By Guest Contributor Shawna, originally published at Islam on My Side
This is an old post I’ve pulled out of the Islam on My Side archives, originally posted with the title “Give Me an Unbigoted Break.” It’s a bit more personal than I’ve been inclined to post on this blog, but as personal essays come in from contributors (deadline August 1st, so get to it!), I feel inclined to share a bit of my own experience–the roots of this blog and anthology, if you will.
As I thumbed my way through some favorite blogs this morning, I was inspired to touch on a hot topic in the Muslim blogosphere: bigotry. Islamo-Facism Week has encouraged the debasement of Islamic ideals stemming from a bigoted hardline against Muslims. I’ve grown used to being lumped into unfriendly categories. It often happens by friendly people who are misinformed by Horowitz-like others or simply ignorant to world affairs. I’m often tolerant of said lumping.
I spent six years in Oklahoma, three years in Texas, and another six years in Arkansas prior to the eleven I’ve spent in Indiana. For those of you trying to do the math, that makes me twenty-six years old. When I lived in Arkansas, I was the object of some pretty serious hate. My family was the only Muslim family in the tiny town we lived in. I started there in fifth grade. I remember my first day of school clearly. I’d changed schools a number of times as my dad moved up in the job world. I’d gotten pretty good at identifying who the kids I wanted to get in with were from day one. I was thrilled when one of the girls disengaged herself from the medium-popularity clique and offered to be my tour-guide. She never got to guide me though. I was handed off before that first period ended to a girl with wildly red hair who was clearly not as well-to-do or well-looked upon. This girl became my best friend for several years, mostly due to her honesty when I asked her why the other girl had ditched me.
She nodded when she said it, “The teacher says you’re part of a cult.”
It took awhile for the implications of this to sink in. My fifth-grade homeroom/English teacher had discouraged another student from being my handler because she somehow knew my family was Muslim. Or maybe it was because I entered the classroom with a wicked tan, the same type of tan my younger sister sported when we were on the local swim team and another teacher’s daughter came up to her and asked, “Do you take pills to be Black?” or something like that.
Interestingly enough, the Black members of this town were made welcome, and barriers were broken down to give them at least marginal acceptance because they were churchgoers, and perhaps more importantly, they were really good at basketball (or football, or track) and those were this Bible-belt town’s lifeline.
Anyway, I spent the rest of this day following that brave red-head–she’d shrugged off the cult thing–around the school trying not to cry. Give me a break. I was an eleven year old girl clearly being shunned by peers who shifted away and whispered when I walked past. I was the object of a lot of pointing and narrowed eyes. It turns out that my younger sister did better because she was only seven, and the community believed she could still be saved from our heathen household.
I’d like to say that this kind of behavior was temporary, that people opened their eyes and hearts to my family and accepted us. We kept to ourselves. We didn’t make a big thing out of our difference of faith. We never criticized what the other members of our community believed. But the truth is, while some of the kids I attended classes with and was teammates with for volleyball, basketball, track, or swimming did relax a little around me, it was extremely rare that I got an invite to do anything other than attend youth group or go to church, both of which I did because I would take what I could get. I was even saved under a big tent one summer. Afterward, one mom welcomed me into her life, promising to give me a Bible (which I was thrilled at the prospect of even though I already owned one and had read it). But her interest in me came to screeching halt when she said she’d pick me up for church every Sunday. By this time, my parents had decided they no longer wanted to humor the efforts of these families to try and convert me–not because they were afraid I would convert, but because it was a blatant and hateful attack on our beliefs and their parenting. I was confused by the offer of a ride to church. “I’m not going to church,” I said.
The woman looked at me, as confused as I was. “But you were just saved.”
“Yeah, but I’m a Muslim.” It hadn’t occurred to me that saving wouldn’t work if I was constantly correcting the our “Lord Jesus” to our Prophet Jesus in my head, or if I prayed just to God instead of “Lord Jesus God.” I was truly repentant. I wanted my sins forgiven.
She ushered her daughters and husband away from me, looking back once over her shoulder with those eyes that said, “Well, I can’t believe it! What in the world!” Her older daughter later told me she’d pray for my soul that I could accept Jesus Christ and go to heaven with her. I can’t tell you how many times I heard “But we want to be surrounded by all our friends in Heaven” from girls who otherwise wouldn’t talk to me.
During these years, my family was party to pleas for my sisters and I to attend church. When that stopped happening, and after the whole “saved” event, the ugliness that initiated my unwelcome in Arkansas became less underhanded and more aggressive.
My older sister’s instructors repeatedly tried to evict her from the school system. She was sassy, but not a bad student, like many teens in the town. Yet her teachers argued with her and went over and above to find fault with her. My younger sister was stood up two years in a row at birthday parties. Each year, a popular girl would schedule a party at the same time and invite the same people. (One girl did show up for a few minutes and give my sister a present, and I still love that girl for it.) I was an “A” student, good at sports, and quiet to boot, but I was regularly ostracized. I remember being greeted by my peers with ethnic epithets that often had nothing to do with my heritage, and were even more hurtful because of it. One lunch, one of my classmates attempted to strangle me. (Another jumped in and stopped him, thank God, but I still had to go to the hospital.) Despite witnesses, bruising on my neck, and other violent transgressions by the same kid, my parents had to threaten to sue to get him suspended. My father, as he had for years, received death threats and threatening phone calls.
There were ups mingled in these downs. My History teachers often called on me to correct the definition of Islam in our History books. The books read: Muslims, or Mohammedans, worship Mohammed who wrote the Koran. I was allowed to say, “Muslims worship God,” and it was often added that our god’s name is Allah. Sometimes I was allowed to illuminate the main difference between Christianity and Islam; “Muslims do not believe Jesus was God or the son of God. Jesus was a man and a prophet.” Then I was left to answer questions about how that was possible and whether or not Jesus died on the cross.
Another instructor invited my dad to come and speak to our class when it was discovered that he was an immigrant and again after we watched Not Without My Daughter. My dad told stories of his days as a boy scout in Lebanon (which incidentally inspired a boy scout story in my thesis collection). It helped a lot that my dad is a natural storyteller, he included fart jokes, and he was really funny. Never been prouder. My dad has a way of making Arab Muslim men seem human in a way I wish the rest of the world could take note of.
Those years in the Bible-belt were infused with an intolerance I thought I’d left behind when we moved to Indiana. Midwesterners were much less bent out of shape by my father’s non-White appearance. No one took much notice that we were Muslim. In fact, I was able to start an MSU at my high school with barely any trouble, and only a couple of my friends were regularly asked if they had bombs in their backpacks.
But then there was 9/11, attacks on women in hijab on the IU campus where I was attending, the Patriot Acts, a news story on how some member of our community was part of a sleeper cell and an implication that my husband was tied to this guy (who we never met), my local mosque being defaced, fire-bombed, another known attempt at defacement, and the constant awareness that wherever I go, my face gives me away as “one of those Arabs” and someone might make a hateful assumption, like those perpetrating Islamo-Facism Week, that I am someone less than worthy or some kind of victim that needs to be saved according to their rules.
The only help I need is a hand in the dissemination of this information: There’s no switch to be flipped. I choose to believe in Islam and live my life as a Muslim. I am not repressed, not angry, not violent. I am a woman, a mom, and a writer. I am a Muslim living life day to day.