I am not the first person, nor the first Muslim, to confront ignorance. But I think it’s important to share this story anyways.
This past summer, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study in Morocco through my university. I was there for nearly two months, and it was an incredible experience. We learned so much about the language and the culture, and were fortunate to travel to different cities and witness so much of what the country has to offer. We met a lot of other international students through a center which we studied with and also which organized weekend trips for students.
The night before we rode camels farther into the desert to sleep in tents and gaze at the starry sky, we stayed at a cool hotel. The place was beautiful and the food was awesome, and we were really thankful for the night. In the morning, many of us wanted to squeeze in a little swimming time before we left. And some girls who were hijab-wearing Muslims asked to use the indoor pool for a while, because they don’t get an opportunity usually to freely swim (and there was an outdoor pool for everyone else). It’s a totally reasonable request, and I stayed with them for a while because they’re my friends, and because the privacy was nice. After I was done, I went to sit outside with some friends.
We’re just chatting, enjoying the nice morning when a student from another school approaches the table. He asks if the girls are finished in the indoor pool yet, because he wants to use the hot tub. And I tell him they are just going to be a little while longer, and I appreciate his patience. It’s quiet for a moment and then he says, “It’s a shitty religion, isn’t it?” Because these girls think they will “burn at the stake” if a man sees them.
I’m so taken aback I don’t have words for a moment. I think everyone is pretty shocked, but someone else at the table says, “I don’t think that’s how it works.” To which this student adamantly snaps back, “I think it does.”
We are in Morocco. We are all there for this culturally immersive experience. We’re there to learn about a society different from our own, to gain new perspectives, respect, and understanding. We have been living with Moroccan families, getting to know our Moroccan teachers, laughing with Moroccan students, almost all of whom are Muslim.
This student has had every opportunity to move past his ignorance, to see the humanity in people. But he chose to remain so close-minded, and, dare I say, rude. And when he barked his ignorant beliefs at us with such conviction, I could not stay quiet any longer. Because who was he to act as if he’s some expert on Islam, as if he’s some moral superior to everyone else?
So I snap back and tell him that I, too, am a Muslim. And he stumbles over his words to justify what he said, saying I must be a different sect or I must not practice or whatever excuse. He’s mumbling and I don’t really let him finish because I basically tell him what he said is offensive. I’m calm, but I’m infuriated. I say that religion, and practice of that religion looks different for everyone, and that however anyone wants to demonstrate their self-discipline and their relationship with God is significant. Valuable. Beautiful. That they only deserve our respect and that anything else he has to say is unnecessary. And I tell him that he’s in no place to judge.
He stands there for a good minute, silent, unable to form any response. And then he just walks away.
And whatever, people are jerks. But it was just so frustrating. I mean I rationally know that hateful people are everywhere but in this instant, I was just so caught off guard. I didn’t expect that someone who had all the resources this fool did would still make such an asinine statement.
And I guess it just speaks to this greater theme of media really enforcing a divide between Islam and the West and I’m tired of it. It only creates more conflict. It only fuels and feeds both extreme sides. It encourages disillusioned individuals to join militant extremist groups. It also promotes a violent agenda on the other side, to isolate and attack any Muslim communities.
Stop telling me that Islam and the West are inherently at odds. Stop crying out that the two cannot be reconciled. Stop saying that by nature of my faith, I cannot be a true American. Stop declaring that there is an innate divide, an innate war, between Islam and the West. Because I am Islam. I am the West. I won’t be coerced into the identity crisis you so fiercely want me to endure. I am not confused. I was born in this country. I was born Muslim. I feel both Muslim and American to my core and I won’t be forced to deny either facet of my identity. I will not fall into your narrative to advance your cause to incite hate and violence and ignorance. I will use my voice, the one I am constitutionally given the right to exercise, to tell all my stories. As in plural. As in I am not one story, I am many. And so are you.
I want to say that this one experience was my one and only with an ignorant jerk. But it wasn’t. And it certainly won’t be the last. But at least I’ve been lucky that I’ve never dealt with a violent confrontation. At least I’m safe, and alive. I can’t say the same for many others. I can’t say the same for Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, three students fatally shot in Chapel Hill. I can’t say the same for Alauddin Akonjee and Thara Miah, an Imam and his assistant, shot to death in Brooklyn. I can’t say the same for Mohamedtaha Omar, Adam Mekki, and Muhannad Tairab, killed execution style in Indiana. I can’t say I’m not afraid that these incidents will become more common. Because they might. At the very least, I can guarantee that almost every Muslim has experienced some kind of hateful interaction. And that’s already a problem.
I don’t have the answers to fix any of this. I can only hope for people to be good and kind. I can only live my life as the best person I can be. I can believe in goodness and justice. In the end, I only have my words and my stories which might touch at least one person.
And that would be enough.