A Love Letter to Young American Muslims

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In a letter to American Muslims, Maria Khwaja Bazi reflects on rising Islamophobia and the murders of Deah, Yusor and Razan in Chapel Hill.

Dear MSA kids,

I was 17 on September 11, 2001. It was fall of my senior year of high school, and I was worried about a US History exam. I wore a scarf and performed the afternoon prayer in our school’s library.

They wheeled a TV with a live news broadcast into our room. I looked at the person next to me, a handsome Greek junior, for reassurance, but his eyes were on the screen, watching the Twin Towers fall over and over again. All I remember is Ms. Thompson, our history teacher, repeating, “Things will never be the same.”

They never were. The next day, in a local sandwich shop with my two (white) best friends, a lady threw a glass at me and screamed, “Go home, we don’t want you here!” I am home, I wanted to tell her, I am home.

We can speculate beautifully about whether we will ever be considered “Americans” or not. We can attempt to assimilate: play sports, make friends with our neighbors, read Harper Lee and hold ourselves up as poster children for Muslims worldwide. We can be active in our Muslim Students’ Associations (MSA) to provide services and support to our communities. But when we see the goodness, the normalcy, of Deah, Yusor and Razan, we must accept that perhaps, it is never enough.

I understand. I remember all the Muslim students after September 11 who came to school with American flag T-shirts and bandanas. I remember the tall, dark Iranian guy, who I had a major crush on but never spoke to, defend someone from slurs. I remember the support of, mostly white, faculty and students at the school.

I came home that night and buried myself under the duvets, shorn — in my own estimation — from my community. The once familiar Midwestern school, blonde cheerleaders and maple trees were alien and terrifying. I was alienated.

Although I went on to become an MSA president in university and a token Muslim on many fliers, I never shook that feeling.

I still answer “America” if you ask me where I’m from, but I’ve moved halfway across the world to a place where I can hear prayer calls and eat all of the food.

I have gotten so used to searching for halal options that I still order the tuna at Subway. Some things I can’t shake. Some things I don’t want to.

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The American Islamic spirit I learned in adolescence carried me through struggles with my well-meaning immigrant parents, falling in love with boys, understanding my own identity. I was, and am, an unwavering Muslim before anything else — attempting to emulate the courageous, kind example of people before me.

And through the years that have followed, despite travel and the Taliban and a Master’s degree in a foreign country, I carry that indefatigable spirit, that hope I learned in America, with me.

I know you, MSA kids. I know you come together in quiet classrooms after school to organize awareness events and design banners. I know how, on university campuses, you’re still worrying about how to separate the cultural expectations of your parents from the democratic nature of your Islam. I know about your love of Hamza Yusuf and Suhaib Webb.

I even know you haven’t quite figured out how to talk to the opposite sex and that hijabi fashion is still a thing. I may have been around before hashtags, but I know who you are.

And I love you. I love you because you will sleep on each other’s furniture at random times and you will find each other at conferences. You will help each other through struggles about wearing scarves and broken hearts and you will dance at each other’s weddings. I love you because you will pray together, shoulder-to-shoulder, and you will insist on women’s spaces in mosques.

I love you most of all because you will continue to serve and fight for your communities even when people on all sides are against you. I love you because you represent the best of us.

I know we all weep for Deah, Yusor, Razan and their families because they were also of us. I know your grief and fear. Although I am sitting a thousand miles away, I’ve had so many conversations with young mothers who are afraid to take their children outside. Men I knew as gangly 18-year-olds feel they need to purchase guns for the safety of their families.

But you are at the forefront. It is you who have to negotiate your identities in a space that is no longer safe. I am so sorry that this falls to you but, as many African American families have told their children, you will have to work harder to overcome it.

It is not fair. I am sorry for you, but you must accept that.

Please take it from an older hand: don’t be alienated. Don’t shut down, like I did. Don’t refuse to engage with your communities no matter how much it frightens or angers you. Stay safe, stay together, but don’t self-segregate.

Please continue to demonstrate to the American public who don’t believe that you are the best of the best. Stand with others who are also marginalized in solidarity.

I know all of us are the turning tide — the millennial generation that has defined Islam differently from our parents. I know we have assimilated to various degrees, but we have also kept what we feel is valuable and right. I’m not sure if everyone else realizes how far we have come from the extremism of the “Islamic State” — our latest bogeyman — but I do.

At some point, I am confident the American public will also realize, despite what Fox News and Bobby Jindal tell them, that you are not a threat. You are, in fact, their greatest defense against extremism. Nobody needs a summit to figure that out.

Reach out to those of us who are older — there are many of us, former MSA presidents and VPs and treasurers, generally working in hospitals and private practices. We know how you feel and we will support you. We love you, I hope you know that, and we understand your identity better than anyone else. We consider ourselves American, too.

With love,

A former MSA president

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