TV Shows Pop Culture

Mahershala Ali’s new character on ‘Ramy’ is “the perfect Muslim”

The Golden Globe-winning dramedy Ramy has returned to Hulu with a second season, starring creator Ramy Youssef as the fictional Ramy Hassan, an endearing Muslim millennial from New Jersey. Season 2 continues to follow its title character on his spiritual journey, which is more of a crisis than anything else.

Ramy has just returned from his quest to find purpose in Egypt, his motherland, and is wallowing in the ruins of his love life. After a frank intervention from his concerned friends and almost being shot while on the toilet, Ramy seeks out spiritual guidance for his problems. This leads him to meet Sheikh Ali, played by the Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali

Mahershala Ali radiates grace in his role as the endlessly patient and wise Sufi Sheikh. Kind but uncompromising, Sheikh Ali brings Ramy the structure he so desperately needs in his life as well as divine purpose. Ali listens to Ramy’s woes without judgment, demanding openness and honesty if he is serious about changing his ways. Ramy leaves his stuffy, conservative mosque for the Sheikh’s Sufi Center, a place where men and women pray side by side. Eager to conquer his demons, Ramy begins following Sheikh Ali’s instructions to the letter, starting by switching his diet to halal-only

“Our ummah often doesn’t understand what is haram and what isn’t. Nothing in and of itself is haram,” explains Ali. “It’s a matter of how we choose to engage with it. Alcohol, for example, isn’t haram. Drinking it is. The rules are very important in our faith. Not for the reasons you might think. I was confused about this once too.”

Ali goes on to use an orange and its tough skin as a metaphor for the rules in Islam. The tough skin is necessary for preserving the sweet inside of the fruit. “The outer Sharia protects the inner spirituality. And the inner spirituality gives the outer Sharia its purpose and meaning.”

If Ali is the composed spiritual leader of a beautiful faith, Ramy is the extremely messy believer struggling to hold himself accountable for his destructive actions. He wrestles with being more than just a good Muslim, he struggles to be a good person. The pair test each other, the Sheikh challenging Ramy to destroy his ego as Ramy pushes the limits of Ali’s patience. 

Also in the mix are a string of temptations, ranging from Ramy’s porn addiction to alienating his friends with his renewed sense of morality as well as the Sheikh’s beautiful daughter Zainab. As Ramy undergoes his spiritual makeover, his family members are confronted with their own challenges. His immigrant mother struggles to understand the issue when she misgenders one of her Lyft passengers and is anxious to earn U.S. citizenship so she can vote in the upcoming election. Ramy’s father is cracking under the pressure of hiding his lay-off from everyone and becomes increasingly depressed as he realizes the American Dream doesn’t exist. Deena, Ramy’s sister, is forced to combat misogyny and Islamophobia in a way Muslim men never experience.

As a first-generation New Jersey Muslim myself, I was excited to see how creator Ramy Youssef would portray us. Our representation in Hollywood is severely lacking, usually limited to villainous terrorists or oppressive parental figures. With Ramy, Youssef wanted to honestly depict how first-generation Muslim Americans engage with their faith, instead of distancing themselves from everything that makes them different. Personally, I was expecting a diverse group of characters pursuing their respective versions of the ever-elusive American Dream and building each other up over waffles at Tops Diner in Newark, but Ramy is absolutely nothing like that. Although characters are diverse and they do hang out at a diner, it is usually to check in with Ramy’s truly awful decision-making. 

The series isn’t meant to be a catch-all work of representation for every Muslim but instead stems from the experiences of a highly flawed individual. That is not to say Ramy isn’t relatable, the range of characters and their respective worries speaks to more than just Muslim audiences. Islam is an important part of Ramy’s identity yes, but it does not make him who he is. By centering themes of forgiveness, redemption as well as discrimination and the dangers of ego, Ramy masterfully opens the door to audiences from all walks of life. 

TV Shows Pop Culture Interviews

Golden Globe winner Ramy Youssef on disrupting Hollywood’s Muslim stereotypes – and what really keeps him going

First-generation Muslim American Ramy Youssef isn’t your typical actor. He’s made waves by taking home a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical television series, for his role in the Hulu series Ramy.

As the co-creator and star of Ramy, 28-year-old Egyptian-American actor, and stand-up comedian Youssef set out to tell stories about a kid from an immigrant family who wants to hold on to his culture. He based the main character on his own experiences growing up in suburban New Jersey as a Muslim who considers himself religious.

I felt like a lot of narratives I saw [of] first-generation children…or anyone from a strong faith background was watching them kind of try to erase where they come from.”

