“I’m Muslim, But…”
by Anya Cordell
“I’m Muslim, But…No One Here Knows It”
An earlier version of this article was originally published on August 1, 2011 by Islamophobia Today, and, previously, in Tikkun, and another version appeared, after the Boston Bombings, in the Huffington Post.
Anya Cordell, recipient of the Spirit of Anne Frank Award, imagines what Anne Frank would say about anti-Muslim sentiments today.
Following a school program I had just presented, a student whispered, “Thank you so much for your program! I’m Muslim, but no one here knows it.”
I am Jewish, and this ‘confession’ sent chills down my spine, evoking histories when others may have felt compelled to whisper: “I’m Jewish…” or, “I’m black…but no one here knows it”. At another recent public program, I heard a father say with deep sorrow: “Every day my son asks, ‘Daddy, why do we have to be Muslim?'”
It is heartbreaking, and chilling, for us to feel we must “pass” to be safe, or to ask: “Why do I have to be Jewish, Catholic, Sikh, black, Latino, short, tall or whatever we simply are?” because we feel shamed, bullied, or endangered to be who we are.
My exploration of “Otherness” started in front of a make-up mirror, as a teen obsessed with fashion and beauty. It led me on an incredible journey, as I’ve passionately fought against the designation of any group as “Other” while I’ve strived to heal both myself and my culture.
“If I were Muslim, I’d kill myself.”
No, that’s not what was said. It was: “If I looked like him, I’d kill myself.”
The speaker was my favorite uncle, commenting on an overweight man, across a hotel pool. Considering how much self-talk I had engaged in to convince myself to be seen in a swimsuit while visiting my California relatives, I absorbed this comment in shame and silence, trying desperately to hold onto shreds of self-worth.
This statement by a member of my fashion and beauty obsessed family epitomizes why I’ve devoted myself to efforts against what I call “appearance-ism,” or appearance-based judgments of ourselves and others. On some level, I feel that my life is at stake, at least a life with any sense of worth and joy, in the “imperfect” body I have. I’ve also discovered that appearance-ism is a universal experience, that even great beauties are objectified in our culture, that almost everyone can relate in some way to the injustice of judgments based on appearance and thereby come to deeper understanding regarding other forms of bias.
So that became my mission; to teach what I most need to learn. It’s taking me a long while, and I’m not done yet.
The man at the pool could have been a cancer-curing scientist, but apparently that didn’t matter in light of his fatal flaw (to be fair, my uncle said he would kill himself if he looked like this man, but I heard it as an indictment of the lack of worth of anyone not meeting the standard of appearance my family so greatly prized). Although the man and I could have fixed ourselves up with diet, exercise, spray-on tans and liposuction, I often think of the ways in which we humans are AS IS; the size, shape, color, configuration and ethnicity we naturally are, with which we need to make peace in order to walk in the world, not feeling we’d be better off hidden or even dead.
Babies, As Is
Babies are born as is into families with genetics, histories, heritage and, often, religion, and they haven’t any choice about most of that for a very long time, if ever. Is it a crime to be born a particular color or into a particular culture or religion? Was it a capital offense to be born a Jew at the time of the Holocaust? In essence, it was. Is it now the fault of every child born to a Muslim family to have the audacity to be what they simply are? How soon do we expect they should renounce or denounce their parents, and how are they to arrive at the supposed wisdom of this renunciation?
Many pronouncements about “all Muslims” flying fast and loose, seem to hold some hope that Muslims magically disappear, or just stop being Muslim. I heard a renowned “expert” on Muslim affairs say that getting rid of all Muslims wasn’t “practical,” while he inferred it was desirable (surely the world would then be almost perfect). Fox News pays pundits who suggest “killing all Muslims” — an unthinkable pronouncement, if any other group were substituted.
There are assertions that all Muslims are more concerned with hating, converting and destroying others than with simply living, eating, supporting their families and doing what most everyone on Earth does. If so, in light of their vast numbers, they would be achieving vast amounts of destruction throughout communities, universities, workplaces, etc., worldwide.
All Muslims? All Jews?
When I hear the presumptions about all Muslims, I silently substitute “all Jews,” and then I know how terrifying and incendiary this language is, because we’ve seen how these scenes play out, in all too horrific reality.
Will those screaming the stereotypes the loudest take responsibility when people accept their cues and assume they have license to target innocent Muslims, “multi-culturalists”, and others, in hate-crimes, or worse? This question was answered when a perpetrator in Norway credited the Islamophobes who inspired him to massacre 77 victims, mostly students. The hate and fear-mongers, who were named by the killer, did not acknowledge any responsibility; rather, they have increased their vitriol. Why are they screaming? What are their goals? To get elected, or make fortunes selling books and speaking engagements, to affect policies, and influence others, but apparently, without care of consequences.
