I was sitting in the back of the classroom, jotting notes when my English teacher decided to discuss the war in Iraq and Middle East politics last year.
"You know, Iran and Iraq may be different countries, but they both hate civil liberties. That’s why they hate us," he said.
I raised my hand, interrupted and in my calmest voice said that while Iran has a different society than the United States, there are civil liberties. I told him that there is universal suffrage, which means every citizen has the right to vote (something most Middle Eastern countries don’t have) and the voting age is 15. The class fell silent as we got into a huge debate. He went on to say that Islamic culture is oppressive, which is why "terrorists are Muslim."
My teacher was yet another example of the ignorance I’ve faced as a Muslim in the United States. I am an Iranian-American, the first American-born citizen in my family. As part of a minority group, I’ve felt like a second-class citizen at times, but my faith has always been a source of strength for me. Angered, I reminded myself that this wasn’t the first time that I had defended my religion, nor would it be the last.
During the intense debate, I argued that even though Muslim terrorists had gotten negative media attention during the past three years, there was no justification for my teacher to say that all terrorists are Muslim. I mentioned the Oklahoma City bombing, which was masterminded by Timothy McVeigh, who was white and raised Catholic.
"You gave me one non-Muslim, Beeta. A single person," he said with a smirk. "I can give you 20 terrorists who were involved in September 11th."
So I mentioned the Irish Republican Army and America’s own Ku Klux Klan—all white.
Trying hard to hold back tears, I opened my mouth to defend my religion and culture, but class was over. As I left, my teacher called my name.
Tears streaked my face. I had never been so shaken by someone’s ignorance and bigotry. He tried to comfort me by saying things like "I know Muslims are good people. I know Islam teaches peace. I was just …" I nodded and left the room.
Outside, my classmates hugged me while I cried. They said that I shouldn’t argue, because it would agitate him, and that my grade is more important than getting through to an ignorant teacher. I was shocked. Was my grade more important than my dignity? What would they have done?
When I told my parents what had happened they were proud that I had challenged my teacher, yet pained that he had acted like that. We decided that there was no point in reporting him, since he was retiring soon.
My teacher’s prejudice scared me. I thought most people knew not to label others as simply "terrorist" or "not terrorist." My mosque holds interfaith services. A Japanese Buddhist girl joined our Qur’anic studies class, which is similar to Bible study. We read and exchange interpretations of our holy book, the Qur’an (often spelled Koran by English speakers). I love seeing her, and other non-Muslims at my mosque, because it means that my mosque is doing something to educate others about our religion. Awareness is the first step toward tolerance. Even though she’s a devout Buddhist, when a Buddhist leader made prejudiced allegations against Islam at his temple, she wrote an article that appeared in our mosque’s newsletter refuting everything he said. Additionally, Muslim religious leaders have been interviewed about Islam and its peaceful nature on TV specials. But despite all the efforts to educate society, my teacher’s behavior showed me that many people don’t understand Islam, and some still think it’s evil.
My parents tried to preserve our culture
Living in a predominantly Christian society, my parents have tried their best to teach my sister and me about our heritage by taking us to cultural centers and mosques every weekend. My sister and I attended Farsi (Iran’s official language) school as well as Islamic religion classes on Sundays when we were younger. At Farsi class, I learned about the great Persian poets and the legendary Shahs (rulers of Persia). In religion class, we learned about Mohammad, the prophet of Islam, his life and teachings, and the five pillars of Islam—faith, pilgrimage (hajj), fasting during the holy month of Ramadhan, giving charity and praying five times a day. I liked my Sunday school classes. They were a place of refuge from the isolation I sometimes felt at school, where I was one of two Muslims in my entire grade.
My most cherished memory is when I went to Makkah (known to Westerners as Mecca) in Saudi Arabia in fifth grade. Makkah, the holiest Muslim city, is the home to a holy mosque called Masjid al-Haram, the center of which is the Ka’ba or "House of God." The Ka’ba is a simple, magnificent 50-foot-high, brick building with black cloth draped over it.
