I have always been fascinated with the subjects of law, politics, history and sociology. The more I learn about history, the more I realize that Islam has played an important role in shaping American history. Many slaves were African-American Muslims and introduced America to Islam. Many jazz musicians in Chicago were Muslim and African-American as well, and their spiritual beliefs and moral values reflected in their music contributed to shaping Chicagoan and urban culture.
One of the political figures I admire most is Malcolm X, a revolutionary figure during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. He used what he learned about Islam during his pilgrimage to Hajj to form new opinions about racial equality and propose those values to the American people. After his trip, he observed and stated:
“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to, and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered white – but the white attitude was removed from their minds by the religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.”
I always noticed a lot of overlap between American values and Islamic values: The concepts of equality, justice, peace and civic duty. This is why I was surprised when the image of Islam was shattered in the media after 9/11 – made to look like a violent, hateful religion. Growing up with Islamic teachings, these messages from the media were as shocking to me as they were to someone who had never heard of Islam before.
In reaction to this attempt at spreading Islamophobia, Muslim leaders condemned any acts of violence that were carried out “in the name of Islam,” and Muslim activists responded by educating the public about what Islam really teaches. While more and more people developed a hateful attitude towards Islam, many were also learning to appreciate the religion and even convert.
In a way, this was part of the good that came from the terrible awfulness of 9/11: Raising awareness of Muslims in America, the struggle for civil rights and dispelling misconceptions about Islam. If a person previously unfamiliar with Islam gained the correct knowledge about Islam, then naturally they would not hate the religion or associate its beliefs with violence or terrorism. It was the perpetuation of incorrect information about this religion that led to the culture of Islamophobia.
The struggle has changed through the years following 9/11. Immediately following 9/11, for Muslims the struggle was to inform people about the religion of Islam and its relevance in American history. Then, it transitioned into condemning terrorist acts and disassociating the religion of Islam from violence and hatred. Now, the struggle continues as Muslims must reverse the effects of negative information propagated through Islamophobes.
I have noticed three different attitudes towards Muslims in the U.S. The first is the extreme case of Islamophobia: the hatred, death stares, vulgar looks and hate speech. But I like to think that this is only a minority view, at least it seems that way in Chicago. The second attitude is the other extreme: the overly sympathetic view of those who feel bad for Muslims in America and express pity. I am not sure how that is anything short of making Muslims feel like second-class citizens. But nonetheless, it is appreciated because we know that the intentions are pure and good.
Once my friend in law school told me that she forgets I wear hijab because when she sees me she does not notice the hijab. That is the third, most moderate attitude and the one most welcome by Muslims. The one that sounds something like “You’re Muslim, so what? No big deal.”
It’s the kind of attitude that perceives us Muslims as ordinary humans – that realizes that some of us are activists and revolutionaries and Malcolm-X-wannabes, others are citizens just trying to get by, and some of may be screw-ups. And that our actions, especially the ill-intentioned, are not necessarily representative of our religion’s teachings, but representative of the diversity of Americans and of humans.
When the third attitude becomes more common is when we will have achieved a reformed societal attitude towards American Muslims, and that is when the terrorists of 9/11 will lose its battle to hijack my religion.
Kinza Khan is a J.D. candidate at DePaul University College of Law with a focus in international human rights and civil rights. Her work has been published in academic journals and local newspapers. She can be followed on Twitter @KinzaK89.