On Being Muslim in America Today

At O'Hare airport, the TV screen at the gates streamed CNN reporting a terrorist attack on a school in Pakistan. Immediately my heart sunk. First it breaks for the affected families and their community. And then it breaks for Muslims who will be faced with the aftermath of such horrific events that lead to more anti-Muslim commentary and even more importantly, an entrenched  perception of all Muslim as terrorists.  As a person who avoids the news like the plague, this unintended encounter with it wasn’t the end of the story. Later that day, I was among a group who were casually having dinner. One of the people in the group sat down and announced that Muslim terrorists shot a bunch of kids in a school to “prove their love to Allah”.  Others at the table looked down, perhaps to shield their uncomfortable feeling of having me present at the table in light of this comment, or perhaps to shield other feelings they were experiencing. Dead silence ensued until someone mercifully changed the subject. Being the only “Muslim” in the group, I swallowed hard and acted like the moment never happened. Read more

These moments have become an uncomfortable reality in my life, and I would imagine in many other people’s lives if they happen to be Muslim.  We are regularly confronted with the reality that there are groups of people, who claim to be Muslim, who perpetrate acts of violence in the name of “our” religion, but who are foreign to a billion of us who adhere to the faith we know as a religion of peace. There is no defense or explanation. Who are these people who express their political aims through violence while distorting the religion of Islam?  I don’t pretend to know the answer – at least not entirely. What I do know is that we live in a world  –  and my kids are growing up in a world – where Islam is an enigma to some, and to others, a cause to express outrage and hatred. 

Talking this over with a friend the other day, we both felt that the constant onslaught of reports of terrorism and political reactions to it have risen to a level where the moderate voices are completely drowned out. It doesn’t matter how many press releases or press conferences the mainstream Islamic organizations put out to condemn attacks or refute assertions made by terrorist organizations. The media doesn’t pick up on them. The public doesn’t know how sickened I am – “we” are  –  by the attacks of violence against anyone in the name of Islam.  Being a Muslim in a non-Muslim country has been a stigma to an extent – and even more so if one happens to have chosen the religion (as I have) as opposed to being born into it, and it gets harder to deal with as each new event hits the airwaves. 

That is why the interfaith engagements that we organize and the connections we make with people of other faiths is of paramount importance. Recently, among a group of my interfaith sisters of Christian and Jewish faith, I told the “airport and dinner conversation” stories. The response from these dear women was one of compassion for how I must have felt and clear validation that they discern the difference between people of any proclaimed faith who act out violently from others who completely reject violence. Their encounters with Muslims like myself and others has helped them to move beyond the media hype and the emotional reactions to events. If I know one thing for sure, it is that I cannot impact world events or reverse the suffering of anyone affected by senseless violence. What I can do, and what my Muslim brothers and sisters can do is to continue to make these interfaith connections to show the essence of Islam as we know and follow it.  It probably cannot remove the dark cloud of extremism hovering over Islam in the non-Muslim world, but it does have a positive reverberating effect, and at this point, gives me hope and comfort. Maybe that’s all that is reasonable to expect. 

Kismet Saglam - Director, Soul Space Interfaith Women's Group
February, 2015