When I was eleven years old, two boys approached me with a question during social studies class. They were smart boys, a little skeevy in that handsome and privileged and I know it but you don’t know I know it, and come on, being white doesn’t give me any privilege, I listen to Kanye and that solves everything kind of way. Basically – blonde, untrustworthy, AXE-bodysprayed Gremlins.
I assumed they would ask a question regarding my opinion on some NWA song that I knew nothing about at 11, and know nothing about now. They came up to me, the only Muslim in the grade (who was probably Iraqian?? Afghanarabican?? Hindian? Somethingstanian. WHAT THE HELL IS SHE?), and asked: “So, what is jihad?”
They asked me earnestly, not to make a joke of it or anything this time. They were genuinely interested. And I felt obligated to answer just as earnestly.
But an under-informed Muslim to this day, I had no clue how to respond. They had come to the person they thought could provide the most accurate definition of this word. They’d probably heard it on the news and in their churches, or on the televised vomit guised as comedy known as Family Guy.
So, I told them I’d find out for them. I didn’t say “I’ll ask my Muslim parents” because I knew I wasn’t going to. My family spent a lot of time watching American Idol when I was 11. We never stopped to dissect the meaning of Islamic philosophy in the 21st century during commercials. We did what everyone else did – got really angry about eliminations every week, and still never voted.
But I had to find out. Those guys were relying on me. I was their Muslim voice in this age of violence and confusion. I was responsible for an answer as to why this all was happening to them, why those Muslims acted as they did. And that’s when this story reveals itself as far more than just a question to be answered.
To those boys I was not just an eleven-year-old girl: I was a Muslim first. Other pre-teens in our grade definitely weren’t expected to carry the weight of foreign extremism, or to explain that such violence isn’t what Islam calls for at all. Or that the term jihad, in the ways that those boys heard, was completely manipulated to justify an insanity and ideology that belongs to no religion.
They didn’t have to defend themselves from blame, or explain that their families were no different than other families in town.
But when you’re a Muslim in post-9/11 America, Islam is a full-time job. Especially if you’re the only Muslim in a group of people , even if that group of people is made up of middle schoolers. And since that was the case, I was expected to explain jihad and terrorism and their fallacious motives and geopolitical implications to those two boys.
Perhaps even worse, I expected it of myself. At age eleven.
In the end, I found the answer pretty easily on Google. Those boys could have, too. They could have asked the teacher or picked up a book.
The bottom line: if you know a Muslim, learn more about them than that fact. They are classmates and colleagues and neighbors and artists and bankers and engineers. No matter what your needs are, they are not Muslims first and foremost. Respect that.
And if that Muslim you know is in middle school, maybe don’t expect them to teach you about theology and global politics and international relations. Maybe give them a day off.