“I got mad respect for you now, you got to be disciplined to do that shit five times a day” exclaimed a classmate who found me with my forehead on the ground in between a stack of dusty library shelves praying. The secret was out; there was no denying it now- I was a Muslim! But until that moment of discovery, no one would have guessed, I was just another student.
I am tired of being a representative of an entire religion and the 1 billion people who adhere, relate or find themselves associated with it.
Ten years after September 11, continuously pushed into defining and defending my American identity- initially unwillingly while in college, soon there after professionally as a community advocate working for the “American Muslim” community’s largest civil rights organization- I find being a token Muslim is an unavoidable challenge in contemporary Muslim life. In my new law student life I didn’t want my religion to define me- Islam, or being an observant Muslim. I wanted an unqualified or non-hyphenated life.
The challenge in being a Muslim in America today is the dramatic rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the US. Dramatic because when only 37% of Americans say they have a favorable view of Islam, as reported by the 2010 Washington Post-ABC poll, it’s hard to feel like you aren’t living life on the defensive. A 2010 Time Poll says that 62% of Americans claim to have never met a Muslim, yet according to the Post-ABC poll the vast majority of Americans have a negative view on Islam, by extension Muslims. Feeding into these perceptions is an industry that has honed its skill in propagating misinformation and fear mongering of the Muslim community, buttered by $43 million from seven charitable groups.
If we accept that Muslims are to be feared or at the least have extra scrutiny applied, we still run into a an obstacle- who is a Muslim? The fundamental question of what a Muslim looks like or behaves like is not easily answered. The American Muslim community is the most diverse religious groups in America, in fact the larger part of the community is made of “indigenous Americans”- Caucasians, Blacks, second and third generation Muslims and a growing Hispanic convert community. A large percentage of the immigrant Muslim community and their children are actually South Asian. The very notion of what it means to be an “American Muslim” is a raging battle within the diverse Muslim community in America.
Inevitably, Muslims are a minority with all the historical race issues associated with minority status. Today it’s not just about “driving while black” but “flying while Muslim”; not just asking about “where you from?” but “how do you feel about the Iraq war?” or “how often do you pray?” The $43 million dollar anti-Muslim, or Islamophobia, industry feeds into the mainstream those stereotypes and vilification of Islam and Muslim rooted in 17th century crusader lore. The fact of the matter is as a minority community that’s constantly in the news and in discussions, being Muslim makes you inherently a representative of a billion people from around the world who practice Islam. That reality is unavoidable.
Being perceived within a stereotypical frame is not a unique American experience; in fact for me it takes on the form of “tokenism.” America is such a diverse country, on the one hand the argument goes, see we have our “Muslims” but on the other hand, there is this constant stream of “can we trust them?” vibes. I am reminded of Mr. Miyaga from Karate Kid, who represented all the stereotypes of an Asian man- subdued, quite, passive, if not even submissive, but explosive in the dangerous arts of kick-your-ass-dom. The undeniable underlying message is the myth that Asian men can’t be trusted, because they never seem to be what they appear to be.
Todays hate sludge fund pushes organizations like ACT! for America and Stop the Islamization of America or SOIA (both organizations have been named hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center) to fuel similar perceptions of Islam and Muslims, not just Muslim men. The question their supporters pose first is “where are the moderate Muslims?” But in their view there is no moderate Muslim, because Islam teaches its followers to lie and be conniving in order to perform “stealth jihad” to take over America from within. Stealth what, don’t ask me I only learned about it from the ACT! experts?!
That’s the pervasive reality of the Islamophobia industry. This same industry has tried to destroy the fundamental freedoms we hold dear in this country- particularly freedom of religion. Everyone was focused on Park 51 Islamic Center, but few knew that some 47 American Muslim communities from places like Alpharetta, Georgia to Temecula, California also faced a concerted, organized and stiff opposition to their freedom to worship (no doubt funded by the $43 million dollar sludge fund for hate).
SANE even published a “Manifesto on How to Stop a Mosque in your Community” to organize opposition against local Muslim communities from building houses of worship. The common charge of locals was this notion that “we can’t trust what’s being taught” or “they could be a secret training camp for Al-Qaeda.” There is no way to appease hatred, bigotry or ignorance then to marginalize it to the fringes of our society.
Ten years after 9/11 I mourn with my fellow Americans, but I offer no apologies because I have nothing to apologize for. I, like all Americans, was brutally attacked. I refuse to let that day dictate what it means to be an American, or the values we as Americans cherish. Further, that day or subsequent (or prior) atrocities in the name of Islam do not represent Islam. Ideology might spawn from within Islamic theology, but ideology spawns from all sorts of secular and sacred sources, Islam is no more or less prone to the usurpation of its tenants by those who claim to adhere it, than Americans (Christians?) are today for slavery.
Ten years after September 11 does not make the reality of our situation any easier to cope with. We face challenges to our security in more forms then we did after 9/11- our economy, Internet rights, individual freedoms to name a few. Part of the reality for me, happens to be the unavoidable circumstance of a maligned representative of Muslims in America. Getting caught praying by a fellow classmate might lead to awkward conversations, but that’s one less American who hasn’t met a Muslim. That is one more American who can reject the politics of fear, bigotry and ignorance gripping our country and eroding its very essence today. That is a means of stepping up to the challenge and taking it head on.