I converted to Islam in 2012. At that time, I didn’t know that relations between Muslims and the West were going to get so bad. The Middle East, and Muslim Extremists, were mostly off my radar after the Iraq war. I converted because when I read the Qur’an I felt like God was talking to me and it made me want to be a better person. I had also incidentally fallen in love with a Muslim man. My family wasn’t very religious, and my brother had already converted to Judasim, so it did not seem too crazy to me to convert to a new religion. I was happy that I found a religion that worked for me, one I could build a future family around, and decided to practice it to the fullest of my ability.
For a lot of reasons, many of which I created in my own head, it was not that easy. People have so many ideas about Islam. But the oddest thing was, nobody’s ideas about the religion actually had to do with the Qur’an and Sunnah. They just knew about this vague, scary, oppressive way of life that the media dubbed “Shariah Law”. The only reason I knew any differently was because I had decided to take Arabic on a whim in college, and then went on to get my masters in Near Eastern Studies. So as I sat in my classes on Near Eastern studies, soaking everything in about my new way of life, I felt so grateful for my amazing professors who perfectly separated culture from religion from the media. They made everything so clear, and it became so clear how much I loved Islam and the way it taught such humility, kindness, and simplicity. I was satisfied that Islam was a separate entity from its more famous “islamist” alter-ego, and I started to get more educated on the religion, how to correctly practice it, the different rulings on different issues. I was thrilled to see it became the center of my life. Since childhood, I had yearned for a religion to call my own, something I could actually believe in, a higher power that took care of me and brought me peace and a sense of purpose. I had found it 🙂
And yet, for the first year or two, I hid practically every religious act I did. I hid the fact that I prayed. I sidestepped the fact that I actually believed that the Qur’an told the literal truth in philosophical conversations. I told everyone that I had become a vegetarian to avoid the conversation about halal meant. It took time and a lot of courage to begin to shift the conversation with my friends and family, to explain to them that I wasn’t just adopting the culture of my fiance to make things easier. I was converting to a new religion because it’s what I deeply believed to be true. It felt like there were two initial “options”: either my conversion was looked at a casual compromise of an interfaith relationship that people tried to reduce to meaningless, or it was viewed as an evangelical, extreme “phase” I was going through that made people uncomfortable. The fact that it was neither was so hard to convey that to people, no matter how good their intentions were. I don’t know if it would have been the same had I converted to budaism or Judaism, or if I had converted to evangelical Christianity. What’s certain, is that I probably wouldn’t have felt so insecure about it.
And then ISIS started making headlines. Suddenly, Every time politics came up, I felt like I had to defend a religion I wasn’t even 100% comfortable practicing yet. I felt the pressure to become a spokesperson for Islam, to create my own narrative before people I didn’t trust decided to write me one. When people seemed OK with me, I would still be suspicious, I worried about my fiance, how he would be received, I felt the need to serve as his translator, his protector, his defender. Some of my acquaintances from high school started posting xenophobic articles and comments on Facebook. I started to wonder if my suburban town would be a safe place for me to raise my Muslim children. I started to wonder if the urban metropolis in France where Abde and I met would be a safe place to raise our children. I started to wonder if anywhere would be a safe place to raise our children.
Was I paranoid? I think I was. The truth was, I had never been a minority before. I didn’t know how to be a minority, let alone a misunderstood, victimized one. I blew things out of proportion. I assumed things about people. I got defensive. I felt suspicion and resentment towards people who didn’t understand something I still felt incapable of properly explaining. At times, I let pride turn me into a self-righteous zealot. It wasn’t always pretty, it definitely wasn’t always in line with Islamic teachings. Arrogance combined with insecurity doesn’t breed very good results, especially when you throw religion into the mix.
However, as it does, time sorted everything out. As time passed, my confidence began to return. I became more comfortable with my Muslim identity. I got settled with a new job in my hometown. My husband and I got married. I began to reconnect with my community after living in Canada for two years. All of the fluctuating and searching began to calm down, and I felt balanced. By the grace of God, my family grew to be the most accepting, curious, loving supporters of my new religion and of my now husband. I watched my parents become so invested in the unfair treatment of Muslims, and watched them run to their defense. To my defense. To my husband’s defense. I felt guilty for not giving them the chance to get familiar with the new changes. It was hard to wait for people to catch up, to be as patient with them as my husband and Muslim friends had been with me.
When the Paris attacks happened, my husband and I were shellshocked and heartbroken. Though we were currently living in Detroit, we had met in Marseille, and that city was still the heart of our world and our relationship. Paris was Marseilles’s proverbial big brother. It was my husband and my first vacation together. It was our next door neighbor. It was a city with social dynamics we related to. It was us.
