What it’s like to be Muslim in America
Nidhi GotgiManaging Editor
Andrew GallegosPhoto Editor
POSTEDJune 8, 2015
Nour Sharaf was on Facebook when she saw a link about the shooting in Garland. Immediately, her heart filled with dread.
On May 3, two gunmen opened fire outside an art exhibit held at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland that displayed cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Participants had the opportunity to win a $10,000 prize for the best piece of work.
The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group founded by Pamela Geller that focuses on anti-Muslim rhetoric, organized the event.
The shooters fired on security at a parking lot exit, hitting one security officer in the ankle before they were both killed by a Garland police officer who returned fire.
Sharaf, who is a neuroscience senior and the Sister’s Activities Coordinator for the UTD chapter of the Muslim Students Association, said she knew that people would immediately blame it on the Muslim community.
Unfortunately, she was right.
“I saw someone share the article on Facebook,” she said. “I read through it a little and I was like, ‘Of course they’re going to blame it back to Muslims.’ It was when they didn’t really know who did it … I kind of knew that’s what was going to happen.”
Investigators later confirmed that the gunmen, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, were indeed followers of Islam. Shortly after the shooting, the terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility for the attack, although there has not been any evidence to support that claim.
Sharaf said it was frustrating to see the response from people who blamed the Muslim community as a whole for the attacks when there had been a concentrated effort to not give the organizers of the event any more attention than they were already getting.
“The fact that you want to kind of piss people off and the fact that you got no response from them and then still found a way to kind of blame it back on them was a little irritating to the Muslim community because we didn’t respond to it,” she said. “We thought that if this woman wants to say that she’s (practicing her) freedom of speech and it’s her right to hold this competition, then it’s her right to hold the competition. No one’s going to care. But even after that when we didn’t respond, to find a way to put it on Muslims was kind of the irritating part about it.”
With approximately 1.6 billion followers and roots in the seventh century, Islam is one of the world’s largest and oldest religions. In Texas, the religion is the fifth largest religious group in the state.
Despite this widespread proliferation, the spread of groups like ISIS and al-Qaida has led many to take a negative stance against the religion.
Since 2013, ISIS, the extremist group that has amassed large swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, has been on the rise. Headed by the elusive Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, ISIS has grown to have a force of about 30,000 fighters, some of whom have traveled from North America and Europe to join it’s cause.
The group has become notorious for the wave of terror it brings wherever it goes. Murder, executions, rape and slavery have become commonplace for those living under its regime.
Alia Salem, the executive director for the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that while many have called for mainstream Muslims to condemn the actions of this and other groups, people don’t understand that these denouncements are already taking place.
“One of the most repetitive criticisms that the Muslim community gets in the United States is that we don’t condemn terrorism enough and we don’t condemn extremists,” she said. “However, that’s very frustrating because that is literally half my job. Every time something happens that has to do with a Muslim and it reaches national or international prominence, people look to us to comment on it and so we do. But then people say, ‘Oh, they’re not commenting. They’re not condemning.’”
One of the facts that Salem said people tend to overlook is that most incidents of terrorism actually don’t involve Muslims. According to an FBI study that examined domestic terrorism cases from 1980 to 2005, 94 percent of acts of terrorism committed in the United States were carried out by non-Muslims.
Even though there have been few acts of violence carried out by Muslim extremists in the United States, Sharaf said that the portrayal by the media that equates extreme groups with Muslims as a whole puts the Islamic community in a bad light.
She said that what many people don’t recognize is that groups like ISIS are not representative of Islam, not only because of their violence toward people in general, but because the group often turns its weapons upon Muslims as well.
Dealing with ignorance when trying to combat fallacies regarding Islam isn’t only limited to those who oppose the religion. Shaheer Ali, president of the UTD chapter of Alpha Lambda Mu, the nation’s only Muslim fraternity, said ignorance about the faith often plagues those who carry out violence in the name of Islam.
He said that many people who associate themselves with Muslim extremists often accept facts about Islam from other people rather than learning what the religion actually means. He said this has allowed violent Muslim groups to use Islam as a means to an end.
“There’s always going to be an agenda that people want to push among other people,” he said. “And at the end of the day, it comes down to a sense of power or right among others and promoting their own agenda, whether or not it’s supportive within Islam and the boundaries of Islam. But if the outside community isn’t educated or doesn’t know what any principle means and what it is, then I could sit here and tell you something and you might believe it and go with it.”
The negative coverage associating Islam with extremist groups has led some to carry out acts of bigotry against Muslims in the United States.
Salem said CAIR has seen a large number of hate crimes and cases of discrimination against Muslims in recent years.
“It’s actually worse than it was post-9/11,” she said. “It has been gradually increasing and it seems to tie in with election cycles. So it’s kind of disturbing that people are utilizing the Muslim community, and elected officials from certain parties tend to disparage and make horrible statements against Islam and Muslims in order to appeal to their base.”
Cases of bigotry she sees against Muslims vary from something as simple as being harassed in the street to having a mosque being vandalized. There have even been times when she has been directly threatened and she has had to call the police and the FBI.
