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The Muslims You Cannot See

The Women's March in San Francisco on January 21, 2017. Photo by Sahar Habib Ghazi. Used with permission.

Allow me to take you back to the Women’s March last January in San Francisco. I was there with a neighbor and dear friend. I trust her with my 4 year old daughter, she trusts me with her children; she’s my rock.

One minute we are shouting slogans for women’s rights. The next we are chanting for trans rights. We are in a sea of umbrellas and people, some carrying the iconic image of a hijabi wrapped in an American flag, some chanting slogans against Islamophobia. My friend looks at me and says, “You don’t have to deal with that stuff, right?” “Why, because I'm not Muslim?” I ask?

I have had this conversation before. People I work with, or people who have known me for years, separate me, the Sahar they know, from the popular idea of “Muslims” built in their imagination.

They de-Muslim me.

There are 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide. We don't all look the same. We practice our religion differently. We identify with being Muslim differently. But somehow we all get packed into the same Muslim box. This box is so well constructed in our collective imaginations that when Muslims like me don’t fit in it, we get de-Muslimed.

Being De-Muslimed

I am not alone in this. It's even happened to the best-selling poet in America: Rumi. What images come to your mind when you think of him? Love? Peace?

When Jalaluddin Rumi was my age, he was an orthodox Muslim preacher and scholar. Islam, the Quran and Prophet Muhammad were central to his poetry until the day he died. But Rumi’s religion has been erased from Western imagination and most popular translations of his poetry.

This erasure is a big part of the story of the world's 1.7 billion Muslims.

Another is the reductionist images of Muslims that have colonized western books for centuries. This seductive imagery is defined by the dark men you should fear and the exotic women you should save. The path-breaking Palestinian American scholar Edward Said deconstructed the history behind these images in the 1970s. But these images stand tall today. Our politicians, the news industry, and Hollywood all continue to perpetuate them.

Take the 1998 film The Siege, where Arab American men are actually rounded up in an internment camp in New York. On the right, you'll see Denzel Washington with the bad dangerous Muslim at the top and the good patriotic Muslim FBI agent below.

Screenshots from the 1998 film The Siege.

I’ve worked in the news industry for 13 years, and I’ve seen this powerful flawed narrative dominate our newsfeeds.

This narrative overshadows the reality that nine Muslim women have led their countries in the last three decades, while the US couldn’t even elect its first real female presidential candidate in 2016.

This narrative fails to recognize that French Muslim women prevented from wearing their hijab in public buildings and Saudi Muslim women forced to cover their bodies by their government, are two sides of the same coin. It’s one powerful group exerting its “control” on the “other”.

This powerful narrative diminishes Muslim women leading movements for change. It ignores that the first Muslim prayers on American soil were said by Africans brought here on slave ships. It erases the existence of Queer Muslims.

This narrative has captured our collective imaginations so deeply and so inaccurately that Sikh men and children are often targets of anti-Muslim attacks and bullying.

Because of the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, Islamophobia today, isn’t just fear of Islam, the religion, it is fear of the “other”.

Belonging to the 1.7 billion

In the news industry, we tell more than just stories based on facts. Or alternative facts. We also build narratives that help you make sense of the world. And my industry has epically failed at capturing the narrative of the 1.7 billion.

And we’ve failed them here, where 7 million Muslims make up the most “diverse” religious group in America. About a third of the total Muslim population here is made up African Americans. Six out of 10 American Muslims are first-generation immigrants who come from 77 countries.

The author's parents in 1976, in New York. Used with permission.

Four decades ago, my immigrant parents arrived in New York to live their American dream. My mother placed her first jewelry designs on 5th Avenue, and my father worked hard in the skyscrapers of New York; skyscrapers made possible by a Bangladeshi Muslim American structural engineer named Fazlur Rahman Khan. Back when Khan was reimagining the skylines of the world, my parents were unapologetically Muslim and American.

But am I unapologetically Muslim and American now? Sometimes when people ask me why I don’t eat pork, instead of pulling out my Muslim receipts or my handy pocket Quran that all Muslims carry, I say, “out of respect for Peppa Pig”.

I'm joking, we don’t all carry pocket Qurans. We don’t have to be theology experts to be “Muslim” or to almost always get selected for extra security checks at the airport. There are hundreds of stellar Muslim scholars, Muslim activists, and interfaith activists trying to combat pervasive lies about Islam.

