My Ironic Identity

Just recently, I overheard two of my co-workers discussing how “those people” are horrid and hell-bent on committing violent acts of crime. The subject of their conversation involved a news story about ISIS and the people they were referring to were all those practicing Islam. Unbeknownst to them, there was one of “those people,” a Muslim, working and sharing space alongside  them: me. They were blissfully unaware that I practice Islam and identify as a Muslim because in their words, I seemed “too sweet” and had “very good moral character.” In other words, I was a peaceful working professional who did not fit into their grossly defined stereotype of a violent terrorist.

Unable to contain my emotions, I began to cry when one of them approached to ask what the matter was. She asked if I had just been dumped, completely unaware that the comparison she drew between ISIS and all Muslims affected me more deeply than if I was a love-sick teen dumped by all five members of One Direction. As I explained that I overheard her conversation, my co-worker stated, “Oh no, we weren’t talking about your culture…” a statement which further fueled my sadness because she was trying to justify her ignorance by removing some sort of burden of misunderstanding off of me. Essentially meaning to say that I should be relieved because she was not bad-mouthing me despite knowing I was ethnically different, but she instead hated another group of people and assumed I would share her sentiment.

However, when I stated “I am Muslim” she was stunned – not because she felt remorse for appropriating violent acts of crime to me and my family, but because I didn’t look like the villain she had been taught to hate. I could tell she was wondering how a person seeming peaceful, professional, and educated could simultaneously identify as a Muslim. It’s as if my identity was an oxymoron — I could not appear kind and hardworking while also being a Muslim. It would be much easier to blame her ignorance on my ironic identity. Using my coworker’s logic, the fact that I practice Islam should negate any good qualities I exude because Islam is equated with violence and hatred and I was the complete antithesis of what she believed a Muslim is. When I instead stated that any good quality she has observed in me is a direct result of my faith, it was as if I was explaining a complex cosmic theory that she could not comprehend.

My other co-worker’s reaction disappointed me further as she stated, “I have a lot of Muslim friends, so it’s nothing against them; but we were talking about how we don’t like Islam.” That’s similar to a bigot saying, “I have many black friends; but my hatred is directed towards colored people.” One cannot extract the former from the latter – it’s a package deal. Imagine her astonishment when I explained using the analogy that Muslims are to Islam as Christians are to Christianity. In that moment, not only did I feel saddened by my coworker’s misunderstanding of Muslims and Islam, but I was seriously appalled with the social constructs which perpetuated this lack of knowledge. She was baffled and realized there was no way to explain herself off the carousel of ignorance she had been a passenger on for so many years. Unfortunately, I had to accept the reality that she is not the only culprit.

In light of the recent murder of three innocent Muslim victims, I believe reflecting on this story is imperative because I have had to prove to my co-workers and fellow Americans that my community and my identity as a Muslim American is valid and deserving of basic human respect. Even with regards to raising awareness about this brutal hate crime in the media, Muslims have been coming together as a collective to demand that American citizens (Muslims or otherwise) condemn this act of violence. Time and again, we as Muslims must transform ourselves into 4th grade history teachers and explain that the essence of Islam means “peace” and that the teachings we follow emphasize compassion, love, and respect for all created beings. Other times, we are expected to transform our existence into an apology and take the burden of accountability for heinous acts which have no basis in Islam upon ourselves.

Tragically, the man who executed this vain hate crime allowed his hatred to consume him. The lives of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha exemplify not only what I as a Muslim aspire to be, but what I as a human being aspire to be. It is all the more disappointing when individuals like my coworkers are unaware that Muslims can be such loving, kind-hearted people who volunteer and give back to their communities. We must do better as a collective to condemn this hate crime and all other hate crimes committed against anyone for any reason.

Prior to this tragic event and since its occurrence, there have been eruptions of hatred against a Muslim Islamic Center, namely the Quba Islamic Institute of Houston which was the result of arson, an Islamic School in Rhode Island was the target of defamation and hate speech, and a young Somali brother, Abdisamad Sheikh-Hussein, was intentionally struck by an SUV from a driver who knew he was Muslim two months prior. These repeated incidents depict a vicious cycle of hatred that needs to be halted by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. There should be no argument in favor stating otherwise, because we as a nation cannot afford to reward hate.

Image from Creative Commons