Three weeks after the terrible atrocity of 9/11, my family and I permanently moved from Pakistan to the United States.
When we first arrived, we hardly knew a soul in America. Stranded in a Greyhound bus station in Buffalo, we waited for my uncle to come visit us from Canada and help us get settled. I remember how different everything seemed. The smell of coffee, the taste of bagels and donuts, the clothes people wore, and the language people spoke were all unfamiliar to my senses.
Where were my mother’s homemade fried breads called parathas? What about the chai? I couldn’t smell the incessant aroma of fried onions anywhere. I searched for some sense of familiarity while sitting in that bus station and found myself disappearing as the new world enveloped me.
This reality became even more pronounced when another Pakistani Muslim in the same bus station suggested to my mother that she should take her veil, which covered her face, off. In my twelve years of existence, I had never seen my mother without the veil in public.
I was too young to fully understand the complexities of the political climate after 9/11 and how it skewed the perception of Muslims in America. When my mother took off the veil and started wearing only the headscarf, my twelve year old mind could make little sense of it.
But this incident left a subliminal impression on my mind, which I could not shake off for years to come. As I grew older, I felt that there was a stigma attached to wearing the headscarf—as if wearing it would make me less American. I felt that being more Muslim would make me less desirable to my American peers.
Luckily, I grew up in diverse parts of New Jersey, where people found comfort in the shared challenges and triumphs of immigrant societies. In a way, being surrounded by so many faiths and ethnicities, I was sheltered from the discrimination I could have faced as a Muslim American in a post 9/11 society.
The people I grew up with marveled at the way I dressed, the way I spoke and the way I looked. Their questions about my culture and faith stemmed from a genuine curiosity, and were mainly devoid of any judgmental undertones. Though I covered my hair and stood out in society, never once did I feel out of place.
In fact, I felt like I belonged in the United States. I saw myselfas part of a colorful spectrum, in which every shade and hue represented a unique group of people who somehow found home under one roof. This thought fascinated and inspired me to fall in love with the American values of tolerance and acceptance. I was glad that my family decided to move to the United States.
But all this is slowly changing. The shelter of diversity that shielded me from the harsh realities of life has slowly dissipated over the last four years after I moved to Texas. Recently, freshman state rep. Molly White asked Muslims like me to pledge allegiance to the United States to “prove” our loyalty to our nation. After 13 years of living in the United States and feeling accepted, I have found myself awakening to intolerance and discrimination.
I am somewhat familiar with this pain. I was born in a country where calling myself a Muslim could put me in jail. The members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which I belong to, face a government-sanctioned persecution in Pakistan.
Today, Pakistan has become a breeding ground for extremism— promoting hatred, intolerance and bigotry towards any group of people who are not considered “Muslim,” according to the law. In Pakistan, the first time I told my best friend I was an Ahmadi Muslim, I remember shaking with fear. I knew being an Ahmadi meant you are the “other” in society.
Recently, I have found myself becoming the “other” once again after a surge in so-called “Islamic” extremism. Just a few weeks ago, I walked into a classroom at my school where I teach English as a Second Language. While the substitute was explaining the assignment to me, he suspiciously looked up and said, “I thought you were the local terrorist.” I responded with incredulity and shock, which made him repeat it three more times. He thought I hadn’t heard him.
Recently, I have also begun writing about issues that are affecting the Muslim communities across the globe. With recent acts of extremism in different parts of the world, I have felt compelled to defend my faith. I have watched the pain and frustration of fellow Muslims as they witness the hijacking of their faith right before their eyes. I have suffered with them, too. In the days that followed after the Sydney siege, the Peshawar school attack and Charlie Hebdo, I found myself crying throughout the day. It is deeply saddening to see so many innocent lives lost, and it’s hard to bear that Islam is seen as the root cause of such atrocities.
I have started writing because it’s the only outlet I have for the emotional trauma that comes with being a Muslim in America today. Through writing, I have tried to educate people about how Islam vehemently rejects extremism. But with every article or letter I have written, readers’ response has been mostly discouraging. “All Muslims are violent,” or “Muslims should pack their bags and go home.” While a few kind souls have spoken out against bigotry, many of the readers choose to remain willfully ignorant about true Islam and continue to spew hatred and animosity toward peaceful Muslims.
These past few years have been a rude awakening for me, to say the least. When I lived in New Jersey and people asked me if I was ever discriminated against for being a Muslim, I always laughed and responded with “Never.” At the time, I genuinely believed that my overall demeanor and a smile on my face could dispel any judgment against me for wearing the headscarf. But today, no matter how much I smile, I notice the suspicion and doubt in other people’s faces.
How do you get through something like this? It’s traumatic. Muslims who believe in peace and tolerance are living today with a sense of culpability for a crime they have not committed. Extremist groups like ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram have killed Muslims in far greater numbers than non-Muslims. With every atrocity, these extremists also leave Muslim populations in the West extremely vulnerable to discrimination. It is simply mind-boggling to me that extremists might win this fight, because not only are they able to promote violence in their part of the world, they are also successful in dividing us in other countries.
When I first moved to the United States, I resisted wearing the headscarf for a few years. When I finally wore it, I realized that I was stronger than my fears. I realized that the threat of discrimination could not strangle my beliefs or bury who I was. Despite backlash, I refuse to stop writing about Muslim American issues because while I remain complacent, the actions of extremists continue to shape the very perception of what it means to be a Muslim in this world. I refuse to become the “other” in a society whose values I admire and love. The United States is my only home.