These lies are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who swept in and easily manipulated our already flawed image of what a Muslim is; of what Islam is.

Because of the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, Islamophobia is more than a stranger snatching a hijab off a woman. Or the horrifying map of attacks on mosques across the US below.

Screenshot from the ACLU website.

Islamophobia in its ugliest forms attacks our belonging. It attacks our identity, which is so vast, varied, and intersectional that it cannot possibly fit into a box.

The author in her kindergarten class picture in 1986. Used with permission.

Let me explain. I was born Muslim, but being Muslim was born into my imagination, when I was 4 years old, in a makeshift mosque in the basement of a Presbyterian Church in New York.

When social scientists describe religious life, they refer to the three Bs: belief, behavior, and belonging. My Muslim belief and behaviour may not always be visible, but it’s there. Perhaps my friend, my neighbor, my rock, would see that I’m Muslim if she could see through the 50 feet of concrete and air that separates our homes. She’d see the nighttime ritual with my daughter, cradled in the crook of my arm, me whispering the Arabic protection verses that seal the Quran called the Quls. Repeating them three times each. Asking her to be protected from the evil that can be seen and cannot be seen.

My Muslim belief may not always be visible, but my Muslim belonging is always part of my shadow.

The author's grandmother winning an Ikebana competition in Karachi, posing with her sisters sometime in the 1960s. Used with permission.

Belonging is the image of my maternal grandmother with her sisters; winning a flower art competition decades ago in Karachi. It is the image of her that I see right now, when I close my eyes: Nano, surrounded by her finished and unfinished canvases of painted Sufi saints; and a heavily bookmarked Quran, a book with one hundred and fourteen chapters that she knows practically by heart. Being Muslim is saying the prayers she tells me to say when I’m having a bad day.

Being Muslim is how she taught me to refer to God: Allah Mian, which means God, my only master. For a people colonized– for centuries–by an “empire” that started as a corporation called the Honorable British East India Company, calling God, my only master, has deep meaning.

The author with her grandfather Nanajan in 1987. Used with permission.

Belonging is growing up hearing men don’t cry, but also seeing my refugee grandfather cry. In between writing books on Modern Islam and Kashmiri independence, Nana Jaan cried unapologetically for his family in Indian-ruled Kashmir, family he wasn’t allowed to embrace in half a century. Belonging is knowing that there are millions of Kurds and Palestinians, like my grandfather, whose families were torn apart by colonialists who divided the Muslim world like a game of risk.

Being Muslim is knowing that Europeans “colonized” all but four Muslim countries in the last two centuries. It is knowing that the first aerial bomb ever was dropped a century ago on a Muslim country.

It is knowing that around the same time, my grandmother’s grandfather, an Indian Kashmiri British imperialist subject, was called “dangerous” by newspapers of the time for running the first mosque in England. Before airplanes existed, he traveled to more parts of the world than I have been, preaching the radical word of love, peace and social justice. The word of Islam.

Image of the author's great grandfather taken in 1920. Photograph from the Woking Muslims website archives.

Belonging to my Muslim tribe of 1.7 billion runs deep into our unforgettable bloodlines; our unacknowledged histories.

It is remembering that fourteen years ago, the most powerful military in the world, with troops currently spread on every continent except Antarctica, went into Iraq chasing Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist. It’s knowing that now more than half a million Iraqis are buried under the rubble of war. Being an American Muslim is knowing that the rate of suicide among our veterans has jumped more than 32 percent since 2001.

It is knowing that when tragedy strikes in the US and a suspect has a Muslim name, the story receives four times more coverage than a story involving a white attacker.

It is knowing that fourteen hundred years ago, the first call to prayer, the Azaan, was said by a freed black slave named Bilal. It is knowing that an African Islamic scholar named Bilali Muhammad was enslaved and brought to this land two hundred years ago.

It is calling Malcolm X an American hero. It’s the warmth I felt when people overwhelmed the airports to fight the Muslim Ban. It’s the hope I feel when we stand up for our Dreamers and when we say Black Lives Matter. Being an American and a Pakistani and a Kashmiri and a Pahari and a Punjabi and a Muslim and a journalist is knowing the inherent intersectionality of our multi-hyphenated identities, but failing to communicate it to you. The narrative of the 1.7 billion has more possibilities than a Rubik’s cube, but it is portrayed in reductive binaries: “Us” versus “Them.”

