Real Talk: 7 Muslim Americans Open Up About Islamophobia

Hear their stories

01.30.17

This story was originally published on April 5th, 2016.

I was walking down Carmine Street two summers ago with an iced coffee in my left hand, and my arm, decorated by a small Israeli flag bracelet, was bent towards my mouth. This was in the thick of an especially bloody conflict between Israel and Gaza and an oncoming looker, upon noticing the bracelet, shouted at me, “Racist murderer!”

It was one of few times I’ve been the butt of anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist sentiment in New York. I felt violated and misunderstood.

In some ways, it proved the power of fashion — how what you put on your person will ultimately command what the world chooses to see of you — but mostly, I was frustrated. Perhaps by this very power: here was a man who’d written a story about who I was in the 5-second flash we intersected, and I remained silent.

Following the November attacks in Paris, December attacks in California, January attacks in Turkey, March attacks in Belgium and Pakistan, the violent persecution that is committed daily across the world under the radar of the media machine — and now, nearly a year following the original publication date of this story, on the Monday morning after President Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” has been put into effect, I’m thinking. About that summer day and how I felt and how those on the receiving end of an anti-Islamic bias in America are managing the grim effects of unfounded judgement in an especially tumultuous and unique political climate.

Which is where the following stories, from seven Americans sharing their experiences with Islamophobia (and more broadly, being Muslim in America) come in. Today we must demonstrate our kindness, recognize prejudice and with a common interest in mind — our safety and our freedom — honor the very simple virtue that, above all else, it is our humanity that keeps us alive.

1

Sidrah Syed, Law student working with 9/11 victims to help them retrieve compensation for their injuries or illnesses developed as a result of their responding to the 9/11 attacks

“I’m from New Jersey by way of Pakistan.

I know for a lot of Muslim Americans, there’s a sort of dread attached to every attack. You hear the names of the attackers and think, ‘Oh my goodness, not again.’ It’s important to explain how we’re different from the attackers and those who belong to Isis or who commit attacks in the name of Islam.

These attacks disrupt everything that you stand for and have been working toward in your life. And there’s so much tension. And with that tension comes fear. You want to say, ‘Nothing’s going to happen, we’re all united.’ But the reality is, the attacks divide us and create animosity. But I think it’s important to communicate. For me, combatting Islamophobia is really addressing the fears that people who aren’t Muslim have — people who don’t understand the Islamic faith, who haven’t personally come in contact with it.We have to be open to people and respond to their questions and be understanding. There is Islamophobia because there is fear; fear stems from the unknown. People don’t understand the depth or range of the people who belong to the religion. You know, there are Muslim Americans who have adopted Western values, there are Muslims who are more religious, who are obviously not terrorists and they’re not radical, they’re just living their own lives.

Of course there are people who will not even have questions and who will just treat you a certain way because you’re Muslim and that’s where it’s difficult. Being a kind person helps a lot, too. I’m not sure, I don’t know what I’d do if I were walking and someone just called me out. But I think just being kind, not responding the way they’d expect you to, that’s important.”

2

Sana Rashid, pharmacist at a New York-based drugstore

“I was born in Pakistan. I was a few months old when I came to America and we lived in New Jersey, in Brooklyn, in the city, in Queens.

I’ve worn a hijab since I was fourteen years old.

After the Paris attacks, right before Thanksgiving, I was at work. It was a Friday evening, and someone wanted his medicine. It was too early to give it to him. He knew he was not supposed to be getting his medicine early and you know, I’m going to tell you how it is. Maybe you think I’m giving you attitude but I’m not, I’m telling you matter of fact that these are the rules, I follow the rules and you just picked up your medicine three days ago. We’re not dispensing it early. So he went off. He just called me every single terrible name. He called me a terrorist, he called me Arab — I don’t know what Arab has to do with anything, but he thinks that’s derogatory. He was like, ‘You’re a terrorist, you’re denying me of my medicine.’ He started cursing at me. He’s like, ‘Fuck you!’ And he called me a cunt. After he started cursing at me, I cursed right back. I’m not going to start cursing at you unless you curse at me. He was taken aback because he probably thinks women like me don’t talk back but no, you don’t know me. But that just led him on, so he said, ‘Get out of my country, you’re not American.’ And I said, ‘Yes I am. And I probably speak better English than you do.’ He wouldn’t stop. That’s when I realized I needed to stop because this wasn’t going anywhere. I just stepped back because you know, it was a counter, and I moved to the side and someone kicked him out.

To such a magnitude, this has never happened before. After it happened I was like, the only reason why he targeted me is because from the outside, I’m Muslim because I cover my head. And I’ve been wearing a hijab since I was fourteen and this has never happened before. When I started a job I followed my religion. I didn’t realize I was subjecting myself to such hatred just because you don’t like what you think my religion teaches.

Hate is not going to do anything. You need to love, and you need to be open minded, and you need to learn about someone, because you’ll learn that I’m nothing that you think you’re scared of.”

3

Alireza Niroomand, General Manager at Sant Ambroeus SoHo

“I left Iran for France in 1982 when I was five, just after the Islamic Revolution. My parents grew up being free, but all of a sudden they had to wear the veil, they had to hide, so we moved to Paris. I was too young then to practice any religion — my parents weren’t practicing, but they had faith. My mother would go to church to pray. She didn’t care about where she prayed, but she believed in God. I was ashamed of being Iranian and Muslim because all my youth, I had to justify that I was not a terrorist. France is a racist country — all my ex-girlfriends would have doubts about me. I remember my first girlfriend’s parents didn’t accept me because they thought my parents were terrorists. We dated for four years.

I came to New York for work. I’m so grateful to be living here. New York in particular is more accepting than anywhere in the world.”

