The “apologizing factor.” This is the term that Azra Ahmed ’19, a Reed freshman, uses to describe the imperative for Muslim Americans to condemn terrorist groups such as ISIS and therefore exonerate themselves from association. This apology is completely unnecessary, Azra explains, because “as a rational person, why would you have to condemn something so horrible? It is a given.” Why would Ahmed, as a Muslim, be expected to denounce ISIS openly while I, a non-Muslim, would simply be assumed to feel that way? Why are the 2015 Paris attacks labeled as Islamic terrorism and not simply terrorism?
The myth of Islam being monolithic leads to the “apologizing factor.” Islam, like all religions, takes infinite forms depending on the individual adherent. Simply because ISIS identifies itself as a Muslim organization and Ahmed identifies herself as a Muslim in no way makes their actions or intentions similar. Similarly, my Catholic grandmother has no responsibility for, nor does she support, the sexual abuse that has been a problem in the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, there are many attempts to reduce Islam to something easily defined. A phrase such as “Islam is love” is no more productive than “Islam is hate,” for no single phrase can contain its complexity. Those who might tote the “Islam is love” banner still limit and attempt to narrowly define Islam and the experience of Muslims; while people who claim that “Islam is hate” discriminate and violate lives due to a hateful and warped view.
“No one can hold the complete religion,” says Zhwan Sadiq, an Oregonian Muslim, urging for Muslims to stop being defined completely by their religion and for no one to search for the whole of Islam within one Muslim. While yes, a Muslim is a Muslim, he or she is also a human. One’s humanity should not be compromised in light of events such as the Paris Attacks. They should not have to apologize.
What should be is, of course, not the same as what is. Sadiq, who grew up in a Kurdish Muslim family in Beaverton, has had various negative experiences due to people’s reductions and generalizations of Islam. There are the little things: the people who look at her blond hair and blue eyes framed by her hijab and ask why she is “converting.” Those who stare pityingly at her, thinking they are sympathizing with her oppressed existence, when really they are mocking her way of life. The employer who asked her “How does it feel being a first-generation college student?” when both her parents have PhDs.
These comments and attitudes are unwelcome but Sadiq finds them relatively easy to brush off. Unfortunately, this is not the end of it. For example, shortly after the shooting in San Bernardino this December, the tires of Sadiq’s car were slashed and the words “Thanks for California” were written across the windshield.
Zhwan refuses to nurture the “tree of hate” by being angry about what she faces and maintains that education is the key to erasing the false assumptions people make about Islam and Muslims. One necessary way to educate, she proposes, is to change the way the media portrays Muslims. On TV, Muslims are often “angry, revengeful people” she notes and wishes there were more realistic and positive portrayals.
Emna Hamila, a French language scholar at Pacific University, also notes the negative image of Muslims in American TV. Having spent her winter break traveling around the US and Mexico, she says she noticed that “every time I was in an airport the TV screens were filled with really stupid statements about Muslims,” such as Donald Trump spouting xenophobic fabrications. She is dismayed that so many people, even those who denounce Trump, say “Oh my god! Did you hear what he said?” and continue to spread his messages.
Despite this, Hamila has been “positively surprised” by the reactions of Americans towards her and Islam. In France, “nobody works with a hijab except maybe in jobs where people don’t see you”, whereas immediately upon arrival in the U.S. she saw an airport worker in hijab. Going to the beach in her full-body swimsuit in France she is looked down upon, while in the United States she says “My first thought is not that people are suspicious but that maybe they are just curious.”
As a Muslim woman, Hamila is used to people assuming that her identity and life are being restricted. “I’m seen as the victim and they [Muslim men] are seen as my oppressor” she says. This assumption would not be held, she believes, if people researched the two main sources of Islamic belief, the Qur’an and the Sunna or Life of the Prophet. Oppression is a societal creation, not an Islamic one. “I come from Tunisia which is a fairly liberal country and it cannot be compared with a country like Saudi Arabia,” despite both of them being Muslim, explains Hamila. Because of the assumption of female victimhood, terrorist attacks carried out by Muslim women are under greater scrutiny than those by men. “People are fascinated when it is a woman,” says Hamila, because the neat illusion of who a Muslim woman is is suddenly threatened.
Growing up attending a Qur’anic School in a Muslim community, Ahmed ’19, experienced fairly minimal negativity towards Islam. “Most of my life I have not really felt a big backlash for being a Muslim in America. I get weird stares and mean comments like ‘terrorist,’ but that’s the worst of it,” she says. Azra is, however, aware of the effects of Islam’s negative reputation on American Muslims. For her whole life, she has been taught through her Islamic education to uphold a code of morals and etiquette. The imperative to show this morality to the world is intensified following acts of terrorism connected to Islam. “Especially because we live in the West, we have to uphold a certain degree of moral uprightness,” Azra says. The actions of Muslims in America are judged more harshly than those of other faiths and immediately connected to Islam. In a Muslim-majority country this is not so, as “people understand your faith and know that your actions don’t define the faith.”
At Reed, Ahmed says, “No one is ever mean to me or treats me differently because I wear the scarf [hijab].” Despite this, a feeling of alienation still arises. “I know I look different and therefore I isolate myself,” she explains. There is no Islamic club or organization to provide a place for her to interact with other Muslims. Her hijab is a comfort as it makes her feel “more connected to Islam and the values associated with Islam” that are not necessarily visible among the crowd of people around her.
These three women, Sadiq, Ahmed, and Hamila, cannot represent all of Islam or all of the experiences of Muslim women in the United States. These stories are nonetheless important to understanding how the treatment of Islam affects human lives.
One other short story, a hadith [anecdote about the Prophet Mohammed] that Hamila shared with me, can serve as a further symbol of the diversity of Islam and the diverse ways in which Muslims live their lives.
The companions of the Prophet were having an argument about when the Prophet told them to pray. Some said to pray now and others at another time, both groups simply wanting to follow the Prophet’s request. When they came back to the Prophet they asked, “Who is right?”. He responded with “You were both right.”
“[Islam] is about intention,” Hamila explains, not about one rigid truth.
There will never be a concise definition of Islam for us to reference or a person for us to quote as paradigmatically Islamic (perhaps other than the Prophet). The only thing that we can hope and should try to do is uncover stories.