As anti-Muslim violence persists during a volatile presidential election cycle, at least one Muslim woman recently won our nation’s hearts and minds: Duke grad and Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
By now, everyone knows Ibtihaj as the first American to compete in a headscarf at the Olympics. But, not everyone may realize how incredibly representative this newest spokesperson is for the Muslim American community.
“Muslim” and “Arab” are often used interchangeably, with many mistaking Saudi Arabia as the largest Muslim country; it’s actually Indonesia (the Kingdom doesn’t even make the top ten list). At home, at least one in three Muslims in America are actually African American. And, Muslim American women are the second most educated religious group in the country, exemplified by Ibtihaj’s Ivy League credentials.
In a recent ad campaign titled, “Defy Labels,” BMW Mini featured short interviews with a number of Olympians including Ibtihaj. In the two-minute clip, she shared insights specific to her multiple identities as a Muslim, African American and woman who was told what she can’t do but still went right ahead and did it. Her message resonates with so many who have felt like the underdog.
But, this piece isn’t about the Olympics or the history-making fencer.
In fact, Ibtihaj’s historic success is a reminder of the accomplishments of so many other Muslim black women breaking new paths in politics, law and society, contributing to our diverse nation.
Here’s a look at just a few:
When President Obama made his first historic visit to an American mosque earlier this year, Sabah Muktar, a black female college student majoring in biology, delivered opening remarks.
Selected by her community to introduce the president, Muktar later reflected,
“Having the President of the United States come to our local mosque is the ultimate assurance that regardless of a person’s faith or color, if you’re an American, you are an American.”
And, when former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders held a national town hall meeting at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA last year, it was a question posed by Remaz Abdelgader – one of 1700 people in that auditorium – that prompted the Senator to vow to end Islamophobia. Abdelgader, an aspiring human rights lawyer studying conflict analysis, moved to the US with her family from Sudan more than 15 years ago.
Then there’s Ilhan Omar. The Somali-American is poised to become Minnesota’s first Muslim American female lawmaker.
Fleeing war-torn Somalia, Omar lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years before eventually making a home here were she lives with her husband and three children.
Undeterred by the obstacles presented by her intersecting identities – Muslim, immigrant, black, woman – she pursued her passion for politics with reckless abandon. And, she made history last month when she won in the state’s primary.
Still, Muslim black women aren’t just pushing back against Islamophobia, sexism and racism, all the while leaving an indelible impression, in politics alone. Their positive impact can be felt in other areas, like the law, too.
Sheila Abdus-Salaam became the country’s first Muslim woman judge in 1992. Equipped with a degree from Columbia Law School, she currently sits on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
Dr. Intisar Rabb
More recently, Dr. Intisar Rabb made news when she was appointed as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School even though she previously held a non-tenured position at another university. Rabb helps lead Harvard’s Islamic Legal Studies Program while also teaching. Notably, she holds degrees from Georgetown, Yale Law School and Princeton.
Beyond law and politics, there are also Muslim black women fighting for social change within our communities.
Consider Tesay Yusuf, a black Muslim student who practices hijab. When a college football ad recently featured the Stanford junior, she was targeted by online hate almost immediately. Tesay encountered attacks on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
But, rather than cower the international relations major tweeted in unapologetic defiance,
“When @Stanford Athletics posts ONE diverse ad of me and my friends at a football game, all hell breaks loose.”
Her post went viral, attracting widespread support not to mention national news coverage.
In an age where social media dominates, every stroke of the keyboard, every single character can create awareness and inspire social change.
So, why does this matter?
We need to humanize Musims – black, white, Asian, Arab, Latino and everyone in between. Pew research shows that Americans who know a Muslim are more likely to have a favorable opinion about the community. Since the group makes up just 1% to 2% of the entire population, however, we have little opportunity to interact with them as our dentist, cabbie, teacher or lawyer.
In fact, most of us derive information about the community from mass media. The Muslims we “know” are typically the ones we meet on our screens.
That’s the good news: as Ibtihaj Muhammad is beamed into our homes, we may actually begin to feel as if we “know” a Muslim.
The bad news? A lot of news media coverage tends to dehumanize Muslims as violent criminals or terrorists. When is the last time you wanted to “know” a terrorist or left a screen encounter liking one?
This lop-sided coverage has dramatic results particularly when joined by anti-Muslim political rhetoric; a multi-million dollar industry of pseudo-experts on Islam and Muslims who peddle fear and hate; stereotypical depictions in films and TV shows; and foreign military interventions abroad that render Muslims a psychological enemy that we fear and hate.
In fact, our research at Georgetown University shows that anti-Muslim violence is at its highest levels now than any other time since 9/11.
Still, it’s not just the hate-inspired violence that’s alarming.
According to our federal government, in 2015, Muslim Americans filed 40% of all religious employment discrimination claims. Remember: the group only makes up 1% to 2% of the entire population. And, many never pursue a case at all.
Research also shows increased anti-Muslim sentiment in at least 1 of 3 classrooms across the country. Tragically, some young Muslim students are contemplating suicide due to bias-based bullying.
How do these findings relate to the extraordinary women above?
Americans who are Muslim deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect as other Americans. We all deserve to be safe and secure. To that end, we need a concerted effort to “know” Muslims, not just a stereotyped caricature.
And, strong Muslim black women – some of whose ancestors may have first arrived here as slaves or indentured servants from Africa even prior to our country’s founding – are as good a place to start as any. Together, we can defy those labels Ibtihaj spoke about.