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  • What Does It Mean to Be American Muslim?

    Producer: Helen Lehrer

    Speaking from a tented stage to a live audience, Nazea Khan related an interaction she had with her friends:

    “The other day, I was buying some supplies for the Fourth of July, and some of my friends were like, ‘Yo, Nazea, why are you buying stuff for a party for America, for a country that doesn’t love you?’”

    Without pausing, she told them they were wrong.

    “There are some people in this country who don’t love me, but I am who I am because America has given me the opportunities that I have today, and I am a very proud, unapologetic, Muslim American, Bengali teen—and that’s just who I am.”

    Nazea finished her story with a rueful laugh. As spectators clapped loudly, a woman shouted, “Perfect. Perfect.”

    Despite the humidity and extreme heat, visitors had crowded On the Move’s Story Circle stage at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The panel, “Generations on the Move: What Does It Mean to be American Muslim?” had garnered one of the program’s largest audiences. While there, I glanced at some visitors in the front row. The strains of the current political climate traced their faces like a map. A stack of tote bags sat nearby, stamped with the logo of the Muslim Community Center (MCC).

    “Don’t forget to grab one after,” urged president Usman Sarwar.

    As the panelists explained, MCC offers a unique space for them to practice their faith in Silver Spring, Maryland. Consisting of one of the oldest mosques in the Washington, D.C., area, the center extends a variety of services, including medical care, youth group, and interfaith meetings. As a youth organizer for the Muslim Youth Organization, Nazea valued the opportunity to reach out to other teens in a similar position as herself. She smiled easily as she spoke, describing her role at MCC with a light, affable demeanor.

    For Sanjana Quasem, an organizer for the Young Adults and Professionals Program, there are no set markers that delineate between her American and Muslim identities. These angles reflect off each other, creating a kaleidoscope of memory and feeling.

    As she explained, her words quick and firm, “I’m an American that just happens to be Muslim.”

    Yet, the rise of inflammatory political rhetoric against Islam has left Sanjana and others struggling to find their footing in a sometimes hostile sphere. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual census of extremist organizations, which stated that anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled in 2016.

    The dramatic surge in acts of violence against Muslims continues to leave significant wounds upon the broader community. According to CNN, in early 2017, four mosques across the country were burned down within weeks of each other. In May, a man hurled anti-Muslim insults at two young women on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon; when three men intervened to help the girls, two of them were fatally stabbed.

    In a moment of vulnerability, Sanjana said, “You get used to the trauma.” She referenced the heavy weight of the political environment, as well as the unavoidable internalization of both fear and anxiety in her daily life.

    American Muslim panel at the 2017 Folklife Festival
    (L-R) Sabir Rahman, Sanjana Quasem, Nazea Khan, Abdiaziz Ahmed, and Usman Sarwar at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Video still by Helen Lehrer

    Throughout the panel, I witnessed the participants measure each word carefully. We were in a country that had recently instituted a travel ban, that had considered the implementation of a Muslim registry, and seen an influx of anti-Muslim hate crimes. Although the participants acknowledged the growing Islamophobia in the United States, they had tried not to let these realities dictate the conversation.

    As they shared their perspectives, they balanced their external struggles with their personal triumphs. Positive and upbeat, Nazea stressed the affirming aspects of her identity, as did Aziz Ahmed, who said that the United States bolstered his reclamation of self as a “proud Muslim.” Similarly, Sanjana asserted that the difficulties she experienced only cemented the importance of Islam in her life.

    After the panel ended, I walked across the National Mall with Sanjana, Nazea, and Aziz as they candidly conversed about the flawed reasoning that guides much of the criticism against Islam. One woman asked Nazea why she continued to wear the hijab when it upset others in public—she believed Nazea could “blend in” if she simply took it off. Two other visitors approached Aziz, a soft-spoken college freshman, and inquired about the Islamic oppression of women. Sanjana rolled her eyes.  

    Although these questions may appear naive, they are rooted in racialized misconceptions of Muslim practice. Word choice matters. When they encourage Muslim women to take off their hijabs to “fit in,” they place the burden of assimilation on perceived “outsiders.” In this moment, they do not criticize those who hurl slurs and insults. They do not criticize those who actively perpetuate violence—including arson, assault, and murder—against a community solely on the basis of their religion. By asking young girls to take off their hijabs, they imply that head coverings, rather than racist attitudes, incite chaos. 

    “It’s really frustrating, especially in a society where we talk so much about freedom of choice, that it’s difficult for people to understand that this—” Sanjana paused and touched her yellow hijab, “—can be a choice.” She passionately described the ways in which the stereotypical portrayals of Muslim women frustrated her. Rather than focus on her contributions to the community, many people “just see the hijab.” As she spoke, she leaned forward in her chair, parsing her thoughts quickly. “It’s not the oppression of religion, it’s the oppression that other folks are putting upon me in seeing the hijab.”

    During the Q&A segment of the panel, it became clear that some of us live lives markedly separate from the realities of American intervention and suppression. Many of us exist easily, freely, without finding our actions constantly politicized, dissected, scrutinized. Each panelist discussed the pressure to speak not just for themselves, but for a whole group.

    “We have to be perfect in everything that we say,” Aziz said. “We have to be the spokespeople for 1.6 billion people, which is sometimes very hard to do.”

    During our interview, they laughed self-deprecatingly at the idea that they have all the answers to Islam.

    “We’re not well-versed in every single matter pertaining to our religion, but we can tell you why we are Muslims and why we do what we do,” Aziz clarified.

    While they do not want to be reduced to their religion, they do redefine their faith on their own terms—sidestepping the negative, highly prescriptive constructions of Islam that have flooded news outlets and pop culture. In this way, the expectation to act as a “spokesperson” for Islam has transformed into what Nazea calls “a burden and an opportunity.” Their efforts to better understand their faith and to contextualize its presence in their daily lives fortifies their belief.

    “In some weird way, it’s forced me to get more in touch with my religion and learn about it and actually value it more,” Sanjana said.

    American Muslim panel at the 2017 Folklife Festival
    Sanjana Quasem and Nazea Khan at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Video still by Helen Lehrer

    Despite its difficulties, they emphasized that they want people to ask questions rather than harbor misconceptions. When responding to the two visitors, Aziz explained that religion and culture are two different spheres. Cultural misogyny can shape the way a person interprets a specific religion, but that doesn’t mean that the religion itself is inherently misogynistic.

    After the enactment of President Trump’s travel ban, Sabir Rahman, an older panelist who emigrated from Pakistan in his mid-twenties, noted that the swell of support from other Americans helped mitigate the effect of hateful reactions. He welcomed burgeoning friendships with advocates and new allies. If the devastating consequences of the September 11 attacks proved isolating, the aftermath of the travel ban appeared to be a bittersweet synthesis. While Sabir had certainly felt the impact of mounting political antagonism, he had also experienced a heightened sense of kinship. For Sabir, he palpably felt the truth behind the words, “We are with you.” 

    According to Usman, over a thousand people of other faiths have visited MCC since January. He repeatedly highlighted the ways in which community backing had positively shaped the environment of the center.

    “They want to know who we are. They want to support us. We’ve had flowers sent to us. We’ve had cards from churches sent to us.” Visibly touched, Usman added, “This time we have so much support and, I want to emphasize, it means the world to us.”

    Before the program ended, he thanked the Festival for providing a platform for American Muslims to speak for themselves. As he noted, “The best thing is to break bread and have dialogue.”

    Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

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