Like many other young Muslim-Americans, 9/11 had a very negative impact on my self-identity and perception of Islam. I’ll never forget that second day of 7th grade when our teachers told us about the attack. My fellow classmates and I were extremely scared while going home on the bus that afternoon. A large number of my relatives from back home in the Mid East/ North Africa called my family to make sure we were fine. It took a while for me to understand that the people who committed these acts have something in common with me: they were Muslims. I felt so disconnected and confused.
Growing up, my parents never forced religion on my younger siblings and me. After a few years of Sunday school, my parents realized that I had no interest in religion or becoming religious so they let me stop going. I felt no connection to Islam to begin with, and 9/11 just made me want to continue ignoring this part of my identity.
Ironically, the first time I felt furthest from Islam was when I was on pilgrimage to Mecca at the age of 12. My parents never fully explained to me why I had to be there wearing weird black clothes and I thought the whole trip was so bizarre and superstitious. I was wandering around Mecca in confusion and was stunned by how everyone there appeared to not be aware of their surroundings.
I had finished my ritual at Safaa & Marwa and I got to the part where I had to snip off a piece of my hair. At that point in time, no one in my family wore hijab and I honestly did not understand the point of it. So what I did was take my hijab off to figure out which part of my hair I wanted snipped, and all of a sudden, I was bombarded by an old couple and scolded harshly to put my scarf back on. I remember being shocked and scared to the point of tears like I had done something wrong. That was probably the main incident that turned me away from Islam, ironically located at “God’s” House.
I had always believed in God though, from the moment my Christian neighbor told me about Him when I was 5 or 6. However, my belief was more out of fear of all of my actions being watched and judged. My belief wasn’t out of love but out of animosity.
I openly disassociated myself from Islam when I was a teenager. I would lie about my cultural and religious background so that people would never suspect me of being like the barbaric Muslims that were always on TV. I remember a short while after my grandmother passed away when I was in high school, my mom suddenly became more practicing. She picked me up from school one day in a hijab on and I completely lost it. I cried and yelled at her for embarrassing me in front of my friends. I felt like she betrayed me and I was angry with her for days. After that, she didn’t wear it again.
To make matters worse though, people somehow began catching on that I was Muslim and of Arab descent somehow, despite me always telling people otherwise and asking them to call me by an American name. I would avoid talking to people for fear of them asking me about my background so I was very cold and withdrawn. Feelings of insecurity and self-hatred consumedme. I felt cursed to be associated with people of such a bad reputation. I’ll never forget how a Christian-Lebanese girl once wanted to make sure that I wasn’t Muslim once, so she could laugh about how crazy Muslims with with me and a few other girls. Sadly, I denied my faith and laughed along to keep away any suspicion. A person I considered to be my best friend once even refused to walk next to me on Halloween, because my gypsy costume made me “look” like a Muslim. Things got worse though as the years went along. I almost got into physical altercations after being called names like “sand-nigger” and “Bin Laden’s wife.” No matter how hard I tried to avoid associating myself with my true identity, it somehow always came up and I constantly felt like I was walking on eggshells.
In around 9th or 10th grade, I had heard about a mosque being built down the street from my school, next to Roxbury Crossing train station, but I didn’t give it too much thought besides the fact that I was worried about people in hijabs coming up to me and saying hi while I was with friends.
In class one day, my teacher asked us if we attended a place of worship. Jokingly, this kid in class said, “I hit up the mosque, B!” Another person after him excitedly said, “Oh my God, that’s that thing they’re building down the street!” A third girl squirmed her face in disgust and said she was shocked that they would do that in our neighborhood.
I felt my chest tighten up and I was worried that someone in there knew I was Muslim somehow. I made a vow that moment that I would never step foot in that mosque down the street, going out of my way to make sure I avoided it at all costs.
For many years after that, I just hated everything about Muslims, especially the way the women dressed. I would pretend I didn’t know Muslim people that I grew up with when I would see them around and ignored their greetings. My hatred of Islam and Muslims grew after a summer trip to a Muslim country where street passersby cursed me for wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
Things eventually got better in college, where I met Muslims who seemed like normal people. After getting to know them and feeling comfortable, it was a short while after that I began to openly identify as Muslim, even though this was more of a cultural-identity as opposed to sincere religious observance.
It wasn’t until the last semester of undergrad where things took an unexpected turn. A few months prior, my dad got really sick and had to work from home. Again, my parents were never really religious, but because my dad was home more often now, they had both started to attend weekly Jummah services at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center—the same mosque that I vowed to never attend. They had been going for a few months and then one day, my mom noticed that I had Friday off, so she asked me to join them. I vehemently refused, mostly because I didn’t want to wear a hijab and because I felt like everyone there was going to judge and hate me, based on my past experiences with Muslims.
After a few weeks of my parents begging me to go and telling me how nice everyone at the ISBCC is, I finally gave in. I felt extremely awkward and out of place in my long-sleeved cardigan and black hijab. I took a look in the mirror and was stunned by how I looked: like those Muslim girls who I always shunned. It was a strange realization that I was actually one of them.
It was my first time at the ISBCC and I was clinging to my mother’s arm with my head down, in case anyone recognized me. My mom told me that I have to pray before I sit down but then it dawned on me that I had forgotten how to pray! I didn’t even have wudu! It might have been the whole masjid atmosphere but for some reason, I felt extreme shame—a shame that I had never felt before in my life. I sat down without praying but then finally loosened up after a bit. I began to sink in the environment and I realized that I felt pretty comfortable. It was an odd feeling of comfort and belonging, actually.
I don’t even remember what the khutbah was about that day or who even gave it. In fact, it was probably the first khutba I’ve ever listened to as an adult. All I remember though was that I was fighting back tears the entire time, even throughout the prayer. I’m not usually an emotional person, so this feeling inside of me was so different. The words of the khutbah, which I can’t even remember, really triggered something inside of me. I can’t describe it but I felt like a part of me that was missing had finally been found. I know this sounds cliché and too-good-to-be true, but my emotions were running wild.
We were on our way out of the masjid when we ran into old friends. I thought they were going to be confused as to why I was there, but I was greeted with so much joy, love, and happiness— as if I was someone worthy of it. We were barely out of the masjid and I couldn’t wait to be back the next Friday. It felt like I had a whole new world waiting for me to explore.
This was only the beginning of my journey and the rest is a work in progress. Eman (faith) in Allah is a journey and it’s not something that usually happens in a day, week, or month and it’s something that I honestly still struggle with sometimes. I realized what was stopping me from even approaching Allah was my negative past experiences with Muslims. It reminds me of something Mother Teresa once said: “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”
I am eternally grateful to have found what I longed for my entire life.