“It shows someone engaging with their faith in an honest way. I felt like a lot of narratives I saw [of] first-generation children…or anyone from a strong faith background was watching them kind of try to erase where they come from and distance themselves from the tension of their parents and culture,” Youssef said in an interview with The Tempest. “I wanted to make something that reflected my experience. [That experience saw me] trying to honestly engage and identify with my background, but still asking questions about it.”

With a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Ramy is built around Ramy Hassan, played by Youssef, a Muslim unsure of what type of Muslim he is or ought to be. The show breaks stigmas and barriers in the Muslim community by addressing topics like sex and dating in Islam, as well as post 9/11 feels.

During our interview with Youssef, we discussed Muslim American representation in the media, his character and spoke of the importance of diverse and authentic representation in the entertainment industry.

The show’s trailer premiered in March, racking up more than 5.6 million views on Youtube. Muslims, in particular, have reacted strongly, with many feeling represented, while others criticized the show’s portrayal of American Muslims and the absence of Muslim women.

Youssef acknowledges the critiques, explaining that Ramy isn’t meant to represent all Muslims. “[As Muslims,] we take a burden on to try to represent everybody and that’s not fair, that’s not something other creators have to do in the same way. It’s important to tell the most specific story to you, don’t worry about any of the feedback or blowback because your job is to actually make something that you can grow from.”

When it came to the importance of representation, particularly the media’s often inaccurate and harsh portrayals of Muslims, Youssef explained his thought process while developing the show. As an Arab-Muslim, he represented the identity he could best depict.

“This is just one piece of representation. This is a small slice of an Arab Muslim family, most Muslims in America don’t even fall under that category,” Youssef said. “Most Muslims in America are Black, while many are South Asian. So this isn’t an antidote to a 24-hour news cycle or years of propaganda and war literature on Muslims. It’s simply just one piece of the puzzle.” 

According to Youssef, there are a lot of differences between the Ramy he plays and his real life. He spoke about the family in the show as compared to his own and described how in real life he has a creative outlet to express himself, whereas Ramy, the character, does not.

“This isn’t an antidote to a 24-hour news cycle or years of propaganda and war literature on Muslims. It’s simply just one piece of the puzzle.” 

“This character, this family talks a little less to each other and this character has less of an outlet so he’s more stuck. But the thing that I really love about this character and something that really resonates with me in real life is that when he has a problem or when he’s trying to figure himself out or get the best version of himself he prays,” Youssef said.

“He turns to God. That is where he goes, that is how he feels comfortable expressing himself and trying to figure himself out. This was something that was really important for me to put out there and that I wanted to have seen,” he added.

Youssef aims to depict the reality of Muslims in his show. He wants the audience to see that Muslims have the same problems, values, and desires other Americans do. 

[Image Description: Three men, Youssef, left, with Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje, are seated in prayer, while Youssef looks up and to the sky.] Via Barbara Nitke/Hulu
[Image Description: Three men, Youssef, left, with Mohammed Amer and Dave Merheje, are seated in prayer, while Youssef looks up and to the sky.] Via Barbara Nitke/Hulu

“I want the audience to see that Muslims have vulnerabilities. I want them [the audience] to take a look at the types of problems that this family and character face and understand that our problems are very much like anybody else problems.”

Through this show, Youssef hopes to recontextualize words and spaces, while also demystifying the tropes about how Muslims are and operate. “When you hear ‘Allahu Akhbar’ in America it means something violent, but when you watch this show, you realize that is something people say when they are looking to find a calm moment- when they are looking to reflect, just an act of worship that is tied to being a human.”

“Dehumanization here is what’s most important. Anything else is just very specific to this story and not really indicative of anything more than that,” he added.

When asked about the advice he would give to fellow Muslim Americans seeking to follow in his career path, Youssef spoke of the importance of taking risks.

“Try to pray and drink a lot of water.”

“Take risks, don’t be worried about the feedback that you may or may not get. Just know, that if you’re young and want to be something, you just have to be as authentic as you can. Be yourself,” Youseff said.

He finished his advice off with a practical note: “Try to pray and drink a lot of water.”

The first season of Ramy is available on Hulu. Earlier this year, the network announced that the show had been renewed for a second season.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Book Reviews Books Pop Culture

“A Place For Us” perfectly captured my complex relationship with community

Any love story worth paying attention to has two integral components: conflict and devotion. Often the former gives way to the latter, but in Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel, A Place For Us, the two coexist, both in her writing and in the lived experiences that inspired it. Mirza’s novel is not a love story in the way that you are thinking, although there are a number of romantic subplots within the narrative. At its core, A Place For Us is a love letter to community, specifically the Indian-American Muslim community whose culture, customs and complexities are at the center of the narrative.

