In 1982, I began fasting half-days during Ramadan for the first time, my hands painted with henna in celebration. I was in Mrs. Campbell’s third grade class; the only Muslim in a school of more than three hundred children. She growled my name “So-fee-AAH! We do not write on our hands with magic marker. That is disgusting. Go to the bathroom and wash your hands with soap right now!” It wasn’t magic marker. There was a sink in the classroom I could have used to demonstrate how it wouldn’t wash off. But she wouldn’t let me speak. “Go! Now!” she said.
My elementary school served mostly white working class neighborhoods, and my classmates had noticeably Irish and Italian last names, like Treacy and Patrizio. I am so pale by comparison to other Pakistani and Indian people that my complexion passes as white in most places. But not there. There, the way my skin turned a crisp brown in the summer, lingering into the fall and starting early in the spring, was conspicuous. The dark hair that bearded my kneecaps, visible during gym class, was deeply embarrassing, embarrassing enough that I taught myself how to shave long before my classmates.
Although I was a shy, quiet child, one of the youngest and smallest students in class, Mrs. Campbell had me sit at the back of the classroom. She put me next to another girl, my one African-American classmate, and the only other student of color in the class. The back of the room was not a great fit for me. My grades dropped. It turned out I needed glasses, which I got late in the year: round, with pink translucent plastic frames. I also needed a new teacher, but I had to wait until fourth grade to get one.
In ninth grade, I trudged out with the other girls in my gym class to do what it seemed we did when gym teachers didn’t feel like doing their jobs: run the mile. We didn’t have a gym curriculum, exactly. There was no schedule of planned activities, and I hadn’t known to bring a note to excuse myself. So there I was, in my orange and black uniform, expected to run a mile in the heat without notice.
“But, Mr. Cochran, I can’t run the mile. I’m fasting for Ramadan.”
“I’m fasting for Ramadan.”
“Ramadan. You know, I’m Muslim, and we don’t eat or drink all day during Ramadan, so I can’t run the mile.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about; start running!”
So I started running, but not before swearing at Mr. Cochran. It was inexcusable, but I was hot and tired and I didn’t want to have to argue about running a mile in the first place. I also didn’t know we were going to run, or I would have brought a note. My parents picked me up at the office, where I learned I’d been suspended for the rest of the school day and the following day. My folks were uncharacteristically calm. “You know you broke your fast anyway when you swore at him, right, beta?”
When 9/11 happened, I was sharing a house in Philadelphia with two other left-leaning social justice lawyer types and Meredith*, one of my closest friends from grade school, who was doing something related to statistics with her Sociology degree. I had started my new, dream job, two days before 9/11 and one year after my divorce became final. I was a hot mess.
It was comforting when one of my housemates procured a sign for our front window a few weeks later that said, “Our grief is not a cry for war.” It fit how we were all feeling. At least I thought it did. We were all anti-war. Meredith’s parents were at Woodstock. Heck, she was the one who taught me what it meant to be anti-war, and what a hippie was. She was the one I watched the First Gulf War unfold with on television. She couldn’t believe we would drop bombs on people who had not attacked us first. That was when I was still, apparently, part of “us.”
Meredith’s brother had worked in, and escaped, one of the towers. Now, a couple of weeks later, she was calling me at work to ask me if it was okay with me to take down the sign.
“Yeah. The sign you put in the window.”
“I didn’t put that sign in the window; we all agreed to put it there.” I was genuinely confused by her request. “That sign just says we don’t war…”
“Well, my parents are coming over and I think they’re going to be upset.”
“Your parents? Upset because we don’t want war?”
“Well, because Mike* was in the towers.”
“So they want to bomb an unrelated group of people who still haven’t recovered from the Cold War?”
“I just need to know if it’s okay with you to take it down.”
“No. No, it’s not okay with me. Do what you need to do. It’s your house, too. But it’s not okay.”
I moved back to the East Coast almost two years ago with my husband and two young children. We were happy to leave Chicago winters behind and happy to be somewhere familiar near friends and family. It was comforting to learn that the area had grown noticeably more diverse. We began to feel that our children would encounter less, not more, of what I had in the same school district.
And then the 2016 election cycle began. I ran into an old high school friend at the grocery store. She asked me about how our plans to buy a home were coming. I prefaced my response with, “assuming the Democrats win, and we don’t have to leave the country…” She asked me, incredulously, if I would really consider leaving.
