A week ago my hijab-wearing Pakistani mom was driving down the street when a man in a silver Lexus began to honk and gesture wildly. My mom ignored him, keeping her gaze planted firmly on the road ahead. When she reached a red light and slowed to a stop, this driver suddenly swerved in front of her, screeched to a stop and stepped out of his car. He walked over menacingly and began screaming, cursing and gesturing rudely at my mother. Panicked, she immediately called the police, but that didn’t stop this middle-aged man from whipping out his phone and snapping photos of both my mom and her car. For what purpose, I couldn’t tell you. When the light changed, he let my mom go ahead of him but continued to tail her, all the while honking incessantly. Suffice it to say, my mom was terrified.
You see, nowadays, we can’t dismiss crimes like this as run-of-the-mill road rage. In the current political climate, everything has racial undertones. When Muslims step outside their homes, we are all vaguely, if not acutely, aware that we might be targeted simply because of what we believe. Muslim women who wear the hijab bear the brunt of this prejudice because their scarves are visible markers of their religious identity. This isn’t just hyperbole. Islamophobia is all too real.
Last year, three beautiful, brilliant students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina were executed in their home by a militant atheist with anti-Muslim sentiments, yet the police labeled the gruesome murders a parking dispute that went too far. Since then, mosques have been vandalized, families threatened and countless Muslim children bullied at schools (not only by fellow students, but also by teachers!). The hateful rhetoric spewed out by some presidential candidates against Muslims has further galvanized extremists in our country to act on their private anger and racism. Every time a power-hungry politician legitimizes the denigration of a particular community for his or her political gain, we see an immediate corresponding spike in verbal and physical attacks against that group. This is no coincidence.
Yet, here we are, in a deeply polarized nation with two diametrically opposed ways of dealing with Muslims, Blacks and immigrants. On the one hand, we have presidential candidates who speak of unity, tolerance and empathy. On the other, we have politicians demanding that Muslims be forced to carry ID badges, be detained without reason and be expelled from this country. And their suspicion does not stop at Muslims. They also want to build walls to keep Mexicans out and undermine and dismantle the Black Lives Matter movement. Their list is long, arbitrary and hateful.
Two weeks ago, our local mosque held an anti-bullying event for middle school and high school Muslim students. The speakers did their best to reassure the kids that prejudice and hate do not represent the country we live in and love, but when the one eleven-year-old boy stood up and said, “ I just want to know how I’m supposed to survive being a Muslim,” his question broke my heart. No one should have to survive being anything. No one should have to question his/her place in this society. We all matter, and as President Obama said so eloquently, we all belong right here.
Lately, many people speak about moving away if a Republican is elected President. They talk dreamily of settling down in Canada or some other utopia to escape the onslaught of discrimination they expect to rain down on us. Though the idea may sound appealing, I say this: We are staying right here. We must continue to fight for our right to be seen, heard, understood and accepted. Staying silent or running away accomplishes nothing
We have a problem, and it isn’t limited to Islamophobia. To paraphrase one of my favorite poems, “They came for the Muslims but I stayed silent because I wasn’t one. Then, they came for the Blacks but still I stayed silent. Then, they came for me, and by then there was no one left to speak out.” It’s easy to dismiss racism when it doesn’t directly affect you, but no one is immune from the ripple effects of hateful speech and actions. As Americans, we have a duty to stand up and speak out when racism occurs. Every time, a Black man is killed by a police officer, we need to denounce it. Every time, an insult is hurled at a Muslim child, we need to denounce it. Every time, a woman is accused of being a femi-nazi simply because she believes in equal rights among sexes, we must denounce it. Silence equals consent and acquiescence. Let’s make some noise together.
Farrah Qazi is a human rights attorney specializing in women’s issues, gender equity and global literacy. Farrah writes at “Rizzarr,” “FemiNisa,” “Ayesha Magazine,” “The Muslim Sunrise,” and other publications.
(Illustration: Ella Strickland de Souza)