For some Muslim 20 and 30-somethings, Friday nights mean staying in, ordering pizza, and discussing how the current socio-political climate is affecting our daily lives and even futures. And while we find ourselves generally stressed about the entire situation, and fear things like getting fired for praying at work, or wearing hijab, or just having a Muslim name- sometimes we just have to step out and realize the ridiculousness of the predicament that so many of us are in. Somehow, these cheese and veggie lover’s pizzas not only relieve us from a hard week at work, but also the difficult times we experience both consciously and subconsciously as Muslims out in the world.
One such Friday evening, as we digested our food and partook in humorous conversations, practiced complicated prose, and exchanged in “born-and- raised-in- America” type of banter all over cups of chai, we began to bring back to life the uncomfortable memories and awkward instances that we had tucked away for the sake of our sanity. Amidst empty pizza boxes, and packets of red chili paper, we found a space where we were able to put at ease the paranoia and neurosis that consumed us in our daily lives.
One friend recalled a time when he had to come to the rescue of a fellow Muslim co-worker who, handicapped by his obsessive compulsive disorder, decided to perform his afternoon prayer right on top of the conference table at work. All too shocked at the scene himself, and not sure why the man didn’t just take a corner of the floor to pray, my friend quickly took control of the situation and asked the team to refrain from sitting down or talking to the colleague until he was finished with his prayer. When my friend talked to the colleague and explained that it made others feel uncomfortable, he brushed it off and told him in Urdu, Kuch nahin hotha- relax. This, my friend concluded, was the real test of patience and tolerance from people from all walks of life.
As my friends around the room laughed at the story, they also silently sympathized with my friend. It was as if everyone was relieved that we had a safe circle to share these unique experiences. We wanted to be there for each other. We wanted to lift the burden. It was therapeutic, cathartic. At this juncture, I decided to share my story too.
It was a typical snowy day in Michigan. The coffee shop I was sitting in was packed as the students were studying for finals. I was sitting in my usual seat, books sprawled around me. Although I studied alone most of the time, I had formed an understood friendship with other frequenters of this coffee shop, especially the Muslims. On this particular day, one of the Muslim guys was sitting near me working on his laptop. I looked up for a minute when he caught my glance. He needed to step out and motioned for me to watch his belongings. I nodded and he went off to attend to his business. Five minutes later, a loud, strong voice rang loud in the coffee shop.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” (God is great, God is great).
Recognizing the sound of the call to prayer, but immediately surprised at why it was being called out in the coffee shop, I began to search the room. Now able to place it, I realized the call to prayer had been set on that Muslim guy’s laptop. It was programmed to recite at each prayer time. It was loud and clear, calling everyone in that coffee shop to mid-afternoon prayer.
You should have seen their faces. Confused and horrified faces spanned the room. Some sat frozen, others were looking around to find the origins of the sound, and some began to slowly reach for their belongings. Most of these people had probably never heard the Islamic call to prayer before, and if they had heard this phrase, “Allahu Akbar,” it was most likely in the context of war and terrorism. Feeling the tension in the air, but also thinking that people might be looking at me, I remained calm and smiled.
The guy’s friend sitting across the coffee shop came to the rescue. W exchanged knowing looks that this probably scared the bajeezuz out of most of these coffee shop patrons. A minute later, the owner of the laptop returned, and his friend de-briefed him on what had just happened. They both turned to receive confirmation from me. I nodded and stood up to go to my car. It was time to pray.
They say that paranoia has taken over America. It’s not just true for non-Muslims, but also Muslims, who must struggle with perceptions and walk on eggshells to not look suspicious. Meanwhile, practicing Islam requires us to be visible in so many aspects of our worship. In the end, we find ourselves in situations where we have to quickly find the “safe zone.” We are left to figure out how to act, how to be: Passive? Defensive? Reactive? Apologetic? The human psyche must be ready to perhaps exercise all of these methods to maintain balance and rational actions in these trying times.
Although the anecdotes given above depict benign instances of paranoia, the Muslim community within the nation is suffering from the effects of a large-scale paranoia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. This has led the community to then create its own set of phobias. These elements have given way to case where students have decided not to join their local Muslim Students Associations, parents have prohibited their kids from discussing government, and people have stopped attending Friday prayer services from work. Additionally, engaging in civic life (such as voting or participating in the Census) has almost become a crime. Some mosques have even placed signs inside the premises, “Please do not discuss politics in the Masjid.” People are hesitant to have conversations in the privacy of their own homes. Why? Because Big Brother, the post 9/11 “Bogey Man” is on high-alert.
There is no denying that circumstances and tragic events have rendered these fears and anxieties valid. However, a community cannot allow fear and paranoia to take over its core and existence in society. This condition will inhibit the growth of the community, and prevent the free flow of ideas, that will ultimately lead to isolation.
It is time to return the global psyche to a balanced state-one that embraces reason and freedom to share thoughts, without fear and anxiety.
Shazia Kamal is a community activist who is interested in social justice issues, residing in Los Angeles, CA.