I’d like to ask the Muslim-bashers “Then what?” after every pronouncement, and push them to follow their vision further down the path. After our culture makes it clear that we abhor all Muslims, then what? After we’ve pronounced that all who are born Muslim, that all who call themselves Muslim, (we don’t bother to ask them what this means to them), are unwelcome in our midst, then what? After we’ve made it clear that unless they cease to be themselves, we’re not sure they deserve to be, at all, then what?
Many apparently wish that Muslims would disintegrate into thin air. When this doesn’t happen, then what? After Muslims worldwide have absorbed progressive shock waves of hatred and condemnation, and after some of them internalize the trauma and respond, then what? What do we imagine happens next when people are treated as Muslims are, currently?
On a Precipice
We are on a precipice, looking over the edge. Humans have stood on this precipice before. We know about the times when people were willing — or were manipulated — to push others, many others, over the edge.
The perpetrators of 9/11, of the Boston bombings, of beheadings, etc. were at this precipice. They were willing to generalize that their victims and the sanctity of those victims’ loved ones, were worth sacrificing for some bigger vision. They didn’t care about the particulars of the individuals, even of the Muslims, they destroyed. They weren’t bothered by facts. Whether their targets were doctors, scientists, artists, children, or extraordinarily good individuals, was irrelevant.
They had no willingness to be thoughtful of the consequences of their actions, including sparking backlash toward Muslims, worldwide. They, in fact, are the most effective recruiting tool for Islamophobes, as is notable in the palpable glee of anti-Muslim pundits who regale their audiences with the horrific details of such atrocities.
Perpetrators of such acts, claiming to be Muslim, felt some crisis required them to act immediately and unquestioningly. How then, does frantic, careless generalizing and stereotyping in any way contradict the horrific suffering they engendered?
Some white guys have committed extraordinary destruction: Norway attacker, Anders Breivik; Jared Loughner, who wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and killed others; uncounted hooded Klansmen; Jim Jones; Oklahoma Federal Building bomber, Timothy McVeigh. Guys like Benjamin Smith, the white supremacist targeting “mud races” who killed a black father and a Korean student in 1999; Frank Roque who murdered an innocent Sikh man on Sept. 15, 2001, because he wore a turban and Roque was out to “kill the ragheads”; Mark Stroman who murdered two innocent men, one Muslim and one Hindu, and blinded a third man, after 9/11, claiming he was a patriot, doing what others wished to do, if they had his “nerve”; Wade Page, who committed mass murder in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; and Craig Hicks who murdered three exceptional young Muslim adults in cold blood in Chapel Hill, NC.
Through my work, I came to know the families of five of these victims, Hindu, Sikh, Coptic Christian, and Muslim, who all have the sort of extraordinary dignity and grace we have witnessed in the family members of the victims in Chapel Hill. I know their “ground zeros” and how the exigencies of daily public life reclaimed the locales where their lives shattered into pieces. No memorials set them apart as hallowed sanctuaries.
Rather, it seems to me that the lives of those who survived became living testaments to some enduring faith in human goodness, in spite of what they and their loved ones suffered. These families asked for nothing beyond the hope of putting one foot in front of the other and moving sadly forward from unspeakable tragedy, and to stand against hate and vengeance. Rais Bhuiyan, a Muslim victim left for dead in such an attack, made it his mission to fight against the death penalty for the man who had hoped to take his life. The family of a Coptic Christian Egyptian man, killed in post 9/11 hate, suffered the tragic irony that he had brought the family to the US for greater religious tolerance, while he was murdered here, by a white guy, cruelly and irrationally as the Coptic victims of ISIS were in brutal executions we thoroughly deplore.
In response to these acts of terrorism there are not wholesale smears of white males. That would be absurd, because we know that white men are individuals; no two are alike.
While, to the contrary, our climate is rife with anti-Muslim fervor and stereotypes which are rationalized by pointing to horrific acts perpetrated by individuals who called their religion “Muslim”. Does admitted murderer, Craig Hicks, represent all atheists, or Anders Breivik represent all Christians? Numerous hateful zealots and perpetrators of violence call themselves “Christian”, but our culture responds very differently to atrocities, depending on the religion of the perpetrators.
Islam is routinely impugned as a monolithic religion, to which all its adherents uniformly adhere. Is any religion a shared belief in all basic tenets? Judging from the disagreements in every family, organization and religion — sects within sects, differences of interpretation and practice — how can we possibly ascribe unanimity of belief to the fifth of the world’s population who are Muslim? Do we insist that all Jews and Christians are in complete accord with every line of the Old and New Testaments, with no variables in interpretation, as the Quran is now selectively quoted as supposed proof of every Muslim’s flawed makeup?
