All human beings want to be seen, heard and valued. It is the most basic of our needs. In the last decade, I have experienced times when I feel like my Muslim faith is not a religion worthy of importance. Two instances that give rise to these feelings are when I am watching the unfair treatment of Muslims in the media and during conversations in which I feel like I cannot express my religious beliefs. I’ve watched, again and again, the lenient treatment of white males who carry out violence against Muslims and absorbed the painful message that my life as a Muslim is not seen as valuable. Not only that but growing up in a post 9/11-era has shown me that Islam is not seen as a credible religion and to advocate for my values as a Muslim, I need frame my beliefs as politically liberal or politically conservative rather than as Muslim.
Over the last two decades, I’ve witnessed the disparity between the reaction to violent crimes committed against Muslims and the reaction to violent crimes committed by people who claim to be Muslim. In the latter, the media quickly moves Islam from a religion to an oppressive and hateful ideology that seeks to destroy American values and even America itself. On the other hand, when the attacker is white and non-Muslim and the victims are people of color and Muslim, the perpetrator’s faith—be it Christianity, Judaism or anything else for that matter—is never to blame. Instead, he is a victim of mental illness or anger issues. Never a terrorist threatening American principles and people. What else is a Muslim left to infer but that the tepid response to an attack on Muslim lives means that her life is not as valuable as that of her Christian or Jewish neighbor?
The crime against Muslim Americans that burns most vividly in my mind is the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting. After a middle-aged white man murdered three Muslim students and turned himself in to the police, officers reported that he was cooperative and a mundane parking dispute, not Islamophobia, motivated the triple murder. Somehow the hateful comments towards Muslims dotting the perpetrator’s social media accounts did not figure into their analysis. While it was certainly a consolation that the Chapel Hill shooter was indicted on three counts of first-degree murder and the prosecutor said he intends to seek the death penalty, I couldn’t help but notice that the media’s focus on the perpetrator’s mental well-being almost overshadowed the loss of three Muslim lives. The refusal to charge this man with a hate crime further devalued the lives of his three Muslim victims.
Meanwhile, the public is rarely interested in knowing and the media rarely interested in investigating the mental state of a Muslim perpetrator. Did he suffer from mental illness? What religious, cultural and social elements influenced his thinking? Studies have shown that the radicalization of young men in a post-war era can lead to violent thoughts, but this does not enter the analysis. Condemnation and rage towards a Muslim perpetrator are immense, but grief for the Muslim victims scant. All crimes are heinous, but evaluating a perpetrator based on his religion sends the implicit message to Muslim Americans that: Your lives matter less because you are Muslim.
…the public is rarely interested in knowing and the media rarely interested in investigating the mental state of a Muslim perpetrator.
Alongside this dehumanizing message, I am also often made to feel that my religion is less than other faiths, and thereby not worthy of respect or protection. Because my religious beliefs are dismissed as illegitimate and unintelligent, I can’t champion my values as a Muslim without cloaking them in a political context. For example, I can’t voice my religious opinion on abortion without couching it as an opinion endorsed by the liberal-left. Only then do I garner respect from peers. If I present my views on abortion issues purely from the point of view of a Muslim, I am met with discomfort, as though my examination of things through the lens of Islam lacks credibility because Islam itself lacks credibility. I find some solace in knowing that my friends from different faiths complain that they too are met with uneasy looks when broaching matters within the context of their religious beliefs.
And if I ever do argue a certain position by drawing on my understanding of my faith, I cannot help but worry that the listener will first label that position as either “liberal” or “conservative,” and then color all of Islam as being “too liberal” or “too conservative.” Instead of understanding that Islamic principles are a blend of positions that sit on both sides of the political spectrum, people are often eager to brand my religion as one or the other. I have seen this scenario play out in the media multiple times, where, not only is a particular aspect of Islam misunderstood, but it is then taken to reflect the nature of the entire religion. As a Muslim-American, I feel stuck between boldly voicing my religious beliefs or discretely framing them in non-religious terms for fear they will be met with disdain or taken out of context. Sometimes I want to throw up my hands and abandon all attempts to share my point-of-view as a Muslim.
Instead of understanding that Islamic principles are a blend of positions that sit on both sides of the political spectrum, people are often eager to brand my religion as one or the other.
The political and cultural climate of the last two decades, as dehumanizing as it has been at times, has revealed to me what I want to do with my education and life—change American discourse so that Muslims are seen as no less valuable than non-Muslims and Islam no less credible a religion than any other.
Reema Lateef is a baking aficionado who has dedicated the last few years to public service, helping homeowners facing foreclosure, and interning at a state prosecutor’s office. After graduating law school, she will represent the United States in bankruptcy cases for the Department of Justice’s Office of the U.S. Trustee.