Even though Muslims have roots in practically every nationality and ethnicity, there are still obvious physical features to identify someone of the Islamic faith, which can sometimes be a mixed blessing for Muslims.
One of the easiest ways for people to recognize Muslim women, for example, is if they wear a hijab, or headscarf. Many Muslim women wear it to maintain modesty, as dictated to them in the Quran, the Islamic holy text. Salem said this often leads to major misconceptions about her faith.
“I often get (comments) that I’m oppressed and that I’m doing this because a man told me to and that women are supposed to be subjugated in Islam, they’re supposed to be treated poorly, like second class citizens, when that’s actually the opposite,” she said. “Are there Muslim countries where that kind of misogyny exists? Yeah, absolutely, but it doesn’t have anything to do with Islam, it has to do with cultural and environmental situations.”
Recently, the hijab has come into the spotlight with the case of Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman who brought a lawsuit against Abercrombie and Fitch for not hiring her because she wore a hijab. On June 1, the Supreme Court, in a 8-1 vote, ruled in her favor and sent the case back to an appellate court for further consideration.
MSA member Sharaf said she she has never felt threatened for wearing the hijab, but she has felt heat from others because she chooses to wear it. She said that sometimes she’ll get awkward looks or stares from others and has even had people tell her to go back where she came from.
She said people behave this way because they simply do not know enough about the religion and what it stands for.
“You just understand that people come from a different mentality and anything that they don’t understand becomes a threat or becomes scary to them,” she said. “So they don’t really understand it and they’re just acting out of fear.”
Even though the religion started in the Middle East, most Muslims are not of Arab descent. The largest Muslim populations in the world are located in countries like Indonesia, which has approximately 170 million Muslims, and Pakistan, which has 136 million.
Garey Massey, who teaches at the Islamic Association of North Texas, grew up in Kansas City, Kan., in a household that wasn’t very religious. He converted to Islam when he was 16 after a series of deaths in his family left searching for deeper meaning in his life.
Converting to Islam after growing up in an area that didn’t have a very large Muslim population helped to show Massey that Muslims come from all types of backgrounds and lifestyles. He said this is something that is still yet to be understood by many in America.
He said Muslims are often portrayed in ways that overlook the millions of productive members of the Islamic faith and focuses only on the negative aspects portrayed by ISIS and other groups.
“Someone thinks (of a) Muslim…they might say Osama bin Laden,” he said. “They’re not going to say Muhammad Ali, the famous American that fought for his rights, fought (against) injustice…. they don’t think about that and he’s pretty devout. I think the biggest challenge is try to change that narrative.”
When a conference hosted by Muslims at the Curtis Culwell Center was protested in January, ALM president Ali and several members decided to go to the event to counter-protest and open up a dialogue with those who were critical of Islam.
What he and his fellow ALM members found was a tangible sense of bigotry among those who honestly believed that Muslims were inherently bad.
“You hear about these things that people will say. ‘Oh, you’re just going to blow me up!’ or ‘You’re just going to this!,’ and you think it sounds far fetched,” he said. “You think, ‘OK, this is definitively an exaggeration, people don’t actually say this.’ But you go to that crowd and there are actually people that are saying these comments that are convinced that this is going to happen. In fact, they see it as a way of preventing terrorists from coming into their own land.”
He said many of these people that he spoke to got their information about Islam from second-hand sources who misinformed them about the facts of the religion and what it actually entails.
Even though he said he feels like there are varying degrees of those who are close-minded in the United States to what Islam truly is, he feels like the community as a whole and individuals have to stand up to correct the false notions that are out there about Islam.
“Whether or not they agree with you, whether or not they go back to their homes saying, ‘My mind is changed,’ that’s not for us to decide,” he said. “What it comes down to is, ‘Did I get my message out? Did I at least put in the effort to tell them the true message and what I truly stand for; who I am?’ Because at this point, it’s not even about being able to sit here and say, ‘Oh, they’re talking about these people.’ No, they’re talking about you. If someone’s talking about you like that, you don’t just sit there and take it. You stand up and convey what is actually true.”
Salem said that after 9/11 she observed the Muslim community becoming insular and not as engaging with those outside the religion. Instead of going out into the community, many Muslims decided only to go to events where other Muslims were and participated.
She said if Muslims want to see a change in how they’re perceived, there has to be an effort to get out and participate with other members of society so they can become fully visible.
Salem also said that society as a whole has to stand up to discrimination.
“You have to stand up for justice no matter what the issue is and even if it’s against yourself,” she said. “When we as a community start to think of these issues as our issues despite whatever background somebody’s from, if it’s injustice that’s happening, until we start to look at those issues as our issues, we will not see any progress.”
Ali said if the atmosphere of bigotry against Muslims is going to end, more American Muslims need to identify with being American and getting a sense that the United States is their home and more people need to be accepting of Muslims in the country.
“I identify myself as an American, the issue is will other people accept me in bringing back that feeling that, ‘Yes, we’re all Americans. We’re all Muslim. We’re all on the same side,’” he said. “That’s what I would say (is the challenge.) Getting to that part.”