Raising A Confident Muslim-American Child in the Age of Islamophobia

By Sabina Khan-Ibarra

Raising a child is a difficult feat. Raising a brown child in America is even trickier. Raising a brown, Muslim child in America seems almost impossible. If someone asked me to describe the love of a mother for her child three years ago, I probably used a series of clichés, drawing from what I had read, seen in movies and even witnessed in person. Of course, I had no idea back then; and that is my excuse for my superficial, naive description.

Now that I know what being a mother feels like, I find myself still using the same clichés — this time because the feelings are so intense, it is sometimes difficult to put them into words.

Although I experienced the stress (and love) of caring for my son Ibrahim, who endured an illness and eventually passed away, I am just now realizing the enormity of my responsibility as a mother to a growing child. Not long ago, my second son, seven-month-old Musa (who was just learning to crawl), made his way across the living room floor and pulled on a lamp cord. Luckily, the lamp landed six inches away from his head and missed him. I ran over and held him until he squirmed his way out of my embrace, annoyed by my cooing.

The incident unsettled me. I know that Musa solely depends on me for everything, from basic survival needs, to more complicated things like providing him with a nurturing environment. But the lamp incident brought an epiphany: I became aware that he isn’t always going to be small enough for me to protect.

A few days later, with the would-be disaster was still fresh in my mind, I turned on my computer to do some work. A headline about an attack on Muslims in their place of worship was the top news on Yahoo. It was still unclear if the attacker was just an angry neighbor or a racist individual doing the American people a favor by cleaning out an offensive color that had seeped in to the fibers ofAmerica.

“Why? Oh, why?” I said to my screen, so loud that it startled Musa, who was trying to figure out the best way to eat his wooden block.

The Future Looks Gloomy

This attack saddened me, but it wasn’t until later — after seven more attacks, a hateful advertisement on the local Muni buses in San Francisco, a lousy trailer by an angry con-artist, the “Muslim Rage” cover of Newsweek magazine and another hateful advertisement in the subway of New York City — did I become very aware of the hate that is spreading. I used to be scared of my child walking at night with a hoodie, but now I wonder if my fears would ever be put to rest when the attacks specifically target Muslims as a group.

I know my son’s greatest problem right now is whether or not a teething ring will calm his sore gums. But from a mother’s perspective, his future looks gloomy. All the articles I read, the books I studied, the mothers I emulated, the advice I heard, and the Baby Center updates I subscribed to are suddenly not enough. My responsibility goes beyond the norm: I have to not only raise a healthy and happy child, but I have to do so in a hostile environment.

Will Musa come home from school excluded and even ridiculed because of the name I chose for him? I contemplate keeping him at home, like my own little Bubble Boy. Because Canada is where Americans threaten to move when things aren’t going our way, I even seriously consider moving there, until — like African-Americans, Jews and the Japanese-Americans — Muslims are no longer the bad guys.

Musa’s strong will and determination is very important to me. But, will this world, seemingly filled with hatred of Muslims, only stifle him? I wonder if he can thrive in a world that may blame, hate, and punish him for a crime he did not commit and then ask him to apologize for that same crime. After the shocking assassination of the Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, American Muslims rushed to explain, for the millionth time, the difference between moderate Muslims and the extremists who commit these crimes. This makes me wonder if Musa’s confident leadership would be seen as a threat or a positive attribute.

“What can I do?” I asked my husband, like a whining child, one evening.

“Well, what did your parents do?” he asked me back. “I bet there was a lot of racism when you were growing up. Your neighborhood is still predominantly white.”

Lessons of our Parents

As much as I hate to admit it (especially when we are arguing), my husband was right. My parents did a pretty good job of raising us, and there was racism, albeit different, even back then.

One Eid, I wore a beautiful partoog kameez my mother made me. It was a white lawn outfit with delicate pink flower pattern. My Mama had ironed and hung the clothes up in my closet days before Eid. I couldn’t wait to wear them.

But when Eid arrived and I wore my new clothes, the neighborhood children shouted, “Give us back our curtains,” as I walked to my car on the way to prayers. I was so angry, not because my feelings were hurt, but because I thought my mother’s feelings would be hurt. At eight years of age, I couldn’t do much, so I did the only thing I could think of. I punched the leader of the pack, a blonde kid named Brian, who was in my third grade class. When he cried and left, taking his gang with him, I was sure I would be in deep trouble. Instead, my mother shook her head and fixed my hair again.

“Next time try talking to them,” was all she said to me.

As a child, my father told me stories about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He taught us that the Prophet loved even in times of hate. One time, Baba said there was a woman who would throw garbage on the Prophet from her roof every day when he passed by her home. One day, she did not throw the garbage. Worried, he went to inquire about the woman’s health. The kind attitude of the Prophet inspired her into the recognition of the Truth. Baba also showed us that the Quran taught us forbearance, patience and kindness: “Allah Almighty says, ‘those who control their rage and pardon other people. Allah loves the good-doers.’ (3:134)

When reminiscing about my childhood, I find myself idolizing my parents. Despite the mistakes they made, my arranged marriage as a teenager being one of them, I think they did a great job in raising me and my siblings. And, part of what makes it easy for me to forgive them for their faults is that unlike their relatives and friends, they admit to their mistakes and are able to learn from them.

This is a very rare trait, and I cherish my parents for it. Because to me, a real Muslim is human, not a person who is infallible, but one who falls and humbly gets back up and tries again — this time with a different approach.

After 25 years of living in the same neighborhood, people know my parents and like them. They ask my parents how they keep their roses so beautiful and the grass so green. They talk about the possibility of new tennis courts in the neighborhood park. My parents still live there and are part of the neighborhood watch. They changed the opinions of their neighbors by simply being themselves — honorable, kind and forgiving.

A New Perspective for the Future

It’s a tough world out there, but I refuse to be afraid. I know, Insha’Allah, how to prepare my son for it. Instead of reading the fluff articles that baby websites send me, I will continue reading about the people who were great because of the adversity they were faced with. I will learn more about those who rose up despite society’s call for hate. I will teach my son the example of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and my parents. Most of all, I will learn from those examples and become the person my child wants to emulate.

My love for Musa is the constant tug at my heart and the very real fear that he will leave me when he is moaning in pain from a high fever. It is to want the best for him and to plan for an unseen tomorrow because the thought of him in distress keeps me up all night, and gives me blood shot eyes and dark circles the rest of the next day. With my love, I hope that Musa is prepared for the unknown future ahead of him. I pray he is able to be the confident and spirited individual I can see in his eyes in spite of the hardships he may face in his lifetime.

A mother’s natural instinct to protect her child from all harm is part of the job description. I just have to learn to just do my best to equip Musa with the proper tools to survive whatever difficulties he may face and be the best role model for him and all of my future children, Insha’Allah.

Every day, I pray for the strength and the wisdom to raise good people. And every night, I sing to him the same lullaby my mother sang to me. I watch him drift off to sleep with hopes that all the love I give him is enough to make him the strong man I pray every second of every hour of every day he will be.

Sabina Khan-Ibarra is a freelance writer and editor. Her most recent work, “Finding My Spirituality,” was published by Love, Inshallah and AltMuslimah and Birth, Loss and In-Between, and appeared in the online magazine, In Culture Parent. Sabina is currently co-editing and writing for Hijabulous: Seeing the Veil through the Eyes of American Muslim Women and writing Poppy Flower, a novel about a Pashtun American girl growing up in America.