What It’s Like to Grow Up Muslim in America
It’s hard to forget the one time in middle school when, after I told a classmate I was Egyptian, she asked me if I spoke Muslim. Yeah, she asked me if I spoke a religion. I’m Muslim, but I don’t speak it (well, maybe metaphorically) ― I speak Arabic. Growing up, when I’d tell other kids that my religion didn’t allow me to eat pork, I was usually met with a look of perplexity and floods of questions. Sure, the Torah also prohibits consumption of pork, but most of my Jewish friends growing up were reformed Jews, which meant they indulged in bacon and pepperoni pizza guilt-free. I’m 19 now, and in a span of six or seven years, the innocent naiveté that characterized my middle-school experience has transformed into an arctic climate in regards to Islam.
Today, instead of being asked if I speak Muslim, my family and I are being halted at the airport, subject to extra security checks; also, right-wing propaganda is trying to tell me that my religion is violent and that hijabis are apparently super oppressed. Being female, Egyptian, and Muslim in America has been ― in a word ― adventure-filled. Sometimes my experiences are something straight out of a movie. Despite being stereotyped, the Muslim community refuses to sit there and sulk. We Muslim-Americans are equally as American as everyone else. We love this country and what it (supposedly) stands for.
Last year I watched a documentary comedy, The Muslims Are Coming, which is essentially a comical take on Islamic stereotypes. It follows a few Muslim comedians as they try to pull off an Islamic comedy show in the deep, conservative south ― a locale where the majority of people have fear of or lack of understanding of Islam. This film resonated with me in many ways, especially when one of the Iranian-Muslim comedians ranted about the expectations of Muslim women.
Most people think Muslim women and hijab go hand in hand, but not every woman wears one. The media often likes to call hijabis and burqa-clad women “oppressed,” but if you think about it, the headscarf is part of their daily routine; they don’t consider themselves oppressed. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule in the Quran that states that women must wear a hijab. I don’t wear one and neither do any of the women in my family. I don’t consider us bad Muslims because of this. Women may or may not wear one, depending on how they interpret the teachings of the Quran, traditionally or liberally. It doesn’t make you oppressed if you wear a hijab and it doesn’t make you a scandalous, promiscuous Muslim woman if you don’t.
Growing up female and Muslim in America has enlightened me to the fact that there is a double standard in terms of expression of sexuality for Muslim men versus women. Muslim women, more often than not, are scolded growing up ― often by parental figures, especially fathers ― for showing too much skin; even too much shoulder. Apparently shoulders distract boys. While growing up, the following situation happened in my house too many times to count: I put on a shirt, think it looks fine, Dad tells me to change it because my shoulders are exposed and “it’ll distract the boys.” Things would be much simpler for women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, if the sentence “it’ll distract the boys” were completely eliminated from everywhere. This is an unfortunate product of our society in which women are constantly viewed in relation to men, but I won’t venture into a feminist rant; read Simone de Beauvoir for that.
If I had told my dad at 14 that I liked a boy, it would have likely started an in-house riot. And that’s not because my dad is violent towards women or because Muslim women are oppressed. It is because in comparison to the liberalized culture we Americans are used to, Muslim culture is more conservative. Islam respects women and emphasizes that they should save their bodies until marriage. Yet, Muslim men don’t have the same struggle; they are never told that the sight of their kneecaps may distract a girl. This double standard is obviously not exclusive to Muslims; women everywhere are subject to this, but since Islam is a culture already seen as “oppressive,” Islamophobes love to use this as a talking point.. We’re not oppressed. I promise.
Lately, religious slander has been following us Muslims everywhere. It seems that Islamophobic organizations and news channels, like a certain one that rhymes with lox, get a kick out of calling Islam violent. Every time I flip through the TV channels, should I have to hear a reporter calling out Muslims for not denouncing ISIS? Hey, right-wing news reporter guy, I know that you twist the facts to fit your agenda, but Muslims actually denounce ISIS all the time. Sometimes I’m asked by my non-Muslims what I think about the ISIS fiasco. What I think ― actually, what I and all Muslims know ― is that ISIS is not even Muslim. They’ve terrorized tons of Muslims, which would seem paradoxical if they were “Muslim.” When Islam is deemed violent, I’m usually taken aback by how the violence and bloodshed in other religions get dismissed so easily. What about the Crusades? Or the violence in the Old Testament?
