by Afrah Ahmed
Salam, everyone. If you don’t know me, my name is Afrah and I’m a third-year Telecom Production major (it’s just a weird name for film/media production). As Muslims and racial minorities in America, we are generally quick to express our struggles with fitting in and being discriminated against on the basis of religion or race– and rightly so. However, as swiftly as we point out injustices against Muslims, we just as readily hurt our own people.
First, I would like to acknowledge that Muslims are incredibly ethnically and culturally diverse. Therefore, my experiences as a Pakistani-American who’s spent most of her life in New York will have been different than those of, say, an Egyptian American who has grown up in Florida. Now that I’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, allow me to lay out a few scenarios: First, I would like you to think of a time when you were critiqued for how you dress by another Muslim or by someone of your own culture. Now, recall a time when you were judged for your lifestyle choices or pushed to follow a certain career path. Finally, ask yourself if Muslims, or people within your cultural community, have ever spread a rumor about you. If you’re anything like me, it wasn’t a matter of questioning whether or not you have experienced these things but rather of asking yourself: where do I start?
When I was in elementary school, I had several Muslim friends (I lived in Queens, New York, so it would have been some sort of statistical anomaly if I hadn’t had a couple of brown pals). As I grew up, I became aware of the gossip and feuds that existed between the Muslims in my neighborhood. While I do not remember if the gossiping affected me personally, I do know that both of my elementary school bullies just so happened to be Muslim. Then, right before middle school, I moved to a small town in upstate New York in which a handful of well-settled Pakistani families ‘ruled’ the masjid. The girls my age were utterly judgmental and unwelcoming of newbies like me, which is probably a result of them having lived in a small, suburban town their entire lives. Initially I was intimidated by them, then I tried to get close to them, and ultimately I recognized that they were not worth the energy and I was nothing more than pleasant whenever I would see them. I went through the majority of middle school and high school without good Muslim friends, but during my senior year I befriended some of the girls who were either relatively new to the community or whose families didn’t have a stronghold over the masjid. These girls were my first taste, after a long time, of what it was like to have non-toxic Muslim friends. They may very well be the reason I have allowed myself to trust and befriend Muslims in college.
Another, rather burdensome, part of my life was keeping theater and music a secret from other Muslims. I began performing way back in second grade and have loved it ever since. It has been an incredibly formative part of my life as it allowed me to evolve from an extremely shy, introverted child to someone who isn’t all that bad at talking to people. As my fellow Muslims know, there is a huge stigma around music and performance arts in our community, specifically within our parents’ generation. To avoid the disapproving glances and curt comments, I simply didn’t talk about this part of my life when I was around other Muslims. Similarly, when I started college, I was a Health Science major on the pre-med track and was far from satisfied. I struggled with the decision of changing my major and career path for two damn years because I was afraid of the judgement that would ensue. Sure enough, when I made the leap a fair number of older Muslims criticized and questioned my decision; thankfully, I had braced myself for the storm beforehand and made it out alive.
I have a handful of theories regarding why we may put down our own brothers and sisters. One of them is that we fear the unknown; we keep ourselves in a little bubble that allows us to maintain our sense of identity and culture. This bubble, however, is unhealthy as it keeps us from growing and becoming a greater part of American society. Another theory is that we have something to prove. We want to be the most religious, the most popular and the most in-tune with our culture so we judge those who do not necessarily follow our ideologies in order to elevate ourselves. This is harmful as it breeds close-mindedness and keeps us from standing together as Muslims.
While I have only been telling you my story thus far, I am certain that we have all experienced some degree of acrimony from the very people whom we should be able to trust the most. Hostility and pressure have no place in Islam, and any culturally-bound factors that suggest otherwise ought to be ignored. Thankfully, I think that being in college has allowed most of us to be more open-minded and accepting than we may have been when we were younger and confined to our parents’ ways of thinking. It is incredibly important that we maintain this tolerant attitude as we grow up and set foot into the real world because that is the one thing that can keep us united as American-Muslims. As long as we respect our own and show that same respect to those outside of our community, we stand a chance at being accepted in a world that has yet to realize our worth.