The novel catches a family in the middle of their eldest daughter, Hadia’s, wedding, which also marks the return of Amar, the estranged youngest child, back into the folds of his family after three years away. Going back and forth in time, the novel tells the story of Rafiq and Layla, immigrants from India, to whom religion, tradition, and culture are both a comforting reminder of their old lives in India and an anchor in their new lives as Americans. Their children, Hadia, Huda and Amar, are attempting to navigate their way between their parents’ world and their present reality, to find a balance between doing right by their roots and staying true to themselves.

Throughout her novel, Mirza situates this family firmly within a wider community and culture. This is evident in the locations where much of the novel takes place: obligatory prayers and Quran classes at the local mosque, functions at the homes of different families within the community, basketball games in mosque parking lots. Many of the most significant events in the characters’ lives are also a by-product of these wider influences, from the pressure to fit in, rumors and gossip, to unconditional support and unspoken solidarity. It is clear that their community, culture, and religious convictions have a deep pull on the central characters, who are both fiercely loyal to and struggling against them.

When you belong to a community that is not widely represented in mainstream media and art – like the one Mirza writes about – there are certain complexities in how you choose to depict them when given the chance. Ideally, you would do so with total accuracy and transparency, but there is always the fear that if you expose the bad as well as the good, the former will contribute to pre-existing stereotypes and rhetoric while the latter remains largely ignored. This is particularly true with regard to Muslim communities because we are at the mercy of a media landscape that refuses to see us as anything but homogenous. And so we are torn between propaganda and accuracy, between irresponsibility and betrayal.

Mirza finds a solution to this dilemma in a single, powerful tool that is the foundation of her storytelling: empathy. She knows her characters intimately and loves them despite this. The same applies to the wider community in the novel, which is reflective of her own. Raised in California by Indian Muslim immigrants, Mirza walks the precarious line between loyalty and clear-sightedness with careful diplomacy.

It can be intimidating to disclose – no matter how subtly – the flaws of one’s community, marginalized or otherwise. And Mirza is subtle, touching on the sexism, the judgment, and the immense pressure that exists within the Indian Muslim community without ever sounding preachy or deprecatory. Even in her criticism, she is deeply empathetic. She recognizes where these flaws come from, in what environments these injustices and oppressions grow, compelling us to understand them without excusing them. She communicates that all these things exist simultaneously with the warmth of the community, the hospitality, the unyielding loyalty, the generosity, the fierce love – and that to weigh either side against the other to come to a definitive conclusion is both impossible and unnecessary.

 As we do with those we truly love, Mirza recognizes and confronts her community’s shortcomings with a degree of empathy and thoughtfulness that catches you off-guard, especially in the fourth and final part of the novel. A Place For Us shows that there is a middle ground in between the extremes of blind loyalty and calculated critique and that writers and artists from marginalized communities must claim for themselves that space that is so easily afforded to everyone else.

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USA Gender Politics The World Inequality

Rashida Tlaib, the midterms, and the pursuit of politicians who look like us

For those not living in Michigan, Rashida Tlaib’s congressional win seemingly came out of nowhere. And yet, Muslims and Palestinian Americans everywhere didn’t hesitate to celebrate following Tlaib’s victories.  Pleasantly surprised and inspired, I decided to do my own research on Tlaib.

Rashida Tlaib ran on a platform of being a non-traditional candidate who saw herself as more of an activist than a politician; a sentiment that helped propel her to victory in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District as they looked to replace former Representative John Conyers Jr. Before resigning last year amid sexual harassment allegations, Conyers’ resume included co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus and being the first lawmaker to propose the making of a national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. As a result, those vying for his seat needed a history of standing by minority communities.

Rashida Tlaib had it.

From protesting President Trump during a speech at the Detroit Economic Club in 2016 to trespassing on corporate land to test for pollution, Tlaib was truly an activist. When speaking to the New York Times, Tlaib said “much of her strength came from being Palestinian” and never shying away from her identity.

Even on the night of her primary win, Tlaib’s mother draped her in a Palestinian flag.

This strong identification with her Palestinian-American background alongside her history of activism helped her win MI-13. Yet, no matter how proud Tlaib was of her identity, she advocated for policies that hurt the very group of Palestinian Americans she championed.

During the race, we saw a candidate endorsed by lobby group J Street, an organization that required a candidate to oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, and support the continued military aid to Israel. This deeply concerned me and many other Palestinian-Americans who believed that the BDS movement and the use of aid as a bargaining tool was vital in encouraging Israel to end their human rights violations. Both of which Tlaib didn’t support.