Ironic as it may seem, the Crusades help explain Islam. The Crusades illustrated for us that regardless of religion, humans are often inclined toward violence. This poses a question: If Christians — who are supposed to love and do good to their enemies — are capable of such violence, then why do we apply different standards to Muslims? After the Crusades, every Christian wasn’t deemed violent, yet the religion of Islam as a whole is being criticized for the actions of radical terrorists who only seek to slander the name of the religion.
In the midst of all the chaos, it’s essential that we remember one thing: If Islamophobes actually opened the Quran, even briefly, they wouldn’t be saying what they do. Come on, the word “Islam” itself means peace. If you opened the Quran, it would be clear that ISIS is not Muslim. They dishonor every practicing Muslim. If you find it hard to believe me, then believe President Obama, who reiterated what I said, but sounded much smarter while doing it. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” Obama said in 2015 after meeting with Muslim leaders. “Slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”
All things considered, It’s clear that since I graduated middle school years ago, the attitude towards Muslims has changed. I don’t blame people for it. It is what’s expected when the media relays to us wrong information about Islam, and when Donald Trump projects a complete ban on Muslims entering the US. Whether he’s serious or not, he is still contributing to the ideology of Islamophobia. When I was in the 7th grade and naive kids were mystified by my ethnicity and religion, I didn’t think much of their questions. In 2016, kids in my 12 year old sister’s school are wrapping shirts around their heads, as if to replicate a hijab, saying “Allahu Akbar” mockingly and spitting out terrorist jokes — this concerns me way more.
It’s important that Muslim kids don’t feel like aliens in their own schools and that good, moderate Muslims don’t feel berated by the media for the actions of radicals. Islamophobes promote intolerance via their ignorance, but we can’t let them. It’s as simple as standing up for your Muslim friend or correcting a person who makes an erroneous statement about religion. This doesn’t even have to be about Muslims; we all bleed red and humans should just look out for each other. Stand up to Islamophobes the same way you would stand up for a friend who’s a target of racism, a woman in your life who is subject to sexist comments, or a kid being bullied.
South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu phrases it more eloquently than me: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This quote is apt in so many situations of injustice ranging from microaggressions to sexism to bullying to racism to political injustice. A position of neutrality only deepens the problem.
Being a recognizable actor does not make you immune from being racially profiled. Riz Ahmed, the actor who portrays Nasir Khan in the Summer's hit HBO show The Night Of, wrote a powerful essay demonstrating what it's like to be Muslim in a post-9/11 world. Ahmed was born in Wembley, England, to parents who had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Pakistan.
The essay, called "Typecast As A Terrorist", was published by The Guardian and written for a collection of essays titled The Good Immigrant. It explores 33-year-old Ahmed's encounters with law enforcement, airport officials, and everyday people around the world. Ahmed describes several experiences where he was profiled because of how he looks, but a few standout.
After starring in a 2006 film called The Road to Guantanamo about detainees who were falsely imprisoned, Ahmed received international accolades. He started traveling more for work and was wrongfully detained and assaulted by British detectives coming back from a film festival because he looked like a suspect. Ahmed recounts, "Returning to the glamour of Luton Airport after our festival win, ironically named British intelligence officers frogmarched me to an unmarked room where they insulted, threatened, and then attacked me." The incident was later deemed illegal and the story attracted media attention.
As Ahmed's career took off, he had his sights set on Hollywood. He describes how he was no longer typecast as the radical Muslim in films, but he was still typecast in reality. "When that happens enough, you internalise the role written for you by others. Now, like an over-eager method actor, I was struggling to break character," he wrote.
In another encounter at an airport, this time with American immigration officers, Ahmed was once again profiled. After three hours of waiting and questioning, he was released but the experience served as a reminder: "you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at stage one."
The entire essay is worth reading because it illustrates that no matter how successful you are, your skin color will still affect how people perceive and treat you. Ahmed's frequent experiences of racial profiling and accusations of terrorism are the norm for many people. Unlike him, they don't have the recognition to prove that they are not, in fact, terrorists.
Image Source: Getty / Gabe Ginsberg