Muslims won’t simply disappear, so what do we really expect or want of them? What is our assessment of what some now chillingly, reminiscently, characterize as “the Muslim problem”?
Muslims, above all, grieve each terrible new tragedy, in particular those perpetrated by self-professed Muslims. They grieve because they are decent human beings. Additionally, they feel constant suspicion and hatred directed at them as they try to live their lives while absorbing the shame and blame now heaped upon all Muslims, worldwide. They are between a rock and a hard place, damned for whatever they do or don’t do.
And they are afraid, as was the student who whispered to me of his covert status: “I’m Muslim, but no one here knows it.”
Since 9/11, the anti-Muslim drumbeat has impacted vast numbers of innocent Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Arabs, South Asians and others.
What Muslim parents today do not fear for their children, or themselves? What Muslim children have not experienced any taunts or teasing? Muslim women who wear headscarves question whether it makes them a target and must consider removing their scarfs, ‘passing’ to be safe. Sikh males, who wear turbans, are on the alert; having already experienced murder and mayhem perpetrated by those who believe they are Muslim, or who simply view them as guiltily foreign.
Innocent people are smeared, stereotyped, teased, harassed or assaulted. This would be viewed through a different lens if those of other religions, if Orthodox Jewish men, for example, felt compelled to cover their yarmulkes with baseball caps to feel safe, and if those Jewish women who cover their heads for modesty, as some Muslim women do, were today in routine fear to be seen in their preferred religious garb. Some groups have degrees of shelter from generalized smears, while others are the target of the day.
We, who despair when our children are teased and bullied, are accepting and repeating despicable slurs about others, ricocheting through our culture.
I felt compelled to stand up against people being attacked, even murdered on the basis of snap judgments. I felt compelled to reach out to the families of people I didn’t know, across the country, and to speak about their losses. So what should we say of those who are reaping money, power, prestige or votes via the incendiary vitriol with which they are soaking the culture like gasoline, requiring a single match to become a conflagration?
What Would Anne Frank Say?
I imagine what Anne Frank would tell us, if she could, about the smears, stereotypes and generalizations now being shouted so incessantly, and about the times when people “passed,” or hid, to be safe. I believe she would say that just because many people scream something does not make it true. I believe she would point out the tremendous disparity between the Nazi stereotypes of Jews, and the real Jews, like her, who were destroyed by such propaganda, and the policies that flowed from it.
I believe she would remind us of what happens when generalizations are carried to their conclusions. I believe she would denounce leaders cuing one another that this is in accord with the tenor of the time.
I believe she would beg us to be allies for those who are not our ethnicity, our religion, our “tribe” — as the non-Jewish friends who supported her family in hiding took extraordinary risks to be her ally. I believe she would exhort people who have never even met a Muslim not to accept wholesale characterizations, and to befriend Muslims.
I believe Anne Frank would work passionately to have prevented the murders of three innocent promising young adults, Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha, in Chapel Hill, NC.
Yusor was recorded, in a StoryCorps booth, a short while before she was killed, proclaiming her belief that America afforded her “a blessing” of belonging:
“Growing up in America has been such a blessing, and you know, although in some ways I do stand out, such as the hijab I wear on my head…there’s still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is…our culture. And that’s the beautiful thing here, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s so many different people from so many different places of different backgrounds and religions, but here we’re all one, one culture.”
This statement seems so reminiscent of Anne, who famously wrote in her diary, even while fearfully trapped in hiding: “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
I can imagine Anne and Yusor as friends and can only hope that their dignity, their beliefs, and their hopes ultimately defy what befell them, and move us closer to their visions.
I believe, if they could, they would together warn us of a very slippery, very dangerous slope, and would remind us what happens next, and next, and next, as the progression unfolds incrementally but inexorably — the progression that starts with offhand remarks, then stereotypes, then slurs, then diatribes, then what?
We ought to have a clear idea of such a progression by now, hopefully not one we’ll only grasp later from a left-behind diary of a Muslim adolescent, who simply desired to walk in the world safely and openly.
Author’s note: Earlier versions of the piece above include “Where the Anti-Muslim Path Leads“, which was recommended as “mandatory reading in schools today”, and “The Climate for Muslims After the Boston Bombings” . The current piece is updated and re-titled to reflect ongoing incidents and the increasing anti-Muslim drumbeat. It poured from the deepest currents of my own sense of otherness, and evolving perceptions and passion to combat more hatred and loss. Tragically, it remains all-too-pertinent today. Its original conclusion, in the earlier versions, was eerily prescient of the murder of the three innocent Muslim young adults in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who are now–sadly–included in the fabric of the piece.
Published with the author’s permission.