Today, the situation is different. A week after having won the primary election, Tlaib finally spoke out on the issue and reversed her decision by no longer supporting aid to Israel until it complied with international law. Moreover, she’d declared that she was willing to stand behind the BDS movement. With that,  J Street removed its endorsement and the worries of her followers subsided.

It was then, and only then, did it seem that Tlaib might truly stand to do her part in providing a Palestinian-American voice in Congress.

Though, what is troubling to me is how so many supporters beyond MI-13 were satisfied with the fact that a Palestinian-American Muslim woman had even won the primary despite not doing anything to guarantee that this victory was truly one beneficial for Palestinian and Muslim Americans alike. Thousands from beyond MI-13 were ready to cheer her on without a second thought, even if her stance was more harmful to Palestinians compared to those of other members in Congress with no connection to Palestine.

This election cycle, therefore, taught me something especially valuable as more minorities run for office: we can’t quietly assume that those who look like us will always support us. More importantly, we can’t tell ourselves that the fact they’ve made it that far as a minority in America is enough. This notion of “existence is resistance” cannot allow us to accept politicians who enact harmful policies. It is an injustice to ourselves.

Election Day has come and gone, and Rashida Tlaib is no longer the Democratic candidate for MI-13. She’s the representative. Yes, we can celebrate her. However, it’s also our responsibility to continue diligently watching her and her policies.

After all, Tlaib only spoke out and lost J Street’s endorsement after the public showed their outrage. So we must let any politician seeking to represent us know that we are watching and listening because, at the end of the day, the election of any politician is dependent on our satisfaction.

Gender & Identity Food & Drinks Life

Chai is more than just a cup of tea – it’s a world of memories, stolen moments, and family

A cup of chai is more than just a cup of spicy leaf water for those in the desi community.

It’s drinking chai from delicate china at a dawat that your mother dragged you to when you’d rather just be at home reading Children of the Corn.

Steam from the cup fogging up your brand-new prescription glasses as aunties coddle you with, “Mashallah, how tall she’s grown!” and maybe a little of, “She’s put on a little weight, na?”

[bctt tweet=”Chai is more than just a cup of spicy leaf water.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Perhaps it’s that extra teaspoon (or three) of sugar as you try to awkwardly make small talk with the girls whose shiny salwars remind you of the days that you all used to choreograph Bollywood dance numbers together.

Or the aftertaste that lingers long after you’ve nodded off on the car ride home, lights from the highway dancing over the stain on your shawl where you spilled that second cup.

The first time you make it perfectly by pure luck.

Then your mother hypes you up a bit too much for the house guests and you end up making hot water with complementary floating tea grounds. You spend afternoons finishing math homework and watching your nana skillfully pouring, filtering and answering your probing questions about what the gross milky film does for the tea beside make you gag.

[bctt tweet=”They drink ambrosia out of foam cups and laugh rumbling belly laughs.” username=”wearethetempest”]

She in turn, patiently teaches you to identify the right shade of brown and warns that Lipton tea bags are the devil’s answer to the holiness of properly brewed chai.

Trial and error join as your mentors, with pots upon pots of wasted chai; some too sweet, some too white, some with grounds, or some full of coffee because you weren’t in the mood.

Until, finally, you learn the perfect ratio of evaporated milk to liquor to which your nana smiles her red paan-stained smile.

[bctt tweet=” Lipton tea bags are the devil’s answer to properly brewed chai.” username=”wearethetempest”]

You learn that not all chai was meant for consumption. Like the kind at Starbucks. Or the kind at your mosque for that matter. After long Ramadan days, the last thing you need is the nonsense that the masjid ladies try to disguise as “chai.”

It’s not.

No amount of prayer or those godforsaken Lipton tea bags could revive the telltale taste or even caffeinate you enough to stay standing tall during the seemingly ceaseless night prayers. Of course, until you find out about the league of dads (of which your dad is a member) and their covert operation that involves bringing traditional desi chai from home and distributing to others suffering under the mosque’s oppression.

You join them in the dimly lit parking lot as they drink ambrosia out of foam cups and laugh those rumbling belly laughs.

Mosquitos may have also congregated (for worship or vice you are still unsure) and the dewy humidity of Florida glues your hijab to your neck, but, hot chai awaits. Despite your father’s lectured precaution, your over-enthusiasm earns you a burned tongue.

But it tastes like the summer night so your injury is a small price to pay.

[bctt tweet=”Because chai is desi communion granulated, steeped and poured into fine china.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Chai is what your family asks for when they drive up to see you after weeks apart. College mornings are lovely, but family visits in the afternoons are what make the struggles worth it. With practiced perfection, you pour and boil and filter cups for everyone as your mother berates you for not eating enough and your father makes a joke about shining his already glistening expanse of a scalp.  You feel the sweet aroma of added spices curl around your sisters as they obnoxiously try to out-sing each other.