I think she represents a great many Americans, even fairly liberal Americans, who are unaware of the realities of being Muslim in America today. The only two options available to Muslim Americans, as a direct result of America’s “preemptive warfare” in Afghanistan and Iraq and its divisive political rhetoric, are to be embattled or to leave. Right now, the fight looks like bullying in schools, discrimination in employment, barriers to building or improving mosques or cemeteries.
I love this place in spite of those things. I had travelled to unstable, politically volatile areas in Pakistan as a child, and I knew enough, even then, to appreciate our quiet neighborhood, where children roved in a multi-aged band all summer long, stopping only for an occasional meal or Band-aid. I knew enough, even then, to appreciate the sturdy and diversified economy where I could dream of becoming all kinds of things and still hope to earn a living. I know enough now to count my blessings at the sight of bucks with wide antlers playing in the snow as I leave my house in the winter, and when my children learn to ride their bikes in the cul-de-sac.
But several things have shifted since I grew up here. Based on a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, I know that Muslim children, along with their Latino and African American classmates, are experiencing unprecedented levels of bullying and harassment. As a Muslim mom, I must anticipate that the animus directed at my children is likely to be far more intentional, and even violent. I no longer have to worry that their teachers have never heard of Islam, but I do have to worry that some will harbor a hatred of all Muslims. I have to worry not only that my children will be treated badly because they are brown, but also singled out with greater suspicion and contempt because they are a certain kind of brown.
I am, for better or worse, a part of that generation that takes parenting very seriously. I am painfully aware of the considerable health and mental health effects of bullying on children. I am also aware that our ability to parent effectively is compromised by our own stress and anxiety, and the increased risk that we will experience harassment or assault. Every time we watch the news or scroll through our newsfeeds, we see distortions of our faith tradition beyond recognition. Mainstream news outlets seem to have accepted the assertions of terrorists that their actions are driven and justified by Islam. In this election cycle, regardless of the outcome, we have learned that there is a strong and volatile white nationalist movement in this country. These things, alone, are terrifying.
This is the damage that has already been done. For my part, I’ve decided that for as long as we remain here, I have an obligation to fight for my country. Not by donning a military uniform, but by fully embracing the job of Muslim American mom today: giving presentations on Islamophobia and bullying to area school boards, creating stronger Muslim institutions, building interfaith alliances, shoring up my children’s sense of strength and faith, and being politically engaged.
Still, I will be forced to plan for our departure if the Republican nominee gets into office this November. It sounds extreme, even as I write, but so does a President who has campaigned successfully on closing mosques, surveilling Muslim communities, imposing a ‘complete ban’ on Muslims’ ability to enter the country, and lurid stories of killing Muslims with bullets dipped in pig blood. So does a President who has greater support “among the leaders of the KKK than leaders of the political party he now controls,” in the words of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren.
I’ve written before that I was deeply influenced by time spent with Herbert Brun, the composer who escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 15. He had remarkably little interest in talking to me about music, but ended each of our conversations with a seemingly random exhortation to be sure that my passport was in order. These are times that merit putting one’s passport in order. That, in fact, would be the easiest part of a migration away from my home.
Many African Americans feel the sea change of being able to point to President Obama and say to their children, “See, you can do anything. You are of value,” and many democrats argue that it is time to elect Secretary Clinton and say the same to girls. As a Muslim mom, it is my job to make choices that demonstrate to my children that they are of immense value. What message would it send to raise them in a country where the President openly derides their faith tradition? What quality of life could I expect for them under a Republican presidency if the campaigns alone have driven such a dramatic increase in violence against Muslims?
I have always known that I would need to prepare my children, as racial and religious minorities, to handle the kind of covert racism and ignorance I experienced with my teachers, and the hypocrisy I experienced with my childhood friend. Those experiences were not easy, but they were not crises. Through them, I developed the ability to speak loudly and clearly, to carry myself with dignity, to listen carefully, and to learn. They were the inevitable challenges of taking part in the great project of pluralism. In that project we are offered the divine opportunity to reach across gender and color, across nation, language and tribe “that we might come to know one another,” as the Qur’an describes.
But today’s Republican rhetoric-turned-platform would deny me, and would deny my children, a place at the table altogether. It drives a fundamental shift in what I have understood to be the ideals of my country. It says that America is not, and should not be, all of ours, together. It subverts the blessed opportunity of pluralism and replaces it with fear, contempt and violence. And so this election is, for me, not simply about choosing a President, but about surveying my countrymen’s vision for the future of America.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Sofia Ali-Khan is a Muslim American public interest lawyer and writer. Her recently viral post, “Dear Non-Muslim Allies,” and other writings can be found at sofiaalikhan.com.
Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk