Growing up Muslim American

Anti-Muslim sentiment drives some Muslim Americans to hide their identity.

By Rachel Boehm

The young woman (who asked that her name not be used) dresses for the airport the same way she dresses for the Washington, D.C., Metro. “I try to look as normal as possible,” she said. Jeans and Abercrombie and Fitch, or other popular American brands are typical.

“I would make sure first of all that I’m not wearing anything that would bring too much attention to myself. I wouldn’t wear anything bulky, just something very light … Even my carry-on, I would make extra sure that it wouldn’t cause any attention as well,” she said. “I don’t exactly know how to explain it … like wearing a tunic, something that looks a little foreign, it’s just something I wouldn’t do.”

Her goal is to look as “non-Muslim” as possible — a look the native Chicagoan has been practicing since Sept. 11, 2001. She was younger than 18 at the time of 9/11 and is now working in the District. She travels frequently, and for the most part, has had few problems. But there was one Transportation Safety Administration search, she said, that helped set the tone for the precautions she takes today.

“Ingrained Paranoia”

It was in New York City’s LaGuardia Airport just after 9/11. “It’s fine if they [the TSA] want to search me,” she said, “but I don’t appreciate it if they do it in front of other passengers.” The TSA consistently claims that airport screening measures are not based on religious or racial profiling.

Still, the stares she received from the other passengers were scrutinizing, she said, as if they were trying to find out what she was guilty of, what she had done wrong. This feeling of scrutiny, of being watched, is experienced by many Muslim Americans, and there is a constant fear they will be reported for no reason, she said.

After 9/11, when stories of hate crimes against Muslims started being reported, her parents told her “to be careful not to draw attention to herself,” she said. One year, the night before an Eid celebration to mark the end of Ramadan, someone placed a giant statue of a pig on the lawn adjacent to the family’s neighborhood mosque.

The warning she received from her parents, the TSA search and instances of discrimination, both experienced and witnessed, have added up to what she describes as an ingrained sense of paranoia. Something that is harmful and hurtful, and the impact of which has not been widely discussed, she said.

“I feel there hasn’t been a lot of awareness of how young Muslim Americans are growing up here,” she said.

Muslim Stereotypes Linger

Anti-Muslim sentiment since 9/11 has caused many Muslim Americans to pull back from their Muslim identity, according to researcher John Esposito. Esposito is a professor of Religion and International Affairs at Georgetown University and the founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Esposito has been researching and studying Islam for over four decades.

According to Esposito, there has been media coverage surrounding Islamaphobia in America, but not in a way that has caught on with the larger population. “We still struggle with images, stereotypes, negative conventional wisdom despite empirical evidence that shows these stereotypes are not true,” Esposito said.

According to a 2009 Gallup study — on which Esposito worked — “when Muslim Americans are compared with Muslims around the world, they are often more similar to the [overall] U.S. population.”

“The fact is, we don’t need to rely on experts like me, or talking heads debating each other and the issue,” Esposito said. “We have the data that tells us what Muslim Americans think, what their attitudes are. Their views and integration into society. We can look at the data and say that the average Muslim American family is American.”

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Yet the stereotypes persist; and the fears in society persist. Esposito described this climate as a “tsunami of anti-Mosque, anti-Muslim sentiment spreading across the country.” Not all Muslim Americans experience discrimination or hate crimes, Esposito said. But stories of these experiences are reported causing some Muslim Americans to downplay their heritage. Some, but not all.

It’s either, or, Esposito said. Some Muslim Americans have become more active and vocal, or begun to cover their hair — all in an effort to stand up to the negative views in society. Regardless, many young Muslim Americans grow up thinking that a significant number of Americans question their loyalty because of their Muslim identity, Esposito said.

“There is in a sense no where to run, no where to hide. You’re always going to be made aware of your identity by the broader society,” he said.

Continued Optimism

Despite the negative climate — the hearings on the Hill, the bullying at schools, the Quran burnings — the young woman said she is beginning to hear more reports in the media of interfaith dialogue. There is a young Muslim American community that is educated and finding its voice, she said.

If the last ten years have been marked with negative awareness, rhetoric and the impulse to blend into the larger American society, she said she hopes that the next ten years will be filled with increased knowledge, understanding and cross-cultural dialogue.

She would like to see the Muslim American communities become more involved with the larger American community; and the larger American community to become more knowledgeable of the Muslim culture and the Islamic religion. Depending on future world events, she said she believes it will happen.

“But also,” she said “I’m being very optimistic.”

(This article has included a redaction from an earlier version.)