What's It Like Being Muslim in America?

11/16/2015 09:30 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2016
Portrait of young woman wearing hijab head scarf
Portrait of young woman wearing hijab head scarf

I'm an attorney, a community organizer and a female Pakistani-American Muslim immigrant. Being Muslim in America means being identified by only one aspect of my identity. It means being told exactly what it means to be Muslim in America and having very little control over the narrative.

The first American Muslims were African-American slaves brought here against their will and the first Muslim community centers were built in the early to mid-1900s. Being Muslim in America means being treated as outsiders despite our communities having played a part in shaping this nation early on.

My faith teaches me empathy for all and imposes a personal obligation to fight injustice and inequality in all its forms. Being Muslim in America means that I am obligated to fight against racial injustice (including the model minority myth), advocate to close the wage gap and raise the minimum wage, and do better by those who cannot afford basic necessities or mental health services.

I arrived as an immigrant and achieved much more of the American Dream than I had imagined I would be able to. Being Muslim in America is being made to feel like I somehow snuck under the radar to pull it off -- that the Dream wasn't meant for people like me.

I'm teaching my nieces and nephews that this is the land of opportunity and they have to work hard to achieve their potential. Being Muslim in America means many others are telling these kids that there is a ceiling to their dreams and the Republican presidential candidates are telling them that they will never walk the hallways of power and their potential is thus limited.

I'm Shia Muslim, part of a sect that accounts for about 15-20 percent of the Muslim population overall and is a favorite target of ISIS as most recently proven by their recent attacks in Beirut. Being Muslim in America means being equated to those who would kill me, as they did many thousands of other Muslims over the past two years, all nuance lost.

American Muslims encompass a number of sects, races and viewpoints on domestic and international policies, presidential candidates, and everything else. Being Muslim in America means that none of that matters, we are perceived as a big uniform group of millions, a vague but ominous threat to the American way of life.

I'm told I have to state the obvious over and over again: denounce terrorism and terrorists and condemn all violence and injustice. Being Muslim means I am constantly made to feel like my community's claims are simply not credible, but I should keep trying to convince people of things I should never have to prove about myself in the first place.

I feel sick to my stomach looking at images of lives lost in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, and France this week, all in the name of my faith. Being Muslim in America means our grief is read as insincere, Muslim victims among the losses are ignored, and we are held accountable for events we had nothing to do with while officials refuse to acknowledge that our government policies and partnerships with regimes like Saudi Arabia perpetuate the threat we're all facing.

In American Muslim households across the country, kids are asking why the world hates Muslims, what kind of Muslims kill in the name of Islam, and how to handle the negative public perceptions about Muslims. Being Muslim in America means no one is informing non-Muslim Americans about the actual basis of the ideology that underlies ISIS -- Saudi-exported hate-mongering, supremacist Wahhabism -- or explaining that as long as we, as a nation, are more in love with oil than troubled by the true cost of that oil and what kind of ideology may be imported alongside that oil, we will all be at risk for more attacks, the reputation of the majority of Muslims around the world who don't buy into ISIS' distorted views of Islam will continue to be maligned and our kids will pay the price for all of our ignorance, having to stand up to misdirected bias and hate over and over again.

I'm scared of terrorist attacks. I'm scared I will be attacked for wearing hijab. I'm scared my mosque might be attacked. I'm scared law enforcement will look upon my loved ones with increased scrutiny on the streets, at airports, and in police stations. I'm scared of how routine the concept of surveillance has become in my community, and I'm scared that we're getting it from all sides and there's no end in sight. Being Muslim in America means the mantra of "national security" and an exclusive form of nationalism justifies anything my community has to endure.

As a Shia Muslim, I can practice my faith here openly as opposed to many predominantly-Muslim countries that criminalize and demonize my sect. Being Muslim in America means that despite all the hardships of being Muslim in America, I'm proud to be an American Muslim and appreciate the advantages and opportunities that come with calling this nation my home, including the freedom to write pieces like this and participate in debates and protests to protect my community and stand in solidarity with other American communities trying to ensure that we keep shaping America to reflect the potential and power of diversity rather than the institutionalization of stereotypes, generalizations, and outdated notions.

This is home and houses my past, my present, and my future. Being Muslim in America is making sure that I share my narrative, my fears, and my hopes with generations of Americans who either don't yet recognize in our stories the struggles they themselves have lived through, or do and are already pushing back on the tide of hate. We cannot go it alone and, thankfully, we don't have to.

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