When I visited, thousands of people were circling, some slowly, others running, around the cube-shaped Ka’ba. It’s a part of the hajj to circle the Ka’ba seven times, just as Abraham and his son Ishmael did after they built it 4,000 years ago. I had never seen so many Muslims in one place with such religious zeal, praying to God and sometimes crying.
The uniformity of everything hit me. In Islam, unity and solidarity are very important because no individual is superior to another. All the women wore simple white dresses, and all the men wore two, long rectangular towels. The idea is that everyone can afford a linen dress or two towels, so while performing hajj everyone is humbled and social classes don’t exist. The focus is on God and one’s relationship with Him.
I loved the feeling of belonging. Dressed like everyone else, doing the same rituals as everyone else, praying like everyone else at the same times. People nodded at my sister and me in approval, like the future of Islam was in our hands. I tried reading from the Qur’an (it’s in Arabic, which I couldn’t read well) and a crowd formed around me. They prompted me by sounding out the pronunciations and seemed happy that I was trying to learn to read the Arabic. I spoke English and Farsi, the others spoke Arabic, Malay, Indonesian, Hindi or Urdu. Yet the Qur’an connected us all. Never had I felt so at home in a place so far away from where I live. And I saw that I am not a minority in the world.
When I came back from Makkah, a lot of little things seemed different for me. I started to look forward to Ramadhan, and I was able to share these feelings with people I met from my mosque. Before going to Makkah, we would joke about our parents’ Persian accents, but now youth group was much more than that. I wanted to teach other people, who were like me, what I had learned while in Makkah. Sometimes my older friends and I would be in charge of taking care of the younger kids and we would teach them about the Prophet and the pillars. At youth group, I always found the discussions intriguing, and on the half-hour drive home I would think to myself about what was said and each person’s view of the issue, whatever it had been that night.
What I learned at my mosque helped me share my faith with people who didn’t know much about Islam. When people found out that I was Muslim, I would get questions like "You’re a Muslim? Do you believe in God? Adam? Noah? Abraham? Moses? JESUS?" The whole time, I’d just be nodding my head that, yes I do accept all of them as prophets. Yes, I believe in God. No, I do not believe in reincarnation. No, I do not worship pigs, but I don’t eat them.
Despite my optimism that people’s views were becoming more accepting of my religion, attacks on my faith continued and were even harsher to deal with.
When my seventh grade social studies teacher taught Islam, he enlisted me to do a project on Makkah. Halfway through my presentation, my teacher interrupted and asked how he, or anyone else in the class, could visit. Because all Muslims are required to visit the Ka’ba once in their lifetimes, non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside city limits because it is constantly overflowing with pilgrims. I tried to explain this to him, but he looked to the class and said "Sounds a bit prejudiced to me. Maybe they just don’t want us there."
I tried to continue my presentation, but again, he cut me off. "This is why Islam is a prejudiced religion. They don’t let us come into their holy city because of the lack of room," he said, doubting my explanation that there literally wasn’t enough space for non-Muslims in Makkah.
Stunned, I mumbled a few more words about the Ka’ba and went back to my seat.
I went home in a daze. When my mom found out, she called my teacher, but to no avail. He started to ignore me in class. Even though my teacher’s ignorance bothered me, it never shook my faith. If anything, it spurred me to try to learn the truth behind the misconceptions about Islam so that I could clear them up next time.
My religion made people suspicious of me
The next year, two planes were flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. A television reporter said that a terrorist group, Al Qaeda, had taken responsibility for the hijackings. I felt my world crashing down. I knew most people would associate Al Qaeda with everyday Muslims. The next day at school, I could almost feel the barrier between me and some students. They eyed me differently, as if I were directly responsible for the attacks. As if I knew Osama bin Laden personally. As if I were one of the hijackers. Some people stopped saying hi to me.