Cinnamon is spilled on the counter because you are lazy, but also laughing, content, and happy.

And when the chai warms your hands as you glance around the chittering room, vacant of empty space and full of unspoken adoration, you smile into your cup.

Because chai is desi communion granulated, steeped and poured into fine china, ready to bring you back to your roots with every whiff of spice.

Love Life Stories

I’m sick of feeling left out of everything in life just because I don’t drink

While shopping at Express last week with a friend, I was digging through the bargain bin for t-shirts I knew I still couldn’t afford. Every time I found a nice one, it had an alcohol reference on it. “Run, I Thought You Said Rum.” “Mornings Are For Mimosas.” “I’ve Tried Running But I Kept Spilling My Wine.”

Each t-shirt got me more and more frustrated because while they were cute, I don’t drink.

I expressed my annoyance at how alcohol-centric even clothes can get, and my friend launched into a rant about work events. Every time she’s excited for the chance of free food, she said, it turns out that there’s nothing offered there but drinks. No good non-alcoholic options, either. My friend actually used to drink but is trying to give it up, and I have to hand it to her. I can totally see why someone would relapse—it’s impossible to escape.

As I move into the “adult” world, I find that alcohol culture is pervasive. When you’ve got a new idea that you want to discuss with a potential partner, they ask you out for drinks. When the office wants to celebrate a promotion or take the time to wind down together, there’s an email invite for cocktails at the bar.

And while it is totally possible to go anyway and just not drink, you feel the pressure.

You feel like an outcast.

According to a friend who works on Wall Street, the biggest reason he drinks is that business deals are made over booze. While on the interview trail for residency, my fiancé told me about how he commiserated with a fellow non-drinking Muslim over the difficulty in networking with potential colleagues, when you’re the only one not drinking at the post-interview dinner.

Maybe it’s why I’m one of the few people who actually miss high school. While people did drink when we were teenagers, access wasn’t easy nor was it frequent. It wasn’t the focus of every social scene. But once I got into college, I found that not only was it harder to make friends as a teetotaler, it was even harder to keep them.

People immediately assume my reasons for abstaining from alcohol are entirely religious. It’s a logical assumption to make, although some of the biggest boozehounds I’ve ever known are Muslim. While religion does factor in, I have multiple reasons for why I don’t drink.

Yet it often seems like I’m being punished for every single one.

In college where beer is abundant, friends started to drop like flies. My best friend, later fiancé, and I found ourselves often left out of plans by friends who just wanted to drink. Having juice or soda in our cup apparently just wasn’t enough. Everyone seemed to make friends in their dorm building except me. Because I wasn’t imbibing the same thing as everyone else, I had lost my social worth.

It was baffling to me until I went to a housewarming for a childhood friend and his boyfriend. A friend of our friend offered me a drink, and as usual, I declined. It wasn’t until she inquired further that I mentioned that I don’t drink at all. Immediately, she was concerned that I might be offended by them drinking around me. I laughed and told her not to worry, that I don’t mind a bit.

But she kept checking in with me and apologizing for basically just enjoying herself. She was honestly so sweet about it that I almost felt bad, but it was this encounter that made me realize that somehow, for some reason, my not drinking seems to make others uncomfortable.

And, pardon my lack of eloquence, but that’s just so freaking unfair.

I’ve half-jokingly debated telling people that I’m an alcoholic, just so that others stop acting like drinking is an affront to my teetotaling sensibilities. I’m tired of feeling like I’m a total freak for not wanting to do something that isn’t even essential to spending time with others. I can easily hang out where there is alcohol, and I have—when I’m invited.

It’s somehow even worse among our Muslim friends. A friend told my fiancé that part of the reason why our popularity had decreased is that people assumed the teetotalers would also be tattletales.

I’m not going to lie, that utterly pissed me off.

These are people who should know me. In all their fear of us judging them, they ended up judging us. And honestly, it really hurt.

[bctt tweet=”It’s somehow even worse among our Muslim friends.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Of course, we do have friends who are more than down for our non-alcohol related plans. We spend our days in escape rooms, amusement parks, playing laser tag, watching movies, and going on food adventures, bank accounts permitting. But even our nearest and dearest sometimes leave us out of plans to go the bar or just share a bottle at someone’s house.

I’ve come to realize, however, that it’s their loss, not ours. Although you’d think people would take advantage of having a built-in designated driver.

The Internet Humor BRB Gone Viral Pop Culture

These 21 Muslim memes will have you dying of laughter

1. We all know that “inshallah” really means no.

2. Lotas ain’t got nothing on these babies.

3. Poor guy.

4. “Muslim People Time” is definitely a thing.

