“What do you think of ISIS?” Smile. Be calm. Be gentle. “Don’t Muslims believe you’re supposed to kill Christians and Jews?” They don’t mean any harm. They don’t know any better. “Do you shower with that on?” Laugh. Take it in stride. “Does your husband make you wear it?” It’s ok. It’s just a question. “I’m not islamophobic. After all, I’m friends with you!” Smile, laugh. Be quiet. You have to give a good impression. You’re the token Muslim, whether you like it or not. These are my thoughts when my dignity is taken away.
It’s so tiring to always be representing 1.6 billion people from all over the world. As soon as people find out I’m Muslim, which generally is pretty quickly because I wear the hijab, they think they have the right to ask me invasive questions. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about friends who ask sincere, curious questions hoping to learn more about me and my faith. I’m talking about random strangers who interrupt my meal in a restaurant to demand information in an accusatory tone. There is a huge difference between the two.
A good example of this is my friend K. She and I often have conversations about faith and culture. She asks a million questions, and they’re all sincere and respectful. She often reminds me that if I don’t feel comfortable answering, that’s ok. THAT is actually wonderful. She wants to understand me. I love answering her questions.
On the flip side, there’s an incident that happened yesterday. I went to a local gyro joint for a nice Arab meal. The cashier, who I later found out was the owner, asked me why I was wearing a headscarf. I told him I was Muslim. He said he was an Egyptian Christian. I said “Assalaamu alaikum,” and he said “wa alaikum salaam.” We exchanged smiles. I took my food and found a seat. I dug in. A few moments later he pulled a chair up to mine and my husband’s table. He started by asking me why I converted, and I gave him the condensed version of the story. He proceeded to tell me I didn’t understand Christian theology, I didn’t know God and couldn’t know Him or love Him. He told me that ISIS were Muslims, the Quran teaches violence, and Islam is a cult. I patiently gave him simple but logical refutations to his horrible comments. He went on and, during our entire meal. My husband, I should add, stood up for me and told him off. But I knew I couldn’t say anything.
If I asked him to leave me alone, his belief that Muslims are evil and rude would be reinforced. I had to be kind. I had to smile. I had to be patient. I had to know theology well enough to give good answers. I couldn’t be just another average Muslim. I had to know so much, be so much. I was representing an entire group of people and all of them would be judged by my actions.
Forcing every Muslim to answer for the actions of every other Muslim is, to put it simply, unfair. It’s wrong. It’s dehumanizing. Since when do we have a policy of guilt by association? There are over a billion and a half of us. We come from every imaginable country and culture. We are young, old, black, white, Arab, Asian, conservative, liberal, anarchists, tyrants, educated, and illiterate. We are not a monolith. Furthermore, my being Muslim does not give me the magical ability to understand every other Muslim’s mindset. It also doesn’t give you the right to invade my privacy and personal space! Being Muslim doesn’t mean I shouldn’t get to have a meal in peace. I should be allowed to be grumpy without my entire religion and community being judged for it. I shouldn’t have to smile and grit my teeth when people are rude. I should be allowed to tell jerks and creeps to FUCK OFF without risking the safety of my fellow Muslims. I like representing my faith to some degree. I love that people look at me and know I’m Muslim. But I don’t love that they think that by knowing me, they know my entire community. They don’t. They can’t.