Right now there seems to be a lot—a LOT—of shouting about Islam in the United States. I think all sides, including the one that I think is right, have mostly lost the ability to speak in non-extreme terms. One aspect of all of this that seems particularly confusing to the heartland—the middle class American voter—is that most commenters conflate “terrorist” and “Muslim person.” From the absurdly ill-informed GOP would-be presidential candidates, right on down to the lunatic fringe on Twitter, it’s fair to say that the dominant narrative in North America has been hijacked—no pun intended—to the point that, unless you’re very self-aware and very careful, it’s easy to end up feeling as if there are two, and only two options when it comes to national security: Kick out all the Muslims and don’t let any more in. Or resign ourselves to the knowledge that tomorrow, or maybe even this afternoon, we will be the direct victims of extremist Islam-sponsored terrorism at the neighborhood Starbucks.
And sad as it is to say, most of my countrymen are neither particularly self-aware, nor careful. How do I, your average suburban 9-5-er resolve what I see on the news with the perfectly lovely Bangladeshi grandmother whose granddaughter is in my son’s class at school?
I’m not interested in debating whether ISIS are “real” Muslims or not, nor in painstakingly reviewing stats which show just how wildly unlikely it is that an extremist might somehow slip through the filter and make it to the United States as a refugee. What I am interested in is discussing how to make it work with Muslim people. Mostly I see those “Seven Things You Need To Know About Refugees” posts as failing to respond to the central concerns that, say, my extended relatives in places like, say, Idaho or South Dakota have. Those concerns largely come down to two things. First, “Is the Somali guy who works at the 7-Eleven going to kill me in my sleep?” Second, “What do we—you know—say to these people?” For as gregarious as we can be internationally, we can be surprisingly introverted at the neighborhood level.
Despite over-the-top exhibits of racism making the news lately, I continue to believe that the majority of American “ordinary citizens” don’t have anything in particular against Muslim people. But they simply don’t know how they can relate to the guy across the street who dresses funny. We’ve all watched “Homeland,” and so we think we know… men don’t touch women, no joking about The Prophet, no bacon. Check. But then what?
I know this will seem novel, and perhaps controversial to some, but in the name of contributing to positive dialogue, I’ve actually gone and talked to Muslim people myself.
Many thanks to two of my aid industry friends, Mona and Adeel for indulging this conversation.
J: In a few sentences please tell me about yourself? Your background? What you do for a living? Where you live now? Who are you?
Mona: My parents came from Egypt and I was born and raised in the US – born in Chapel Hill, NC but grew up in Buffalo, NY, which is what I consider my hometown. I’ve lived in Boston, DC, and in a number of countries including Egypt, Iraq, France, Kenya and Thailand, where I’ve done international relief and development work. I moved back to the US three years ago, to work with the UN in New York City.
Though I am 100% Egyptian and Muslim, I can also “pass” easily due to my light skin. Most people don’t assume I’m Arab or Muslim when they first meet me. So I’m in an interesting position in which in many ways I benefit from white privilege, while at the same time being part of some of the most feared and demonized groups in this country.
Adeel: Yes, I am a Muslim in my thirties from Pakistan who is living in U.S. In fact, I am now living in Washington D.C. not far from White house, and iconic symbols of American freedom at National Mall.
I grew up in a family with strong spiritual values that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am grateful for my parents and grandparents, who gave me the courage to be honest, kind, and respectful in my dealings with others, regardless of who they are and their religious and cultural beliefs. I worked for several years with a variety of well-known INGOs. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do humanitarian and development work in places such as Haiti, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. I moved to U.S. when I received a Fulbright Scholarship to pursue my MBA degree. After my MBA, I joined a large international development organization and have responsibility for implementing various development projects in different countries including Pakistan. I am not sure if my next assignment will be in Africa or Asia. All I want to do is use, whatever limited knowledge and skills I have to help out disadvantaged communities around the world.
J: First off, I know a lot of people are wondering, and so I have to ask: Is that old lady around the corner—the one I see wearing a hijab in the supermarket—is she going to suicide-bomb Walmart?
Adeel: Almost certainly not! Now, that’s like expecting hens to lay baseballs instead of eggs. To be honest that’s how absurd it sounds to me. I actually feel if we get to know Muslims in our communities better, we might start feeling more secure. In fact, one of the best strategies against any possible extremist actions is to build better and stronger social structures. So no—don’t be afraid of the little old Muslim lady in Walmart!
Mona: Personally I am far less afraid of a woman in a hijab at Walmart than I am of one of those “open carry” nuts walking though the aisles wearing large weapons. (And let’s also not forget that the biggest terrorist threat here is from extreme right wing white American groups).
So, no. Of course she’s not going to suicide bomb Walmart. She’s just looking for a good discount. If there’s one thing our people love, it’s a bargain…
J: Okay, cool. I know that’s going to make a lot of people sleep easier tonight. Thanks for clearing that up.
