I’m always thrown when an interviewer asks me to name three words that others would use to describe me. Am I supposed to be honest? Humble? Bold? What words would my mother, my boyfriend, or my therapist choose? In any case, the word “Muslim” has never come to mind. In my own mind, there are a lot of words in line before I get there. Yet in today’s political climate, that word would be the first word used to describe me if I chose to run for, say, president of the United States. That word would be the first, and perhaps the only, word used to describe me if I were a suicide bomber in the city of Cambridge, or even if I happened to be caught on video walking near the explosion.
So I suppose I’ve never actually answered my interviewer correctly. The truest response would be to ask, “When?”
I can’t quite place my finger on the year, month or day that my religion became an active part of my identity. I stabbed olives with my father’s dinner fork during Ramadan so he could break his fast with ease, and I said “Allah Kabul etsin” – may God accept your efforts – to my mother at the end of her occasional prayer so that I could earn her smile. I wasn’t consciously aware that I did these things because I was a Muslim girl in a Muslim household; they were as natural to me as sleepaway camp and the Girl Scouts were to my friends at school.
[bctt tweet=”At eight years old, I became the face of Islam in my neighborhood.”]
When the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, we were renting a home in an unfriendly neighborhood of Belmont, in Massachusetts. It wasn’t always unfriendly, but after the attacks, our next-door neighbors stopped saying good morning to my father when he shoveled out our driveway, and no longer allowed me to play tag with their youngest daughter. In my mind, I had more in common with a paperclip than I did with the perpetrators of the attacks, yet to my parents, their identities and my own had been irrevocably altered. We didn’t know it yet, but those terrorists had saddled my mother, my father, and I with an enormous responsibility. We were the faces of Islam in our neighborhood, and I, at eight years old, was the one of the very few non-televised representatives of Islam at Burbank Elementary School.
I’ve never chosen the word “marginalized” as one of my descriptors, either. I’m not under-privileged, and I certainly don’t feel that my religion has so far limited me as I pursue my goals. I attended the most expensive college I was accepted to, and had the liberty of peppering my freshman year with irresponsibility and idiocy. I switched majors and dropped hobbies. I never considered joining al-Muslimat, the Muslim student organization on campus; I didn’t fast during Ramadan, pray one or five times a day, or wear a hijab.
When it came up in a classroom or dining hall discussion that I was Muslim, my peers would say, “Oh, but you don’t look Muslim!”, or “But like, not really, right? Like not in an activist-y way?” These comments never offended me, and I instead embraced my hip, third-culture label. Almost every time, the conversation would shift direction. Each time it didn’t, the scenario was different: a friend’s father would ask if my parents pressured me to choose a women’s college for the sake of my Islam-mandated chastity. A classmate would ask if my mother had to find against Turkey’s radical Muslim government to graduate from college as an industrial engineer (a question that is, given the current tides in Turkey, fairly ironic).
While I understand and sympathize with the message that minorities should not have to educate the public about their cultures, I personally welcome the challenge. If I don’t rise to the occasion, the face of Islam is a series of coordinated attacks that killed 137 people in Paris this past November. It is 14 dead in San Bernardino in December. It is Brian Kilmeade claiming that “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”
I welcome the opportunity to define what had once been a passive part of my identity, not because I believe I can represent all American Muslims, but because I believe in its virtue as a part of both my own upbringing, and that of many others. For a Turkish couple completely alone in Phoenix, Arizona, Islam was a way for their only daughter to learn about the traditions they would have had in Istanbul. It was a way for their daughter to relate to her grandparents, for her to feel the great big barrier of the Atlantic Ocean a bit less.
[bctt tweet=”I can’t afford not to stand up for Islam.”]
When I hear my peers from other cultures complain about the mainstream media’s biases or ignorance, I nod along because I agree. When I hear frustration at having to be the spokesman or woman for an entire minority group, I can understand it. But I abstain because I am honored to have the chance to educate anyone about the Islam I have grown up with. I’m excited by the chance to speak over the sounds of explosions and the conservative media, and perhaps be heard. The question isn’t so much should I have to – I’m convinced America today is past that point. Can I afford not to, and instead be forced to tolerate the misinformation and tragedy that otherwise defines my religion?
While I won’t be choosing “Muslim” to describe myself in my next interview, I know its presence has enabled me to select “compassionate,” “courageous” and “resilient” in its place.