5. Pre-med struggles.

6. Seems plausible.

7. “We’re living in 2017 whereas this guy is in 2097. Perpetual wudu, never have to break salaah again.”

8. Time to bust out the Hand of Fatima necklaces and blue-eye bracelets.

9. Ball is life?

10. Yikes.

11. Bonus points if you’re pre-med

12. Sisters, imagine you are like lollipop. Would you eat it uncovered?

13. We’ve been busted.

14. Babas have an uncanny way of walking in the room at exactly the wrong time.

15. The realest thing I’ve ever seen.

16. Don’t play yourself.

17. We all know this guy.

18. Who’s his henna artist?

19. It’s the sunnah, guys.

20. Y’all need to give us more credit, this has been a thing since flip phones first came out.

21. Akh-med?
Gender & Identity Life

If you are a Muslim in America, there’s no way you can’t be political

Look, politics is a heavy word. I get it.

There is so much stress, hostility, judgement, and investment in the politics. Understandably, people might feel nervous to jump into the world of political engagement.

Maybe you’re scared you won’t be able to contribute anything of worth. Maybe you crave the approval and esteem of everyone and are afraid to alienate anyone because of your beliefs. Maybe you feel you’re too busy. Maybe you think you need to ‘stay in your lane.’ Maybe you think nothing political really affects you.

But I need to tell you something. Being Muslim in America is political.

This question and subsequent discussion about the role of Muslims in the political arena is something I’ve been experiencing a lot lately. Reading and listening to discourse Muslim leaders today has often centered around one sentiment that our faith has been politicized, and that couldn’t be more true.

You might not be politically engaged, but if you’re Muslim, you cannot be nonpolitical, because your faith is politicized.  Something innate to your identity has become a consistent bureaucratic topic of discussion. Your religion gets depicted and debated all over television, newspapers, and overheard conversations.

I was born and raised in this nation, and I grew up seeing my religion be mispronounced and misrepresented in the media. I don’t remember my parents sitting me down and having a specific conversation about it, but I grew up knowing there was a significant number of people in this country who would hate me simply on the basis of my religion.

Almost every Muslim I know has had an experience with bullying, or some kind of hateful encounter. A stranger in New York City once abruptly approached me and called me a “sick jihadist.”

And this narrative only gets more common and more aggressive in today’s climate. An FBI report showed that hate crimes against Muslims climbed to 67% in 2015. In 2016, there was a rise in hate groups across the United States with anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripling from 2015 to 2016. In 2015, three Muslim students in Chapel Hill were killed and their murders were frequently reported as a ‘parking dispute.’  In New York, in 2016, an Imam and his assistant were shot to death in broad daylight. A 60 year old Muslim woman who was the aunt of an NYPD officer was stabbed to death in September 2016. A Moroccan cab driver was shot and the jury acquitted the shooter of all charges. A bigoted women punched two Muslim women in the face while they were pushing their babies in strollers, and tried to rip off their hijabs (headscarves). A Muslim store owner was physically assaulted in his shop in Queens. A mosque in Victoria, Texas, was set on fire and while federal investigators ruled in arson, they said there was not evidence of a hate crime. A mosque in Davis, California, was vandalized. A Muslim woman’s shirt was set on fire in New York in September 2016.  Muslim students on university campuses are being targeted by racist and bigoted campaigns. The Huffington Post tracked 385 anti-Muslim acts in 2016.

Elected officials and political candidates throw Islam around in press conferences, speeches, and statements like it’s not a religion 20 percent of the world believes in and follows. Like Islam is nothing more than a political tool and problem.

They’re not even subtle about it, guys. Profiling. Surveillance. Immigration. Nobody’s pretending that these conversations and policies aren’t about us, however uninformed they are.

There’s no escaping it. Islam is politicized in America. It’s a fact. Unfortunate, but true.

So, considering all this, what do we do? Is there a right and wrong way to be active in our communities? Are we even obligated to get involved?

I don’t know the right answer.

For some, the answer is to keep their faith kind of hidden, and that’s fine. Everybody needs to take care of themselves and their safety first and foremost. Self-care looks different everybody and nobody else can impose their customs on anyone else. Everyone has different approaches to life.

But for everyone else who can’t hide their faith, or doesn’t want to, at the very least, understand your existence is now politically charged.

I can’t tell you what you do with that information.

Personally, yeah, I do think it’s our responsibility to be proactive in our communities. I don’t want to allow others to step on me and my beliefs, and my community, because they think we’re weak, quiet, and isolated. I think the answer is to get organized and to work with other communities, particularly other marginalized groups.

