After living in Baltimore for a year, I moved back to Hagerstown, Maryland. It was a reminder of the intense Islamophobia that has intoxicated the United States.
For those of you who don’t know what it’s like to be a Muslim in rural America, let me brief you:
Being Muslim is driving in your car and being flipped off just for existing.
Being Muslim is heading to your brother’s wedding, lost in the excitement, when you hear a string of curse words being launched at you.
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Being Muslim is feeling like an exotic animal at the zoo, when you hear the words, directed at you: “I’ve never seen one in real life, ewwww.”
Being Muslim is going to the mall with your friends only to hear the lady next to you complain to her husband because of your presence in the store, and hearing her tell her husband that she wishes she could punch you in the face.
Being Muslim is feeling obliged to look as non-threatening and amicable as possible.
It is fear in your heart. It is words of resistance dancing on your tongue that you just can’t manage to get out.
It is trying to apologize for crimes you didn’t commit. It is being called a terrorist despite being so terrified.
I don’t worry about myself. I worry about my brothers and sisters, our youth who have had to grow up with such intense bigotry.
Once, a 9-year-old girl came up to me with a bright and beautiful smile on her face. “Salaam (an Islamic greeting of peace), I was just wondering, what I should say if someone calls me a terrorist?”
I told her about empowerment, confidence and fighting for justice. I told her about MLK and our prophet (peace be upon him) and the thousands of battles that people have led before us. I told her about loving herself and her identity. I told her when someone calls you a terrorist, you do not laugh it off as a joke, you don’t try to smile and pretend nothing happened, you don’t accept the label. You resist. You break free. And when the world tries to tie you down, when it tries to put a tape on your mouth, you scream that much louder.
As I was telling her all of this I realized that I am the height of hypocrisy. I said all of these words to her but I have failed to implement them in my life.
I forgot how to fight. How to be unapologetically Muslim, unapologetically confident, empowered and passionate. But experience is the greatest teacher, and I am a pretty good student.
I will no longer keep that smile plastered on my face, continue to ignore, continue to pretend. To do so, would fly in the face of those famous words in the Declaration of Independence that launched our country 241 years ago: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
With all of its pain, bigotry and heartbreak, I still love the United States. And I have faith that one day, those words will ring true for all of us.
Haq (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at University of Maryland Baltimore County. She wrote this for the Baltimore Sun.