4

Aniqa Gorgani, Physician in the Hospital Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center

“I’m pretty much one of the most New-York-New Yorkers there are. I grew up in Long Island in a primarily Jewish neighborhood not thinking I was any different from anyone. No one ever treated me differently.

We had these neighbors come up to our house a few days following the attacks [of 9/11]. They rang our doorbell and my parents were kind of nervous to open. We opened the door and they said, ‘Hey, you guys have been here for ten years, as long as most of us. If anyone bothers you, just know, the neighborhood has your back.’ And I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. The world feels like it is kind of going backwards. Kids are being terrorized and killed for their religion. We’re being verbally and physically attacked — my friend who is 9 months pregnant was verbally abused on the subway following the Paris attacks. But I still have faith in the people who are the foundation of this country. And I’m not going to give up on that, I’m not going to let my humanity be taken away from me. I’m saddened by the hate, but I think it will be triumphed by good.”

5

Ida Assayesh, former white house intern in broadcast media, marketing analyst at American Express

“I’m from Colorado, but my parents are from Iran. We grew up kind of practicing and as I grew up I sort of disassociated myself.

The majority of what I’ve experienced with racism was when I lived in Colorado. Coming to New York [for college] was a big shock to me in that I didn’t experience it. My first memories of were from first grade when I was still in public school. I would regularly hear from other kids, ‘My mom said you’re not going to heaven because you guys don’t believe in Jesus.’

To be totally honest, in New York I feel so much less racism or Islamophobia than I have in other places I have been.

In Middle School, I would be called Osama bin Laden’s sister, or Osama bin Laden’s mom. I remember people would come back from Easter talking about gifts and I would literally just lie and make up gifts that I got because it was easier than explaining to people that I wasn’t Christian. I don’t really adhere to tradition anymore, though. I grew to become an atheist upon education. If I didn’t have such a well-versed background in Islam, I would assume some of the same things non-Muslims do, but there are many things said about the religion that aren’t true so I feel a responsibility to not necessarily defend it, but to clarify misconceptions.

I think that realistically if something’s going to change, it needs to come from the media. The media does what it needs to do to sell and they know that fear sells. And this is such an overarching statement but to make change, we can’t look for reasons to be afraid. If people were more willing to see the good – yes, there are bad Muslims but there are also good Muslims – and to focus on that, that would make our society stronger.”

6

Zeeshan Talib, Finance Executive from Pakistan, who immigrated in 2001

“The saddest thing for me is, if you think about the negative rhetoric and hate speech that radical organizations use on that side of the world, it’s exactly whats happening in America. We’re doing the same stuff we hate — we’re positioning a group of people and making them feel hated and scared. It’s disappointing.

Recently, I visited a local Mosque to talk about the community and one of the things that came up is how important it is for us to reach out to our communities and humanize ourselves. To show we’re regular people who just want what all the other Americans want. We fear the same things. Let’s have the conversation and humanize the situation and not just paint everyone with the same broad brush and hate everyone because they’re of a different faith.

You know, harming innocent people is one of the biggest atrocities you can commit as a human being, Muslim or not. My wife and I are expecting a child and I want to make sure I’m bringing life into a safe world that I am proud to live in.”

7

Bassema Yousef, Consultant, former employee of Al Jazeera

American-Muslims are called out time and time again and are held accountable, no matter the extent of the infraction or motivations, for every single act of hate perpetuated by an individual or individuals in the world who act in the name of ‘Islam.’ This burden or expectation implies Muslims all feel and act the same way, and there lies the fallacy. There are over a billion Muslims on earth who interpret and practice Islam, as a way of life, very differently. Isn’t it audacious to assume that I, Bassema, who lives in New York City, would agree with or condone the behavior, good or bad, of another person or group in some village in some remote part of the world? Can I really relate to the Saudi Arabian royal family (I just want their budgets for clothes and to dish out to charities)? I relate to being American first and Muslim second. I am happy to speak about my own Islamic beliefs or lack thereof. However, I cannot be asked to speak on behalf of a group like Isis, because, shit, they are just as foreign and crazy to me as they are to the average American and murder more Muslims than anything else. Nevertheless, when compelled, and we feel compelled a lot lately, I speak out as part of a collective of American-Muslims because the gross misconceptions of who and what we are has reached unfathomable proportions and affects me in every single aspect of my life.

When I do speak, because of the way I look, which is not what you see on television or in fact, it’s what you do see on television (because I’m a normal woman in America), I am provided no room at the table because I do not fit the ‘scary other’ stereotype or I am shut out as a sympathizer or someone who makes excuses for Islam.

What exactly does a Muslim look like? Could a person peg me as someone who is spiritually Muslim off the streets? Can my Barry’s Bootcamp-obsessed, skinny jeans and Manolo-wearing, latte drinking ass get pegged as a “Muslim?” Do people even want to admit that I am Muslim?

A lot of the conversation on anti-Muslim bias and radical Islam is dominated by men and lacks a female perspective. It also lacks a diversity of Muslim women’s voices. I am a part of a Muslim Women’s Story Lab, which is a collaboration started by Ms. Aisha Al-Adawiya, who among other things coordinates Islamic input for the Preservation of the Black Religious Heritage Project at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, that aims to engage women as creators and keepers of their own stories and narratives and to help find public space to project those narratives. The women are diverse not only because of their different spiritual beliefs but are diverse in sexual orientation, race, socio-economic and professional backgrounds.

Asking the question of the importance of or ways to combat anti-Muslim bias as a non-Muslim reminds me of Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor who spoke out on behalf of the Jews against Adolf Hitler who was also imprisoned in the concentration camps:

‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.’

Who is to say in the future someone like you will not come under attack? Who is going to stand for what is our Constitutional right?”

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.

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