When I converted to Islam back in August of 2000, I knew it would be a gradual transition of adding regular prayers throughout the day, fasting during Ramadan, and changing my wardrobe. However, these changes proved to be minimal compared to the challenge of dealing with negative opinions about Islam and Muslims. I steered clear of the people who wanted to bring negativity in my life, but when the comments came from family, they were harder to swallow.
A year later when people began to finally accept my decision, September 11th happened, and my world was torn apart since that time. Out of fear of repercussions aimed at the Muslim community and concern for my safety, for a year my parents refused to let me leave the house with hijab. SoI began to carry my headscarf in my purse, slipping it on once they were out of sight and hiding it again when I came home. It was a time when I was forbidden to practice my faith outwardly, but it only made me firmer in my conviction. I had something to stand up for, to fight for, and the more suppressed I felt, the more I wanted to be a Muslim. My personal relationship with God was at stake and that type of freedom cannot be taken away.
I came from a military family and had to also deal with the fact that my father and brother, both in the ARMY faced possible deployment if the U.S. was to retaliate in the aftermath of the attack. My fears materialized when my brother, the only sibling I have, was sent to Iraq and later Afghanistan. He often told me, “This is your people’s fault.” Suddenly all Arabs and Afghans, regardless of their background or faith (because not all of them are Muslims) became “my people.” I felt alienated in my own skin, rejected for my beliefs by the one person who I felt was supposed to understand me the most.
It was not the first or the last time I dealt with discrimination. I had been scoffed at for speaking in Spanish with my mother in a supermarket, escorted out of a “white” church because I was a person of color, called a “spic” or “rico suave” in middle and high school by some of my peers. But this new type of hate was based on something deeper, and I had to struggle with it even in my own home.
Fast-forward to four years after 9/11, I met my husband. He too is a Hispanic Muslim convert. After becoming a mother in 2006, I realized that I was confronted with the greatest task of my adult life, raising my children to be good, productive citizens and more notably, practicing Muslims. Sadly, the atmosphere of hatred and mistrust for “my people,” my fellow Muslims, had not changed. On the contrary, it has gotten worse. That same anxiety that drove my parents to try and stop me from practicing Islam to protect me is haunting me as a parent. Nevertheless, I do not allow this atmosphere of fear to keep me from passing on the peaceful teachings of Islam to my children, especially at a time when faith is so crucial to keep a person grounded and spiritually sound.
As Muslims, as people of color, and as Latinos living in the United States, we often feel the brunt of the hateful rhetoric so rampant now in our society. I am grateful that I have not been physically assaulted, but I have been at the receiving end of verbal abuse, sometimes in the presence of my own children. I have been called a terrorist, I have been told to go back to my country, and I have been labeled oppressed. In the middle of all of this, what gives me hope is that for every negative comment I hear, there are thousands of positive ones. That, along with the driving force of our faith, keeps us going.
For the last 15 years, I have been raising my children through the thick and thin of racist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic rhetoric while working to combat stereotypes and misconceptions about Islam. Working in media, non-profit organizations, Islamic centers, and educational institutions has taught me different methods of speaking to people about Islam. I write for newspapers, magazines, websites, and even worked as an operator for an Islamic information call center, hopefully setting an example for my children to follow. During one call, my older son was sitting close to me, and he overheard an adamant caller making false accusations about Muslims and Islam over the phone. His voice was loud, and his tone harsh while he spewed all his hatred in my ear. I glanced over at my 9-year-old to see if he was listening and saw his shocked expression of disbelief. I excused myself from the call after the man began cursing.
I turned my attention to my son and comforted him, explaining to him, “Don’t worry, not everyone is like that.” And he responded, “Mami, nobody should be like that.” His words were so innocent yet full of wisdom. I understood at that point that my children’s generation is coming into the world as it is, with many broken souls; our job is to provide them with the love and security they need to build confidence to confront whatever trials they will face with dignity and courage.
It is crucial to be mindful of our own reactions because they will shape how our children interact with others. I have since had many conversations with my children about the horrible things that have happened in our history and that continue to occur, driven by mankind’s lower desires of greed, envy, and hatred. However, there are silver linings; some people become interested in Islam and others stand beside us to fight injustice. I remind them that we must counteract evil with knowledge and faith. I emphasize the need for education and cultural awareness, empathy, and reflection. Allah states so many examples in the Quran that are deemed “for those who reflect.”
Every September 11th that passes, 20 years after the attacks that brought down the twin towers in New York, Americans are reminded to never forget. Opening and reopening that wound allows the disease of hate to spread and infect even the youngest generations. Indeed, we won’t forget because so much has changed since that day. However, rather than despair, we can use this day to reflect on Allah’s mercy and His promise that “with hardship comes ease.” We can choose to focus on healing and hope.
(Adapted from https://www.momsrising.org/blog/fifteen-years-of-hate-a-lifetime-of-lessons, March 2016)