How are you supposed to deal with people who think you’re a terrorist? I didn’t talk to the people who threw me looks in the hall, because I didn’t want to force them to listen to me. Instead, I spent whole class periods and lunches explaining things to people who were genuinely interested. I explained a bunch of stuff, like the role of peace in Islam, how the Qur’an specifically says that attacks are forbidden—violence is acceptable only in self-defense—and how Muslims greet each other saying salaam aleikum, which means "peace be upon you." My friends were understanding, and it felt like everything I had learned about my religion finally came in handy.
During the summer of 2002, I went on a Muslim retreat. The theme of the retreat was "Claiming Your Identity," which was especially relevant because since the 9/11 attacks, many Muslims had been stripped of their identities and labeled "Muslim: i.e. in favor of terrorist attacks against the United States."
The first day, a cabin leader asked us if we had faced discrimination since the attacks. Almost all of the 80-or-so people raised their hands. It was scary that even though we lived in a supposedly tolerant society, so many of us had had to deal with racism and ignorance. People described having their car windshields broken or getting phone calls saying "go back to where you came from."
As we listened to each of us tell our stories, we realized our identity. We weren’t terrorists, but instead, we were people who cried as we watched the towers come crashing down and who watched the bin Laden tapes in horror as he condemned America. Despite our individual differences, we are peace-loving people who hate terrorism as much as anyone else.
I have helped others understand Islam
A few months ago, I led a discussion in my youth group. I invited a few of my school friends, with whom I have regularly discussed religion and beliefs, especially since September 11th. They were excited about coming.
I decided to talk about the roots of Islam—the Qur’an and some of the miracles of it. In talking about some of my favorite parts of the Qur’an, I recited my favorite chapter—Surah al-Bayinnah, or the chapter Clear Evidence—in Arabic. I love this Surah because it describes how true Muslims should act and I wanted my school friends to see the true Islam. The Surah said that many Muslims, despite calling themselves Muslim, aren’t true ones because they haven’t acted as God has prescribed. True Muslims believe that there is "no God but God," and believe in peace—especially in jihad. Despite what many people believe, jihad is not defined as "holy war." Jihad is the effort to practice religion in the presence of oppression or persecution—like telling the truth when it is easier to lie. A pregnant woman giving birth to her baby is considered jihad, because it’s a struggle.
As I recited the Qur’anic verse in Arabic, I felt as I had six years earlier in Makkah, a scrawny fifth grader who didn’t know how to pronounce the Arabic words, but still encouraged by the strangers around me. The rest of my discussion was about other verses of the Qur’an and how each one applies to our daily lives: how we have to help others, give charity, be honest and not be hypocritical.
One of my good friends got involved in the discussion, asking about Prophet Mohammad and Prophet Jesus and Islam’s view on them.
Members of my youth group and even some parents jumped in. My friend had grabbed everyone’s attention with her question, and they wanted to help her understand that in Islam, the prophets were pious men, God’s representatives. A Surah in the Qur’an addresses this saying "He begets not, nor was He begotten" (112:3). (This means that God doesn’t give birth to a child, nor was he born of a mother.) As I read this line aloud to her, she understood why we, as Muslims, don’t believe that Jesus was the son of God—or a part of God Himself. Other questions followed, and I found myself wishing that I could do this type of thing for everyone who has ever been confused about Islam.
When I first heard about the subway and bus bombings this summer in London, I found myself praying that the terrorists weren’t Muslim—or at least didn’t claim to be. I became paranoid that society would turn back to the attitudes immediately after 9/11—that Muslims are terrorists and should be deported. It angers me every time I hear about members of Al Qaeda misinterpreting the Qur’an and having the audacity to claim that the evils they’ve committed are in the name of Islam. Islam isn’t a religion of war, but of peace. And until the terrorists and the victims both understand that, Muslims will still have to deal with ignorance and discrimination.