Columnist Shaheen Pasha: The exhaustion of being Muslim in America

  • Columnist Shaheen Pasha

Published: 3/14/2019 1:32:56 PM

Sept. 11, 2001 is a day that haunts my dreams. Sitting at my desk by the window facing the majestic twin towers, I watched from across the harbor as first one plane and then another crashed deliberately into the buildings I looked at a thousand times a day.

I remember the frantic fear as I rushed to file headlines of what I was witnessing while simultaneously calling my husband over and over again, knowing that he was supposed to be in those buildings around the time of the attacks. And then I remember the sound — a dull rumbling which extended like a sonic boom across the water as the first tower collapsed before my eyes.

It’s a memory I’m unlikely to ever forget as an American.

But that is exactly what a racist sign on display last month outside the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber claimed we, as a country, are doing with the election of the Muslim Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. In an image that is now seared in my mind, the poster depicted the World Trade Center on fire with the caption “NEVER FORGET’ — YOU SAID.” Right below that image was a picture of Omar in hijab with the caption “I AM PROOF — YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN” emblazoned underneath.

It was a message that hit me in the gut as a Muslim-American woman who not only witnessed the attacks firsthand, but also lost friends on that terrible day. To be clear, the sign wasn’t just an attack on Omar, who was embroiled in controversy over her comments regarding Israel and AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

It was a jab at the entire Muslim community. A reminder that no matter how American we see ourselves, in the end we are still considered an “other” to be feared and blamed in American society.

As much as we celebrate Muslims in politics, media, sports or any other high profile industry in the spirit of inclusion, there are always insidious undercurrents just below the surface. There are always large swathes of Americans who view Islam as foreign and incompatible with American way of life.

To be Muslim in America is to be constantly expected to apologize for the actions of people and ideologies that the vast majority of us do not abide by. It gets exhausting.

I wish I could say that my experiences with Islamophobia started in the wake of 9/11. But my first time was in junior high school during the first Persian Gulf war. The assistant principal grabbed me by my hand and pulled me out of the lunchroom while threatening me with suspension. My crime? Writing a note to a friend saying that I thought the war was wrong. He called me un-American as I sat there in his office, petrified and confused. Un-American. I’ve never forgotten that word.

That word was coupled with the word terrorist a few years later when a car full of explosives rammed into the World Trade Center. I remember the smug face of the boy I sat next to in chemistry class as he asked me if we were all trained to be terrorists from an early age. The question came just hours after the boy I secretly crushed on for a year bumped into me in the hall and backed away saying he was afraid that I would throw a bomb at him. All in all, it was a bad day.

But the vast majority of my othering, over the years, came at the hands of well-meaning people who tried to fit me in some kind of a Muslim box. I don’t wear hijab and dress in short or fitted clothes so I must be liberated and more of a cultural Muslim than a practicing one. But, then again, I also abstain from alcohol and I pray multiple times a day so that must make me a conservative Muslim.

I could always see the confusion flitter across their faces as they tried to make sense of this dual reality before, in many cases, they just pegged me as the exception to some rule they made up in their own heads.

I think that form of Islamophobia is probably the hardest for me to digest. Blatant attacks on my faith or patriotism, like the unhinged rants espoused by Fox News darling Jeanine Pirro, are easier for me to process. They’re out in the open and usually so extreme that anyone can laugh them off. But when friends and acquaintances seem genuinely puzzled that Muslim Americans can be nuanced and multi-layered in their identities, it reminds me that even the “allies” often see us as outliers to American society.

And those moments are also hard for me to forget.

Shaheen Pasha teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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