We need to build a network of fierce individuals who don’t just get together when something terrible has happened, but continue demanding, united, for the rights and representation they deserve the whole time.

It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, and I understand. Where do we start? We can support the institutions that are our advocates, like the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and Amnesty International.

We should at least recognize that acknowledgement of our politicized faith is not a commitment to a particular political party or a partisan candidate or cause. Involvement and engagement in the political and social arena are still forms of claiming agency over your narrative and your existence, no matter where on the spectrum you fall.

We don’t all have to be doing the same things. Not everyone has to be attending rallies and protests (though, I totally recommend it). You can get involved in your local governments. Run for office! Ask your neighbor what you can do to support them. Smile at somebody. Volunteer in community-based organizations.

I can’t dictate how you live your life – whether you call your politicians, support candidates, publicly advocate for your community, or educate yourself and others on important causes.

That choice is up to you.

Politics The World

This Somali-American refugee is making history in city politics – and she’s not backing down

In District 7 of Boston, there is somebody who put in a new bid for Council. Her name is Deeqo Jibril and she is an inspiring single mother of four children. She says her life’s purpose is to give and grow.

As an advocate for the Somalian community in Boston, she created the Somali Community and Culture Association (SCCA) in 2009. She is not only the founder and executive director but also a current board member in this organization. The goal of the SCCA is to empower Somali women through education, services, and support.

She has worked with the ABCD Housing Department and Roxbury Children Services as a case manager helping immigrants to understand and obtain affordable housing across Massachusetts. She worked for the political campaigns of Governor Deval Patrick and Senator Elizabeth Warren, and with State Senator Jarrett Barrios. Ms. Jibril is a self-described advocate for social justice and immigration, and these values show in her work.

She works with the Boston Police Department to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the Somali and Muslim communities. Deeqo organized the first Boston Police and Muslim youth dialogues as well as the FBI Somali youth academy. She also organized the first iftar between her local community and the law enforcement which had over 200 attendees. She works very hard in her community to battle radicalization as well. 

“Deeqo Jibril announced her candidacy for the District 7 City Council seat on February 1, 2017. She cited the Muslim travel ban as a catalyst for her candidacy, saying she felt inspired by the millions of people who were fighting for American inclusivity. Deeqo also said she wanted to be an inspiration for other immigrants to run for political offices across Massachusetts and the country.”

I hope to see others become as inspired by Deeqo as I am. She came here from Somalia when she was 12 in 1991 as a refugee and she persevered through all the hardships that come with migrating to a new country to get where she is today.

As if she didn’t have enough accolades, Jibril started the African Market in Boston and also began the Women’s Financial Literacy Program, which provides a roadmap to homeownership. Deeqo has worked with Goodwill and Strive to help immigrants get lasting careers, as well as being a solid resource for Somali people to navigate the job market. She teaches people how to use existing career-based technology, for instance.

Deeqo Jibril is passionate about all that she does and applies herself to everything with all of her heart. Deeqo is a mother, an advocate, a humanitarian, a refugee, a Muslim, an American, and a community leader.

Politics The World

This election has me fearing for my life – your vote matters today

When you go to the polls today – and I hope you do – please consider the fate of all Americans, especially minorities fearing for their lives. You can support the safety of virtually every oppressed individual in America, or vote against Clinton for a false sense of moral superiority. Not voting would be a slap in the face to naturalized citizens and undocumented immigrants, who would cherish the opportunity to determine the direction of our nation.

Choosing not to vote or voting for a third-party candidate is essentially a vote for Trump. Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has fueled an unprecedented rise in hate crimes against minorities, making me fear for my family’s safety as a Muslim-American. Most recently, his supporters set fire to a Black church, writing “Vote Trump” on its walls.

When considering your options today, please separate your dreams from the reality of the current political climate. I want women to exercise their legal right to be topless in the streets of New York, without the fear of street harassment or worse. But that’s not reality. I would be a terrible activist if I advocated women do so just because that’s the dream we’re fighting toward. In the same vein, please contemplate the consequences of your power to vote today.

I am not drinking the Hillary Kool Aid, or playing the Woman Card. I share some of your frustrations about Clinton, who voted in favor of the Iraq War and what I would term as the ‘unPatriot Act’ — both policies I abhor. But I understand the differences between the candidates, take seriously what’s at stake, and want what is best for our country.

In order to eliminate evils and inequalities, we need someone who can sit at the table with hostile people and convince them to work together. Ideally, I want this person to be a completely pure individual, without any special interest ties, empathetic to the core, and radically peaceful. In other words, perfect!

