I Belong


By Raqshan Khan

It happened in seventh grade during the end of math class. I was having a conversation with a couple of my friends. We were turning in homework and one of my friends asked me jokingly how I was able to get “such good grades.” I laughed and told her that all I did was turn in my homework. Another one of my friends thought he knew the reason and was eager to share.
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, let’s just say none of the teachers want her bombing their houses.”

I cannot tell you how mixed I felt in that moment. Part of me wanted to shout at him and demand an apology. Yet the comment would go away faster if it wasn’t acknowledged, wouldn’t it? Another part of me wanted to go along with the joke and laugh. No one wants someone around who can’t take a joke about herself now and then, and I certainly wasn’t going to be that girl. So I did. I smiled and gave a laugh. I smiled as I put away my books and I smiled as I left the room.

But inside, I wanted to curl up and cry. That small joke sounds so insignificant, and even I eventually brushed it aside, but just revisiting that classroom in my memory now makes me feel so vulnerable and…lonely. I guess there is a huge part of me that cannot believe how blunt he was. How unremorseful we was as he told the joke and how much he enjoyed telling it. I doubt he even remembers the conversation or realize how much that one remark affected me. He could being reading this right now and not even know I’m writing about him.

But I remember. I remember the words as he said them. I remember the moment I understood what he was referring to and what he was calling me. I remember the feeling of walking out of that classroom that afternoon and wanting to run away as far as I could. I remember wondering if that was the way everybody saw me now. I also remember telling myself it was no big deal. That he was only joking and that I should be able to laugh at myself sometimes. Of course, whenever I remember that joke, I still have to repeat this to myself. Over and over again: It was only a joke.

But how many times will I say it to myself before I actually believe it?

The idea of living with different cultures is a common circumstance nowadays. With interracial marriages, immigration, and the easy accessibility of information, people are starting to learn and respect that there are different cultures around the world. However, as an American high school with Indian heritage, Islamic beliefs, and American values, I know multiculturalism can be both an important part of who you are and also the most confusing aspect about yourself.

To experience the benefits of multiple ideas and customs, you have to find a way to discover yourself in a chosen mix, a blend of your different customs, ideals, and lifestyles. Unfortunately, this is not always an easy process. When sharing with others my multiple cultures I insert hundreds of different points of views, political agendas, religious views, cultural dynamics, family values, racial identities, moral obligations, dreams, and futures. In this pool of cultural identities, it can be difficult to decide who exactly I am. Even today, I still find myself questioning my logic in certain situations, colliding with other peoples’ beliefs and ideas, and having difficulty deciding whether any of my cultures truly defines who I am. My culture is not just my backstory, it defines my personality today and how I choose to live my life. Sometimes, that is not so easy for everyone around me to understand and can be difficult to explain in a single conversation.
More often than not, I have trouble explaining how I handle the different ideals of each of the cultures.
On one hand, I am an American. I love the land, the people, and all the memories I have made here. The values of free speech, liberty, and equality I hold as an American make me who I am. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. On the opposite side of the world though, is India. My heritage is not something I can simply push aside. When my parents moved to America, they brought a piece of India with them. For example, even though we eat sandwiches, salads, and pastas for lunch, my mother cooks Indian food every night for dinner. I have grown so accustomed to the spicy Southern Indian food she cooks that I can eat the spiciest snacks my friends can find without flinching. I grew up watching Disney Movies, Nickelodeon/Cartoon Network cartoons, and Bollywood movies. My music collections consists of the Neighbourhood, Bastille, OneRepublic, Arctic Monkeys and my favorite Bollywood songs that almost none of my friends can understand. On top of the diversity of my ethnic culture comes the stability I can find in my religion. Islam guides me in my everyday life just as my American ideals and Indian habits do. The rules I set for myself, both moral and habitual, are guided by my belief in my religion. For example, with accordance to my religious values, I try to dress as modestly as possible. However, it can be difficult to stay completely covered when I live in such a open culture. Without my values, I am not sure what type of path I would follow, but I am sure I wouldn’t be me. Sometimes, I find that my friends and peers can have difficulty understanding or sharing my views on certain topics such as morals, reasoning, or political and world problems.

I don’t think I fully realized how controversial my religion was until late elementary school. I have never been outright bullied for my religion or targeted for my beliefs or values, but I knew early on my religion was viewed as different and sometimes odd just by the reactions my friends had when I tried explaining it to them. However, I didn’t understand the seriousness of the issue until much later. One thing I realized almost immediately though, just by paying attention to our news, was that being President of my own country wasn’t a possible career choice for someone of my faith.

Now, when I see all the controversial ideas people have about Islam, I find it hard to decide whether or not anyone is willing to listen to what American Muslims have to offer. The terrible attacks and outbreaks of violence both against and inside my country make me cringe. I cringe, not only with fear for my home, but also at the reactions of my fellow Americans. Not everyone reacts in terrible ways, but there are more than enough people who believe that all Muslims are a threat and are willing to do their best to spread that idea to others. According to a 2014 opinion poll conducted by the Arab American Institute, Americans have a 27 percent favorable rating for Muslims. This means that only 27 percent of Americans approve of Islam/Muslims. Another one in four Americans surveyed either were unfamiliar with or not sure of their attitudes toward Muslims and Islam.

Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the world, second only to Christianity. Islam is not growing at such a rapid pace because we preach violence or fear. Islam is an Arabic word hard to perfectly translate into English but in simple terms it means “peace.” The message of peace and unity I grew up learning about is at the foundation of our religion. The teachings of my religion are some of the most peaceful philosophies of life I have ever heard.

Unfortunately, not many people know that. Due to the warped portrayals in the media, lack of education about Islam, and little exposure to its culture, many people develop misconceptions about Islam and Muslims.

In my opinion, the media is perhaps the biggest contributor towards the misinterpretation of Islam and Muslims alike. When the media shows a certain religion or culture in a certain light, a lot of people are likely to believe it, especially when they have no other way to gain information about that religion or people. When the majority of news stories about the war and violence occurring in the Middle East and surrounding areas are blamed on my religion, I can see why many Americans would believe that this is what Islam is. Extremist groups may propagate a fight for Islam, but their whole war is mainly political. They have taken up a religious flag to draw fighters to their cause. The news has recently been focusing on terrorists groups such as ISIS, and how they are out to destroy America and the American way of life. In reality they are ready to cut down anyone in their way, including their fellow Muslims. When you look at the details of the brutalities committed by ISIS, you can see that their killing of Muslims and attack on other nations has nothing to do with Islam, but rather is a fight for absolute power. According to a report done by the United Nations, ISIS is responsible for nearly 4,325 Muslim civilian deaths (this means not including officers, soldiers, or other government officials). ISIS is especially brutal and commits anti-Islamic deeds. When media chooses to ignore all the suffering terrorists like these inflict upon innocent Muslims as well as the rest of the world, they create an atmosphere of hostility here at home and can make American Muslims feel especially singled out. The media continues to propagate the myth that terrorist groups are after America alone. The moment “Islamic terrorist” became the name for the these violent, extremist groups, Islam has been seen as the embodiment of terror and violence to a lot of Americans. No one in the mainstream media seems to feel the need to discuss the basic reasons these wars started or learn how we can prevent terror groups like this from forming. The fear-mongering that occurs on a lot of the news channels causes me to feel either incredibly angry or upset. Just because these extremists have decided to use violent means to express their ideals and to hide their motives behind a pseudo-religious war, the entire religion is seen as one of violence, anger, and oppression.

The minority of Muslims involved in extremist activities does not define my religion, just as the number of Christian extremists does not define my view of their religion. “ISIS is about as Islamic as the KKK is Christian,” American political comedian, Dean Obeidallah, wrote in The Daily Beast. Every religion has its group of extremists, but allowing those extremist to define a religion will get you nowhere.

Another form of media that plays a factor in peoples’ minds are movies. Hollywood portrayals are rarely 100 percent accurate, but occasionally popular movies can lead to the spread of incorrect information. The film American Sniper, which was released at the beginning of 2015, is a perfect example. While the film was well made it had a lot of inaccurate information and stereotypical portrayals of Muslims. This can generate misconceptions, especially among American youth, who tend to gain their information from a lot of Hollywood material, to see Muslims and Islam through a narrow light.

Whenever I read the news and listen to people debating Islam and Muslims, I am left with a hollowed out, sick feeling. When I listen to many people in America saying that my religion is horrific and violent and that we ought to be profiled and spied on just for being Muslims I can’t help feeling pushed away. How can I feel like I belong in my country when I feel like my country doesn’t want me?

Another large reason for the misunderstanding of Muslims among Americans is a lack of education. I remember that in seventh grade, we had our first and only unit on Islam. After spending years learning about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and basically every other main religion, I was ecstatic to be learning about my culture. My teacher did pretty well. We learned the history, language, and basic customs of Islam. Since I was Muslim, I was asked to read Arabic and bring in my hijab (which I use during prayers) to class, both of which I did. The part I found the most interesting during the entire unit was the movie our teacher showed us. It was called The Message. Up until then I had only seen religious movies showing the story of Jesus Christ, Prophet Moses and the origins of Christianity and Judaism. Never had I seen a movie that depicted the start of Islam and its history that made it the religion it is today. The movie was beautiful. It showed, in detail, the many historical events I had read about and how they affected the first followers of my faith. It followed Prophet Muhammad’s journey, all the while never showing his face which follows the Islamic law to never portray a prophet. While it was an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, the movie did it seamlessly. I cannot describe the feeling of pride I felt when I was watching the movie with my class. For once, my religion was being explained and its history taught.

Even though I was happy, I was generally wary of how my class would react to learning about my religion, especially when contrasted with all the media and portrayals of Islam.

