I’ll never forget the first time I was told I wasn’t American. It was in the parking lot of a grocery store in Skokie, Illinois. I had just parked my car and was walking toward the store entrance when an elderly man called out to me from a few feet away. “Young lady! In this country, we don’t drive the way you just did.” He was upset at the way I had just parked my car. “I don’t know where you’ve come from but here…” I cut him off. “I’m from here. I’m American.” And then I walked away. I categorized this anti-muslim bigotry as just one more encounter with mild Islamophobia, like the time my junior high school peers asked about my “towel head” or the loud whispers from the woman at a waterpark, during a family vacation, saying that someone dressed like me had “no right to be here.” I practiced avoidance in all of these cases and rarely engaged any of these people in conversation. It wasn’t my job to educate ignorant individuals about the racism underlying their comments.
While I still believe this to be true, I am convinced that we will not be able to stop anti-Muslim bigotry and the racism underlying this form of hate, until we can have honest conversations with folks outside our communities of agreement, about where it comes from and why it must be stopped.
Anti-Muslim bigotry, as a form of racism, can be traced back to early America, with the earliest Muslims in the U.S. arriving by slave ships. These are facts that were never mentioned in any of my social studies or history classes in school. In fact, the very first time when a class on Islam was offered during my freshman year of high school, my teacher opted to show the film Not Without My Daughter, about an abusive Iranian American man forcibly kidnapping his wife and child. I could not, for the life of me, understand how that represented my faith.
There are many ways, through ill-conceived lesson plans and irresponsible Hollywood depictions, that Muslims have been portrayed as inherently foreign and violent. There are historic and systemic reasons why I have been labeled as “other” by my fellow Americans.
Years later, as a graduate student, I came across Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, by Denise Spellberg, and was astounded by a perspective on American history that I had never before learned. I was surprised that an American founding father owned a copy of my holy book. I was perplexed by his insistence that the United States should be a country where Muslims should have their religious liberties ensured as a God given right at a time when anti-Muslim bigotry and other forms of hate were rife in America. I was confused by the fact that Jefferson espoused views about the equality of all men while owning actual human beings as slaves.
I now wonder what the elderly man in the grocery store parking lot and the woman at the water park would have to say about all of this. I have to wonder, because I chose not to engage either of them in conversation.
Don't get me wrong, I talk about issues of history, religion, and race all the time with academics, community organizers, friends, and family. Most of the time, these are individuals of color and often in agreement with each other about these issues. I also find myself in predominantly white spaces focused on democracy and civility promotion, on the American founding narrative, and First Amendment freedoms. There is little overlap between these two worlds, one that rightfully insists on the centering of communities of color and the other that seemingly forgets them when lauding America's white pioneers. Bridging this gulf is necessary.
According to a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute report, most Americans seldom or never have conversations with Muslims. And there is plenty of evidence that talking to our neighbors, engaging those with whom we disagree, and putting down our phones and actually talking to each other is good for our health. Conversations, by themselves, won’t put an end to the otherization of Muslims by politicians or stop the despicable violence of white supremacists.
What conversations can do, especially when imbued with earnestness and honesty, is force us to listen to each other and to contend with our divisions.
This year on April 13, Thomas Jefferson’s 276th birthday, I will be participating in a Living Room Conversation about race, religion and the America we want to be. On this day, small groups across the country will reflect on this theme, online and in person, alongside people with differences of opinion from diverse backgrounds. There is still a space in this nation between the glorification of our founding narrative and the indictment of racism and prejudice in America today. We must fill that anti-muslim bigotry space with honest conversation.