Opening Statement from Hadia Mubarak:
“So, where are you from?” sounds as familiar to my ears as the crashing of waves on Panama City Beach and the echoing of the adhan (call to prayer) from the minarets of Jordan’s mosques.
My mother’s heritage resonates in Jordan’s sky-piercing mountains and the Syrian wind carries my father’s roots. But I am neither Jordanian nor Syrian, for tradition rules that you belong to the soil that testifies to your birth and childhood.
This country has witnessed my birth, shaped my perceptions and informed my upbringing. She knows me as well as I know myself, for my memories evoke her history and my dreams live in her future. I capture her history by writing my own. She is the needle that holds my thread, interweaving my story in her all-encompassing quilt. I have fallen in love with her way of life, her personal freedom, her respect for individuality, her cultivation of diversity and tolerance. My appreciation for these ideals is reinforced by my religion, Islam. A belief in one God and in humanity’s ultimate accountability before the Creator, Islam has been central in shaping my identity as an American.
What does it mean to be an American Muslim? The concept of an American Muslim has not yet crystallized in the American public consciousness. In the post 9/11 climate, American Muslims were confronted with a sense of perpetual displacement in the American public psyche. Although we were born and raised in this country and knew no other place to call home, we American Muslims came to realize for the first time that we were not in fact perceived as American in the eyes of a large swath of the general public…
As our religious beliefs became a reason for our incrimination after 9/11, as our organizations and places of worship became the target of vandalism and hate crimes, and as we were perceived as potential threats to the security of our own nation, we felt that our very identity as Americans was subjected to scrutiny and challenge.
The struggle to legitimize our identity as American Muslims had existed for decades prior to 9/11. I recall an awkward experience applying for a job at my university as an undergraduate student. I handed the receptionist my Social Security card, a blue rectangle with nine ink-smudged digits, as a required form of identification. The receptionist tells me that she needs my passport as well. In a state of surprise, I question the necessity of a passport. She then calls over her superior, who had requested my passport in the first place. “Aren’t you an international student?” she asks. “No, I’m not,” I clarify. “I’m an American citizen. I was born in New Jersey.” Her mouth drops. She stammers, “Oh, you’re not?”
I do not have to wonder what it would feel like to be treated as a foreigner in my own county, to never really belong, to be a ragtag, hanging on the periphery of American culture. I live that reality on a regular basis. The cloth I wear on my head is mistakenly perceived as an attempt to hold on to a foreign cultural tradition and a reluctance to assimilate. Ironically, hijab, the covering of a woman’s hair and body, is still not fully accepted in my parents’ culture. A statement of my belief in God, the hijab I wear has nothing to do with culture.
A guest on Oprah’s Islam 101 talk show (Oct. 5, 2001) reinforced this pervasive misconception when she stood up and asked, “Why have you failed to assimilate?” addressing the Muslim women sitting in the audience, their hair covered with colorful scarves and their bodies concealed beneath long-sleeved shirts, dresses, skirts or pants. “Everyone in this country has assimilated,” she continued, “except for the Muslims.”
There is an inherent difference between religion and culture, the lines of which are often blurred. Muslim women wear hijab for God, not for a culture that dictates the way they live from miles abroad. Culture does not define God, for God is omnipresent. How does one assimilate a faith, an act of worship to God, which transcends all geographic boundaries? Faith is not derived from culture or the city in which one was born. Faith is a product of one’s life experiences, fears, hopes and inability to predict or control the future. Faith breaks down barriers; it does not create them.
As my hijab is misleadingly viewed as a failure to assimilate, I am reminded of the obstacles that lie ahead as I struggle to validate my roots as a Muslim Arab American and mold the missing piece of a puzzle that can bridge those worlds. The bubble in which I lived my childhood years suddenly burst when I reached adolescence, awakening to the encroaching reality of a biased world.
I began to realize that people didn’t even see me when they looked at me, but rather saw an image they had formulated in their minds from glimpses of Hollywood movies showing Arab fanatics hijacking a plane; or from a Dateline documentary about female honor killings; or some book they read about a Saudi Arabian princess escaping the oppression of a male dominated society. Before they’ve even learned my name, seen me kick a soccer ball or debate an argument, they have judged me and think they know who I am.
The inability of some Americans to distinguish between Islam and culture, such as the Middle East, or between Muslims and political regimes like the Taliban, or between a faith of 1.5 billion worshipers around the world and terrorists who act out of personal conviction is not a small-scale occurrence that can be disregarded. It is a large-scale phenomenon that plagues our society and must be severed at its root causes.
It surfaces itself each time someone like my friend Kathy Smith, a head-veiled American Muslim convert, is told to “go back home” when eating at Subway with her daughter, or when 41-year-old Charles Franklin drives his truck into the Tallahassee mosque to tell Muslims they’re not safe in this country, or when 39-year old Robert J. Goldstein, a podiatrist from Tampa, is found with an arsenal of explosives that could destroy an entire neighborhood and a blueprint plan to blow up all “rags” at the Universal Academy of Florida, where three of my younger cousins attended school every weekday.
The underlying problem, I believe, is with subconsciously defining Muslims as something other than American, because it forces Muslims to choose between their religion and nationality, which is antithetical to the American spirit of religious pluralism and tolerance.
The characterization of Muslim religiosity as somehow un-American is deeply racist and bigoted at its root, because it operates on the premise that American society is exclusively Judeo-Christian and thus, the outward manifestation of any other religion is un-American.
Why is it that when young Muslim girls decide to wear the hijab? asks a Washington Post editorial, then answers that they are choosing their “Islamic identity over their American one.” Yet when a young Baptist girl decides to attend Bible study classes and youth group, it is regarded as inherent part of American culture.
As long as Islam is equated with a foreign culture rather than understood as an indigenous American religion, then the outward manifestation of Islam in America – the building of mosques and Islamic schools, the growth of Muslim Student Association chapters on college campuses, the increase of women donning headscarves – will continue to be perceived as a departure from or rejection of “American culture.”
As long as Islam is perceived through the lens of international events that do not reflect nor speak to the reality of Muslims here at home, then Muslims will continue to struggle to legitimize their identity as practicing Muslims and patriotic Americans, demonstrating that the two are by no means mutually exclusive.
By David Waters |
April 16, 2007; 3:55 PM ET
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