Let’s start for real with might be an obvious question: What are a couple of things you wish the ordinary citizens of, say, Missouri or Indiana understood? What is the middle class, white Protestant family in Smalltown USA, supposed to do when a Muslim family moves in across the street. Like, take over brownies, or what? Do we nod and wave as we drive past? Do we invite them to a backyard BBQ? What are the basics?
Mona: The main thing to know is that we have more in common than we have differences. There was a famous Pew research study a few years ago and its findings confirmed what we know on an anecdotal level, and that is that American Muslims are very well assimilated. We also have average or above average income and education levels. We are invested in our communities just like anyone else is, and we want good lives for ourselves and our families.
The honest truth is, as much as I love Europe, I am grateful that my parents emigrated to the US and not to Europe. I know that many Muslims in France for example, say that they don’t feel French or are treated as “French” even if born and raised there. A lot of that has to do with issues too complex to raise here, but that include policies of marginalization and exclusion. However, here in the US, I can say definitively that I and every Muslim American I know consider ourselves American. The US is not perfect, but the fact that we are mostly a country of immigrants, that we have birthright citizenship, and that we value where you are going more than where you came from, all contribute to us feeling like part of this country, and embracing its values.
So yes, bring brownies! Invite us to barbecues (just make sure there are some non-pork options). Many Muslims comes from cultures where food and community are extremely important, so those are great ways to make that new family feel welcome.
Adeel: Exactly. You know, as I traveled around the world and had several opportunities to observe people of various religious beliefs and cultures, the most meaningful insight that struck me is that the spiritual and human values are strikingly similar across religions. If you are not honest, fair and respectful of others beliefs, you are a bad Christian, bad Muslim, bad Hindu and a bad Jew. We often fail to make this observation because we are unable to see through apparently very different cultural practices – the poor English, the funny dress, and so on. So I’d really encourage people not let the fact that maybe we look or talk differently be a reason to close us out.
Mona: But if I could add what I see as a key point – maybe the most important point – it’s that we are not a monolith. We come from places as diverse as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Iran and Bosnia. We come from right here in the US. The Western world/Muslim world binary that the media loves to talk about is not actually a binary, since there is a huge amount of overlap. And don’t forget about the large African-American Muslim community too. We have different cultures, languages, opinions, and worldviews. Some of us pray five times a day and some never pray. Some of us abstain from alcohol and some don’t. Some of us like American Idol and some like The Voice. Some are Brooklyn hipsters (mipsters?), some are nerdy engineers, some are marathon runners and some are community leaders. Some long for their home countries and others are thrilled to have gotten far away from those countries. The point is, we are as different from each other as any large group is. But one thing many of us have in common is anxiety over the current political climate in which we are suddenly viewed as people to be afraid of.
J: It was interesting, and perhaps a tiny bit heartwarming, to see #IllRideWithYou trending at one point last year in Australia. There’s something appealing about being the magnanimous, enlightened helper who harnesses the power of social media to help, or at least express goodwill. And we all know how Americans love being helpful. But maybe before it gets to the point that we’re resorting to Twitter to offer protection to strangers, what can ordinary, non-Muslim citizens—those middle class white people in Iowa—do for their Muslim neighbors and loose acquaintances? Do we go over and verbalize support when the Mosque in the next city gets vandalized? Do we start a #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag? What advice do you have for those well-intended but mostly uninformed neighbors who don’t exactly agree with what they’re hearing on FOX News, but don’t know what to say?
Mona: Any show of support is appreciated. From hashtags to showing up at protests, to simply being kind to your Muslim neighbors. There was a story recently about a little boy who heard about a mosque being vandalized, and decided to donate the $20 in his piggy bank to the mosque. In a week where doors are being closed to Syrian refugees and candidates are talking about a Muslim database, this story was a ray of light – a reminder of simple humanity. Any show of support, no matter how trivial, can make a difference. And what can really help is standing up for us when it comes to others who hold anti-Muslim views. Call them out. We need to work together to create a culture where people should feel ashamed to express those views.
Adeel: I would really like to say, Please, please! Stay away from the stereotypes. There are good and bad people in every country, every religion and every culture. Let’s not view all Muslims with the same lens, if some people regardless of their level of awareness about the religion, go and do destructive things; let’s not generalize this to their country or religion. Much like, we don’t blame Christianity just because some priests are abusive towards children.
Those who adopt violence to prove a point, step outside the bounds of any religion in my opinion. Let’s not call them extremist Muslims. To me, they are not even Muslims.
J: So, about the hijab. Or maybe it’s a niqab, or burqa. To some Americans, Muslim female head wear worn in America feels like a sign of disrespect. I’m not saying it’s logical, and of course you and I understand that communicating disrespect is not the intention of Muslim women who cover their heads. Further, I’m assuming that most people generally try to be respectful when they visit or move to a foreign country, or encounter another culture. So with that in mind, what might be some signs of respect or good faith coming from our Muslim neighbors that, you know, the soccer mom in Oklahoma City, or the waiter in Tallahassee wouldn’t necessarily recognize? Is it possible that the taxi driver or the bank teller are just trying to be nice and we simply don’t see it?