And there were my colleagues and acquaintances, searching my face for answers. How sad did I look about it? What did I have to say on the issue? Would I change my Facebook profile picture to a picture of the French flag? I don’t think I imagined this, but maybe I did. Regardless, at the time it truly felt like I was being watched. So I decided to use the fact that I was being watched as a chance to educate. I reacted, publicly, openly, on social media. I said exactly how I felt, how devastated I was, how horrible and lost I felt, how we can’t forget the other countries where terror happens daily, how this was not Islam. I posted the cliche poster explaining all the reasons why terrorists have nothing to do with Muslims. I condemned the violence. I made it clear I didn’t support it AS a Muslim. And I was comforted by the amazing responses of friends and acquaintances who shared my views.
After the Paris attacks, everything felt dark. But I also noticed rays of light that I hadn’t seen before. I saw how interested, and accepting, and educated so many of my friends were. And then, so soon after, the debate about Syrian refugees surfaced in the political arena. This really tore at my heartstrings. I shared articles condemning the idea of refusing refugees, highlighting America’s founding values that condemn such ridiculous ideas. I wrote poetry. I signed petitions. I read the inscription of the statue of liberty and cried. I realized how deeply I loved the United States for what it was, after defending it from the charade of what it wasn’t. I discovered a new found love for my country, for its core values, what we were built on.
And then, just as we were recovering from the Paris attacks, there were the shootings in San Bernardino. I prayed to God that the shooters weren’t Muslims. They were. My husband and I are usually glued to the news, but I couldn’t even watch it. I was so exhausted. I had run out of things to say. I had run out of things to feel. I went to work without even mentioning it. When the news came on in the lunchroom, I was silent. I couldn’t bear condemning the attacks. Again. I watched the atmosphere shift as the fear and anger escalated. When I was alone, I just cried to myself and to God, asking him for guidance for our world. Asking for protection from the terrorists, and from those who would wrongfully target my family as being one of them. It was a scary time.
When Trump made his infamous declaration that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, I was still in the phase of wanting to block everything out. My husband and I discussed having an emergency fund so that we could leave if things got too bad. Our discussion of house hunting temporarily evaporated into thin air. It felt silly to act on such lofty dreams, to assume a life of happily ever after when everything felt so unstable. I went on social media and saw the articles posted by my friends and family condemning Trump. I felt removed, like I was watching a movie, and felt shocked at how familiar the story felt. I remembered the Japanese internment camps, the holocaust, the witch hunts. I saw people posting that its unfair to compare the holocaust to Trump’s plan to register Muslims into a database because “Jews weren’t blowing up the Germans” like the Muslims are blowing us up. I wondered if it was overly dramatic to compare the current climate with these past tragedies. I read my Muslim friends who wear hijabs post warnings to each other about staying safe. I felt guilty for not wearing one, letting my expposed hair get me off for free while they bear the brunt of the hatred. I listened to my colleagues at work, who used to support Donald Trump, say he had gone to far. That they had Muslim friends. That this was crazy. I read xenophobic comments from old friends. I read the millions of articles posted by my friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, about how “this is not America.” and cried as I watched the video of Canadian Children welcoming Syrian immigrants. I watched, I read, I watched, I read.
And I decided to get my act together. I decided to buy a farm with my husband. Somewhere far away from the city. I went and visited my grandma, I gave my aunt and cousins a hug. I made my parents eggplant Parmesan. I asked my sister to highlight my hair. I went to work. I prayed. I called my best friend from Yemen and caught up on her life. I cleaned my house. I brushed myself off, and I smiled, because I realized, as I sit here in my home, with a job, and a family that loves me, and friends who inspire me, small men with small minds have convinced me that I am a victim. But I am not a victim. I am a Muslim, and I am an American, and there are real victims who need me. There are starving orphans in Bangladesh who need the charity Islam taught me to give. There are Syrian refugees on life rafts who need the open arms America taught me to have. There are disadvantaged youth in Detroit who need the role model that my country and my religion, together, guided me into becoming. There are victims that need me for exactly what I am. So I don’t have time to get caught up in Donald Trump’s world, a world of hatred, and division, and ignorance. A world where I am trapped into being either a victim or an attacker. This is God’s world, a world where I must be grateful for all that I have, where I must be strong, and compassionate, and work for justice and peace. This is the world I live in, and my time here is short. So I’m turning off the news and I’m drying my tears. I am a Muslim American, and there is so much to do.