There is no such thing as a perfect candidate or human being. Obama deported more immigrants than any other President in history, including women and children fleeing life-threatening violence. Obama also accomplished much, including the Affordable Care Act. Have you been as vocal about your disdain for Obama’s actions that are similar to Clinton’s? If not, you must examine if it is Clinton’s policies or your unconscious bias at play.

Major progress and long-term gains require multi-pronged strategies of both protest and diplomacy. Progress requires balancing idealism with efficacy, a difficult reckoning. Americans who refuse to vote for Clinton are losing sight of the bigger picture, choosing the sole strategy of protest over progress.

The Violence against Women Act (VAWA) is a successful example of balancing idealism with realistic targets. The first adaptation of the Bill left much to be desired, but advocates knew they needed to pass that inadequate version to continue expanding protections for crime victims. After all, VAWA proponents were asking for bipartisan support to punish misogynistic crimes and provide millions in government funding to fight gender-based violence. VAWA supporters continue to push the needle forward, most recently adding protections for LGBTQAI individuals, immigrants and Native American survivors. If the advocates dug in their heels 20 years ago before the original passage of the VAWA, none of the millions of rape or domestic violence survivors would have received critical services for the last two decades.

#ImWithHer because every major newspaper—including conservative publications that have never supported a democratic candidate—has endorsed Clinton and has warned the public about Trump’s fascist qualities. Clinton is a qualified candidate, while Trump is a textbook case of a narcissist, rapist, abuser, pathological liar, and a host of other frightening qualities, which will be magnified in a position of power.

If Clinton doesn’t win, minorities like me would be in physical danger. I support Clinton because it would be ignorant at best and sinister at worst, to allow her opponent to become President. When you say you are not voting for Clinton because “she’s just as bad as Trump,” – what you are actually saying, is that you don’t care about my safety. You are expressing that you would be fine allowing someone to become the President of our nation who incites violence against myself and other minorities. You are communicating that the real fear and lived experiences of myself and other Muslim Americans, Blacks, Latinos, LGBTQAI folks, and other countless minorities are not valid. You are telling me that you are OK putting my life and the lives of others in danger for a sense of moral superiority.

I hope you will use your power and privilege compassionately to vote for the right candidate.

Race The World Inequality

Don’t sweep the sexism behind the Mansour shooting under the rug

I recently read an article online about a family in Ohio where a father shot his daughter twice in the head. The family claims in the article that the father is suffering from diabetes, but is not under medical care.

(Last time I checked, there is no link whatsoever between shooting your children and diabetes).

The family is Arab from the description and names in the article. Doing the work I do around gender violence in a predominantly Arab American and Muslim American community, the article stroke deep with me. Then I made the mistake of going to the comments section.

Well-meaning brothers and sisters are encouraging others to not make assumptions, but make duaa (prayers). That’s fine, make duaa for this slain sister and her family, but then talk about the issue and take action. We have to face an ugly truth in our communities; domestic violence does affect Arab and Muslim Americans.

Gender violence is a real thing in Arab American and Muslim American communities, and affects women and girls at a disproportionate rate like a lot of other places around the world. We cannot ignore or pretend this does not happen to us. By silencing the issue, it does not make it go away, but makes another headline.

The words honor-killing was thrown around a lot in the comments. Muslims and Arabs mostly defending this incident as nothing of the sort. Non-Muslims, mostly white, exclaiming the tragedy as nothing but the barbaric practice. This made me feel very conflicted as a Muslim Arab American.

On one hand, I felt compelled to defend my religion and culture against false stereotypes and refute any argument that could perpetuate Islamophobia. I know that violence does not have a place in Islam.

On the other, as a woman, I could not deny the social and cultures attitudes in an Arab community that can be harmful for girls especially when traditional gender roles are being challenged.

Then someone commented. An Arab guy actually, stated, “You never read about Arab fathers killing their sons like this.” We cannot deny that specific cultural norms marginalize our girls. That some of our traditional gender norms create gender disparities and inequities.

Our culture teaches us girls are held to completely set of standards than boys. Not always a bad thing, but we have to admit that when a girl does something deemed explicitly “haraam”(forbidden) in the eyes of the community, she faces very different consequences than a boy. She may face gossip, slut-shaming, mental abuse, be ostracized, and suffer physical abuse. This does happen, stop saying it doesn’t!

I do not know if this was the situation in this tragic incident. I am not assuming that this incident was a case of gender violence based on inequitable cultural norms. I do not know if the father suffered mental illness. I do know that this article can spark a conversation around gender disparities and domestic violence and move us to take action.

It’s important that cultural-specific communities call out their own so these issues can be tackled by the best suited strategies for their communities.

Gender & Identity Life

This is a golden opportunity for Muslims

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.