Muslims in America
Like any ordinary American teenager, Aadila Jaka, 21, used to dread waking up for school. She would linger over her morning cereal, dawdle before getting dressed, and draw out the five-block walk from her South Florida townhouse to campus. But unlike just any ordinary American teenager, Jaka would also steel herself for another day of taunts, threats and dirty looks brought on by her religious background.
High school, by nature, preludes anxiety. But for Jaka, a second-generation Pakistani immigrant from Florida with an affinity for literature and Lady Gaga, it was four years of hell. Jaka is just one of countless young Muslims who no longer felt at home in her country of birth after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
“I was in sixth grade when the planes hit the World Trade Center, and it was as horrifying for me as it was for any other American,” said Jaka, a Tufts senior studying biochemistry and English. Jaka, who devours fashion magazines, has color-coordinated her patterned turquoise hijab with a bright blue t-shirt. “I was born here. I was used to the freedom this country afforded me, and not prepared to shoulder responsibility for the actions of a few extremists who just happened to share my religion.”
Jaka, who shares a double room on the Tufts campus with her best friend, a blonde, blue-eyed Protestant from Wisconsin named Julie, said that the transition from average American twelve year-old to social outcast was slow and excruciating.
“My friends seemed to drop off one by one, like flies,” said Jaka, sitting at her dorm room desk. Her wood-paneled walls are adorned with photos of friends and pop culture icons. A Great Gatsby poster featuring the foreboding eyes of TJ Eckleburg hangs above her bed. “By the time I got to high school, the same kids that I used to share cookies with at recess were throwing pieces of paper with angry messages at me, and whispering ‘terrorist’ as I walked by.”
Rather than shy away from Islam, Jaka grew increasingly interested in her faith, which, fueled by high birth rates, immigration and widespread conversion, is the world’s fastest growing religion.
“Islam means peace and submission,” said Jaka. “I wear a hijab to show that I am submitting to the will of God, but I also like the idea of being judged by my intelligence and personality, rather than the way I look.”
Before 9/11, the average American knew little about Muslim religious rites like Ramadan or sharia law, even though 2.6 million of its followers reside in the US. While Westerners’ curiosity about Islam peaked after the planes hit the World Trade Center, stereotypes about Muslims still spread, according to Nazli Kibria, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Boston University.
“Westerners think that Muslims are violent, pre-modern in their thinking, undemocratic, intolerant and patriarchal,” said Kibria, who examines the division between Muslims and the West through chronicles of Bangladeshi immigration in her recent book, Mustlims in Motion. “Islam doesn’t get a lot of fair media coverage. More young, moderate Muslims are realizing that there are different ways of interpreting Islam: some wear veils, some don’t; some pray five times a day, some don’t. The picture is complicated. You can’t brushstroke an entire population.”
While Westerners tend to think of all Muslims as Arabs, less than 20 percent are of Arab descent, and Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Muslim Americans are the most racially diverse religion in the United States, with African Americans making up 35 percent of the population.
“I think that young Muslims were very affected by 9/11,” said Kibria, whose desk is cluttered with empty coffee cups, papers and books (Linda Herrera’s Being Young and Muslim is barely visible underneath a stack). A laminated photo of The Beatles’ George Harrison playing sitar, captioned “Remembering George Harrison” in Arabic, hangs above her computer.
“Research shows that there was a real resurgence in Islamic identity. Muslims thought their culture and religion was being misunderstood, and they felt they were being attacked, so they became more attracted to Islam. It’s a powerful, intense, and exciting culture, but it’s also such a threatened identity,” said Kibria.
Recent Gallup polls found that Muslim Americans are even more likely to identify with their country (69 percent) than their faith (65 percent), and that 89 percent think that terrorism is never justified. Likewise, although all religious texts are interpretive, passages condemning the taking of innocent lives can be found throughout the Koran. War is justified primarily in self-defense.
However, young Muslim Americans like Amir Alizadeh, 20, are often perceived as militant, and targeted as threats to American society.
“I was driving in Louisville, Kentucky one day when a cop pulled me over and asked for my I.D.,” said Alizadeh, a Boston University junior studying physics and member of the school’s Persian Club. “He asked if I had anything in the car. I asked, ‘Like what?’ and he responded, ‘Do you have a bazooka in your trunk, or something?’” Alizadeh said that he was given a ticket for drag racing, even though he was only going 35 miles per hour.
After coming to terms with the trials of being Muslim after 9/11, many young Muslim Americans took it upon themselves to give their peers the right impression of Islam. Andrea Dettorre, who graduated from Boston University in 2008 with a degree in Biology, had no prior interaction with Muslims before she started working with the American Islamic Congress (AIC), a human rights organization with offices in D.C., Boston, Cairo and Basra.
“It was mostly curiosity that drew me to AIC and Islam, by extension,” said Dettorre, 25, who was recruited to write grant proposals for AIC, and now works as a development associate.
Dettorre, an Italian-American, is strikingly beautiful. With her dark, curly hair pulled back and face free of makeup, minus a thick coat of mascara, her almond-shaped eyes are immense. She speaks with an intensity that makes it impossible not to listen.
“I remember being really shaken, more so than the average person.” said Dettorre of her experience on 9/11. “My dad’s friend was a pilot for American Airlines, and he died that day. It was my first exposure to Islamic extremism. Islam itself wasn’t even on my radar until 9/11.”
Dettorre wants to work with AIC to “mainstream Islamic identity,” and show that Muslim values are highly compatible with American ones. AIC partners with myriad other organizations – from the Unitarian Universal Service to Boston’s American Jewish Community to the gay hotspot Club Café – and puts on events that spread the organization’s message, like last April’s Muslim Film Festival.
“We want to show that we practice tolerance and understanding,” said Dettorre. “Muslim is not synonymous with religious space. It means so much more than going to mosques. We’re trying to give another option, one that embraces cultural identity. We’re trying to create a movement that challenges stereotypes.
“People need to remember that as Americans, we have rights and values endowed to us. We should encourage Muslims to stand up and embrace themselves the way they are. We should be open to having our minds changed,” said Dettorre.
October 14, 2011