After we watched the movie, it wasn’t unusual for me to be walking down the hall and hear someone whisper, “Allahuakbar,” behind me. Whenever I turned to see who it was though, they always quieted down and looked away. Once, I turned around and was able to catch the kid’s eye. I knew him. He noticed me and realized I had heard and quickly sushed his friends.

As soon as I noticed him noticing me, I whipped my head back around. But my ears were still picking up his voice. The last thing I heard him say to his friends was:
“Shhh….she’s a Muslim.”

This sort of thing happened a lot during seventh grade, during and after the unit about Islam. I don’t know what to make of a circumstance like this. Are they making fun of my religion, or are they simply saying it because the words sound different to them? If they are doing it because it sounds different, then why do they act like they’re being offensive? I wish American youth had a better education in the religions of the world, and that a unit on Islam weren’t so novel. If people knew better there would be fewer quick assumptions based on media and propaganda.

For example, one assumption I hear a lot is that hijabs (head scarfs) are used to oppress women. While I agree that forcing women to wear the hijab is wrong and oppressive, according to Pew Research, out of the 49 Muslim countries in the world, Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are the only countries that actually have legal enforcements of the hijab. In my experience, the majority of Muslim women (especially the ones living in Western countries) testify that it is their personal choice to either wear or not to wear a hijab or burqa, which is a loose garment covering the whole body from head to toe. Whether or not a woman wears it based on social or spiritual influences is not a reason to deny her the right to wear it. From an Islamic point of view, displaying women in sexualized ways is another huge form of oppression that inhibits the person from being seen for their intelligence and ability. This is what the hijab’s purpose is. To provide modesty so that one’s worth is based on what they can do, not just their appearance. While I myself do not find complete head to toe cover necessary, I cannot deny that I find Western culture’s sexualization of women as bad as extremists forcing women to wear the hijab or burqa. Both are imposing their views on how women should be displayed. Just because one calls for covering and the other for exposing does not mean they are any less discriminatory.

I happen to not wear the hijab because I don’t believe I need it in order to express my faith and, if I am being completely truthful, because of all the negative connotations Americans seem to associate with it. It is not an option I would like to have taken away from me, though. I hate to hear myself say it, but I am genuinely afraid to go outside or to school for a full day in a hijab. Just the looks I’d get would be enough to make me nervous. I have considered many times what it would be like to show up to school in my hijab. What kinds of questions would I get? What kinds of jokes would be shot at me behind my back? How many people that day would joke about me being a terrorist? Honestly, I don’t think many Tam students know the horrifying fear of being joked about or called a terrorist. It is not one that can be shaken off easily. Luckily, that hasn’t happened to me too often at Tam. I have heard of Muslim in other parts of the country being bullied or harassed for their religious beliefs.With Tam High and Marin County being liberal and relatively open-minded communities, I am grateful that the level of acceptance here is pretty high. In fact, 81 percent of Tam students surveyed by The Tam News believe Islam is NOT directly linked with terrorism while only 18 percent believe it is. In addition, 76 percent of Tam students surveyed said they don’t believe Islam teaches violence more than other modern religions while only 23 percent said it does. This large rate of acceptance could be correlated with the amount of exposure Tam students have Muslims and Islam. So, I highly doubt that wearing a hijab would result in blatant bullying or mockery, but I know that because the knowledge about Islam is pretty low, not many people really understand the purpose of it. Only 12 percent of Tam students claim to have a deep understanding of the religion while the majority, 65 percent, say they remember learning about it in social studies class and think they have a basic understanding. This left 19 percent who’ve heard of the religion but don’t know much about it and four percent who’ve never heard of Islam.

For me, the hijab is a declaration of faith, morals, and representative of my wish to be valued as a woman of intelligence and knowledge rather than just by my appearance. This is the original purpose of the hijab. The fact that certain people have turned the hijab into a symbol of oppression shows a fault in those people’s thinking, not the religious purpose. There are other ways to work against the oppression of women rather than simply banning a religious/cultural article of clothing. Promoting women’s equality does not mean restricting women. Working towards changing the minds of society of the importance of women or cultivating a lifestyle where women are viewed with equality would be a more effective route.
All in all, most of the issues involving the misunderstanding or bigotry towards Islam and Muslims can be changed with more diverse media coverage, such as Al Jazeera or BBC, more education, and the willingness to understand a culture that may be different from yours.

On February 19, 2015, Obama gave a summit speech about counter-terrorism. One of the most powerful and impactful lines of the speech was:

“We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” Obama said.
I hope one day, everyone can understand that. I hope that one day, my entire nation will see that one religion is not defined by a group of extremists. I hope that one day someone of my faith can run for President without being suspected of being a terrorist. I hope that one day all Americans can look past Muslim stereotypes and see us for the people we are. I hope that one day I can say with full and absolute certainty: my country is not at war with my religion.



To hear more from Raqshan and her interviews with other Muslim students at Tam check out The Tam News Online. Click here to watch the video.