Being a mother it is the worry I carry for my child, and all Muslim children, knowing that powerful, privileged people build structural Islamophobia on these binaries.

Structural Islamophobia is the Muslim registries that began with President Bush, and expanded under President Obama. It’s pervasive mosque surveillance. It’s the immigration officer who handcuffed a 5 year old child. It’s a country closing its borders to people from the very countries it is bombing. It’s an inaccurate and vague “no fly list” that target Arabs and Muslim broadly. It’s the wars we wage and the bombs we drop on Muslim countries.

Because of the stories we tell, and the ones we don’t tell, here we are today.

In a study called the Ascent of Man, researchers at Northwestern University showed participants a scientifically incorrect image and asked them to rate groups on a scale of 1 to 100 in terms of evolution. Muslims scored the lowest.

The Conversations We Need to Have

We are too deep into de-humanizing the Muslim or the “other”. We are decades behind on recognizing the roots of our fears and the flawed dangerous tropes we perpetuate in our newsrooms.

At least there is a growing movement led by American Muslims within the media industry that tries to capture our multi-hyphenated identities and forgotten histories. Buzzfeed’s See Something, Say Something podcast; the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast; the Secret Lives of Muslims viral video series; Sapelo Square on Black American Muslims; Simon & Schuster's Salam Reads, an initiative to publish more Muslim authors; and Ms Marvel, the Pakistani Muslim American superhero—all of these give me hope.

Screenshots of media initiatives aiming to show the complexity and intersectionality of Muslim American life. Collage created by author.

But I’m worried about this difficult global moment we are in. And this moment has consequences beyond the 1.7 billion.

There’s a reason conspiracy theorists that existed in the dark corners of the Internet now run the White House. They rose exponentially because they “othered” Muslims.

There’s another group that rose exponentially by creating the “other” out of all of us. They didn’t exist a few years ago; now they control large areas of Syria and Iraq.

I’m worried about the realities and histories I was unaware of when I was my daughter’s age, but that make me unapologetically Muslim today. Things I left breadcrumbs for throughout this talk. Things that might have triggered memories in you too, because in all the intersections that make up our humanity, there might lurk a story of being “othered.”

Right now, there are conversations happening at the 8th annual Islamophobia conference across the bridge at Berkeley. More than a hundred academics are talking about our problems with the “other”, “structural racism”, and “American militarism”. But these aren’t terms we throw around casually in our schools or read in our newspapers.

Poster from the Islamophobia Studies Network Facebook page.

All of us need to ask ourselves, why? Why am I telling you this at a TEDx talk at Stanford in 2017, when Edward Said, the man who showed us how wars are waged and people are dehumanized by creating the “other” in popular imagination, was a scholar at Stanford four decades ago.

We need to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about our roles in consciously and unconsciously perpetuating the “other”; like my friend and I did in the rain at the Women’s March, because the work of imagining a new future, where we don’t have a President eating chocolate cake while bombing broken countries and “othered” people, goes way beyond the visible and invisible 1.7 billion. It starts here with all of us.

Sahar Habib Ghazi is the managing editor at Global Voices. This article is a modified version of a TEDx talk she delivered at Stanford University on April 24, 2017. If you are interested in learning more, please visit the Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project and explore the crowdsourced #IslamophobiaIsRacism Syllabus. 

2 comments

  • Patricia Behler

    To me, the poster of the Statue of Liberty holding tightly and lovingly to an Islamic person tells it all. It is what should be happening; what IS happening is the opposite and I do not intend to allow that kind of anti-Muslim thinking to take over my sense of moral thinking. The examples citied in the article indicate how contagious are these misconceptions. Wake up, people, use your reasoning to understand what is happening to our freedom-loving and democratic loving USA.

  • Very good post, dear Sahar. You really made me think a lot about things I don’t see or don’t even think about. And it was really nice to read a little more about your own family story and having those images from your younger years.
    On a side note, the chart from the research by Northwestern University shows a series of groups rated, and it’s kind of striking to see Latin Americans don’t exist. Maybe we are all included as “Mexican immigrant”? I don’t know, we are not all Mexicans nor immigrants. And Africans are not mentioned at all.

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