to ask Muslims to apologize for terrorist attacks, because it insinuates that we have something to apologize for. We condemn yes, but apologize, no. We are in no way affiliated with those perpetrators, and so apologizing is to accept blame, and thus legitimize the backlash our community faces. 

And in regards to the questions people throw at me, at the end of the day, I'm not an expert. I don't know the ins and outs of Sharia (though I certainly don't fear them), I'm taking my first class in the history of the Middle East this semester, and I haven't memorized the Quran. I don't read or write Arabic fluently, and my grammar when speaking leaves much to be desired. I don't know anything about Al-Qaeda, or the other groups that people fear. I was born in the United States, have lived in Pennsylvania my entire life, and the only time I've been out of this country was a week long trip to London for a diabetes conference. 

I am a Muslim living my life the same way every other American is. I don't understand why people do these things and call themselves Muslims. Because what they are doing is not Islam. Jihad is about the inner struggle against the nafs, & striving to be closer to God. My jihad is maintaining spirituality & faith while in college. Trying to finish papers on time, get along with friends, do my laundry before I'm out of options and thus resort to wearing jeans 8 times without washing them. 

With all of the challenges though, I have experienced the most wonderful outreach, love, and support. I have friends who don't simply tell ME that that they know Islamophobia is wrong anymore, they write blog posts about it. They tweet & post statuses about not attacking their Muslim brothers & sisters despite being Christian, Jewish, Athiest, Agnostic, etc. They are courageous individuals who not only act out their beliefs, they TALK about it too. Because until we start speaking up together, these underlying issues won't go away. My friend Austin put it beautifully when he said, "Islam is the world's most prevalent religion and terrorism is no more representative of our Muslim brothers and sisters as the Westboro Baptist Church is a reflection of Christianity." I have friends like Bronte who share stories of how my actions have allowed them to speak to others and say things like, "[I] have told a few people this week, "one of my closest friends is Muslim and she's so kind, peaceful and wants the best for others". These positive actions have touched me so deeply, because before Boston the only people I saw vehemently speaking against Islamophobia were other Muslims. A number of my friends supported me personally, but not many were willing to post their views to the world. We still have a long way to go, but people are starting to wake up. People are starting to realize that with over a billion Muslims in the world, there's no way they can ALL be terrorists... And maybe, JUST MAYBE, those terrorists aren't really Muslims at all....

In closing, I just want to ask you all to continue praying for Muslims in this country as we brave this storm. It's hard to continue on as if nothing happened, when you know that people have a renewed sense of disdain for you. I go to school in a predominantly white, conservative town, and I didn't even realize the stares I was receiving at cafes on the Mainline this week, until a friend asked if I was uncomfortable because one man hadn't stopped looking at us from the moment he walked in. Not everyone is as lucky to be as confident & positively reinforced as I am, so if you see a Muslim woman smile & say hello. Don't be afraid to tell someone that you have a Muslim friend, or compliment their scarf if you think it's pretty. I remember the strangers who have smiled at me, or said something sweet & it stays with me. It reminds me that not everyone looking at me is thinking "terrorist" or "go back to your country". Keep in mind that the Muslims you see in the States are exactly like you. Our life and actions should serve as the real representation of Islam & Muslims around the world. Because we're just imperfect people of faith living life like anyone else trying to make it. We go to work, have families, go to school, enjoy music, TV, movies, and books.  

No one is perfect, but no group deserves to be represented by the worst of the worst. Ignorance fuels anger & hate, and we have a collective duty to say enough. 

So now, I'm working on reintegrating myself mentally back into school mode. I won't be posting as much as I have this week, but I felt that it was important to do my part to say 'enough', before Boston becomes a distant memory as many stories in the news do...

Positivity breeds more positivity & after the love & compassion I've experienced, I know that there's a lot more left to go around. Keep praying for Boston & keep praying for one another.

Peace & love.