Mona: Ok, so first of all, since I see confusion around this all the time…the hijab covers the hair only, the niqab covers the face, and the burqa is a specific garment worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan that has a mesh opening for the eyes. The way Muslim women dress varies according to culture, geography, politics and personal beliefs. In the US, most Muslim women either wear hijab or don’t cover at all, like me. There are a lot of us who feel like there is far too much focus on how we dress (both here and in Muslim-majority countries) and wish there could be more attention on issues that are far more pressing for women in our communities. That said, and maybe it’s a product of living in a big city or having mostly liberal friends, but I’ve never actually heard the idea that some view wearing a hijab as disrespectful!
In terms of signs of respect or good faith – I think those things shouldn’t be too hard to see. My question, to throw it back, is why would you not assume good faith? Where is your starting point, when it comes to interacting with Muslims in your community? If we can all come from the default position that Muslim neighbors are, like any other neighbors, generally coming from a place of respect for others, then signs shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize. If people are coming from a place of fear, then it’s time to turn off Fox and start building actual bridges and reaching out to people who are a bit different from you. Personal connections are always the easiest way to mitigate against stereotypes. Maybe one of those supermarket checkout line magazines can start a “Muslims – they’re just like us!” feature?
J: In the current cultural and political climate of the United States, it very often feels (or perhaps the media, including social media leads us to feel) as if, when it comes to Islam, there are two options: a) Totally embrace Islam and all aspects of it, perhaps even to the point of personal conversion (or at least agree to never say anything bad about it); b) Totally hate it and want all Muslim people to leave immediately. Obviously this is not reasonable, but let me ask you: As a Muslim person yourself can you help me make sense of this? Can I have a reasonable perspective on Islam, one that is neither racist or ethnocentric or Islamophobic, but that also doesn’t require me to fully agree with everything in it?
Adeel: You will find difference of opinion on this. To me, if you uphold the moral and ethical standards in your everyday life, that is the important thing. As a Muslim, I have no issue with someone who lives this way. I’m friends with many people from many different faiths and walks of life, as are most Muslims that I know. We understand and accept that people have different walks.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding of the teachings of Islam, even among Muslims, which leads to the opinions you shared in your question. My perspective is that Islam itself teaches people to listen to reason (rational and logical conclusions) and not believe in anything blindly. So to answer your question, it is not very different from any mainstream religion.
I’d add, further, that most of us are okay talking about this stuff! If you don’t know something, just ask your Muslim friend politely. I just hope, we all start following the spirit of our religion and not just the out of context quotations from scriptures.
J: What would you say are the top two or three misconceptions about you as a Muslim person that you face in the USA? And how do your respond to those misconceptions? Are you able to turn misconceptions around and gain friends?
Adeel: Perhaps I’m especially fortunate, but to be honest I can’t say that I’ve faced any real issues. I feel that’s mainly because I have lived and travelled only in larger cities where people are generally much more open minded and aware of international cultures and traditions. Also, I had worked with various people from different countries before moving to U.S. hence, it wasn’t such a cultural shock for me or others around me.
J: Last question, and I don’t mean to be provocative, but it relates to a very common stereotype. What does conflict resolution look like between the middle class white guy in Boise, and the Muslim family down the street? The stereotype is that when it comes to disputes it’s total agreement, or car-bomb. As illogical as it is, I think there is actually a great deal of fear—real fear—that our neighbors, you know, just might try to blow us up if we piss them off. Is there a way, without lengthy expose of why the Afghan guy living across the street is almost certainly not a terrorist, of breaking this stereotype down for us? Can we argue with you guys?
Mona: Sure, you can argue. It’s not uncommon that we would have different political views. But don’t assume that all Muslims have the same political views either. So when you have those disagreements, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Afghan guy across the street represents all 6 million American Muslims, much less 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. If you like discussing politics with your friends, don’t let the fact that your friend is Muslim stop you.
However, if you are an acquaintance only, think about how you are approaching that person. Asking a woman in the checkout line who is wearing a hijab “so, do you support al-Qaeda?” is not going to get anyone anywhere – in fact, it’s an incredibly offensive assumption. Provocative questions that alienate people won’t help. But questions that try to get more information, and result in actual listening, can go far to either learn, find common ground, or agree to disagree. One friend on Facebook recently admitted that she is scared about the Paris attacks and how refugees are vetted in the US. But she asked in such a way that I was happy to describe the resettlement process to her, and now I see her doing the same with others.
So sure, we might have some different political views. Many American Muslims are against drone strikes in Pakistan for example, or support Palestinian rights. But if you’re worried about support for terrorism? Well, a small sample may not be comforting, but I know hundreds, maybe thousands, of American Muslims and each and every one of us condemns terrorism committed in the name of our religion. We may be annoyed at having to make a show of constantly publicly condemning it (since that is assuming collective responsibility), but it’s true. And the best way to fight any kind of Islamic extremist terrorist threat in this country is to engage our communities, rather than alienate us.
Thanks, once again, Mona and Adeel.