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Learning — And Unlearning — To Be An 'Ambassador' For Islam

Writer Beenish Ahmed reflects on being a "mostly unwanted ambassador" for the only home she's ever known.
Angie Wang for NPR
Writer Beenish Ahmed reflects on being a "mostly unwanted ambassador" for the only home she's ever known.

Editor's note: In the wake of terrorist attacks around the world, many Muslims feel called upon to publicly defend their faith, a faith many say is not accurately reflected in the stated or assumed motivations behind such attacks. Writer Beenish Ahmed has struggled with this responsibility all her life and shared her thoughts in this essay published by Code Switch as news was unfolding of the attacks in Brussels.

"Last week," says Ahmed, "I messaged my cousins to make sure they were OK after a car-bombing in Peshawar. This week, I woke to news about a bombing in Brussels where my brother lives and immediately, frantically, contacted him." Her brother was unharmed, but Ahmed's essay has gained new poignancy as the conversation about the burdens of representation for Muslims around the globe continues. — Tasneem Raja, senior digital editor, NPR's Code Switch

I remember attending Sunday school class one morning at my hometown mosque, sitting at a tiny school desk in a little yellow chair. The teacher said we were ambassadors for Islam, and to behave in a way that made others look favorably upon our faith and upon Muslims everywhere. But I was just 10 years old, 12 at the most. How could I be an ambassador for anything? I shifted in the hard plastic seat that I would soon outgrow.

It's decades later, and the top Republican contender for president has declared, "Islam hates us." Those of "us" who are Americans and also Muslim feel trapped. Even so, we can't help but wonder what we can say or do to make the madness stop. The message is clear: Islam doesn't belong in America, though one out 100 people living in the U.S. is Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center.

If some version of Trump's plans to block on Muslims entering the U.S. were to somehow gain ground, or his willingness to consider placing us in internment camps were to prove contagious, where would we go?

Despite these deep and growing roots in this country, we have long been portrayed as an invasive species.

As we wait, anxious and bewildered, to see how all this plays out on the political stage, for many, being Muslim-American now means looking over both shoulders at all times. Those of us with recent immigrant roots fear attacks on loved ones "back home" in places like Syria or Libya or Indonesia, or Pakistan, where my parents are from, while also worrying for loved ones in places like North Carolina, Louisiana, New York, or Ohio, where my parents have at this point lived longer than anywhere else in the world.

We wonder why more Americans don't seem to realize — or care — that while a few Muslims in America have carried out horrific attacks from Boston to San Bernardino, right-wing extremists account for more deaths in the U.S. than Islamist extremists do, and the vast majority of those killed by Muslim extremists around the world are other Muslims. In the meantime, many Muslims have worked to thwart such crimes by notifying American law enforcement.

But regardless of these realities, Muslims in America — or even those mistaken for Muslims — continue to suffer vitriolic condemnation alongside outsized surveillance, and we sigh over the sad knowledge that hateful explosions will always ring louder the work of peacemakers.

As for those who say Muslims should "go back where they came from," they don't seem to realize — or care — that Muslims have lived in this part of the world for centuries. Up to 15 percent of the men, women, and children brought to the "New World" as slaves were Muslim. And while the majority of Muslims in America are recent immigrants, that dynamic is shifting. Nearly a quarter of Muslims in America converted to Islam, and by 2040, Islam is projected to become the second-most popular religion in the country after Christianity. Despite these deep and growing roots in this country, we have long been portrayed as an invasive species.

At best, we're viewed as a welcome bloom on the diverse garden of America (but hardly ever part of the original landscape). At worst, we're seen as malevolent weed programmed to ravage everything around us.

And so, we put on our prettiest-petal faces to try to secure our place for another year, another election cycle. To save ourselves, we try to be our best selves.

I've lived most of my life trying to be equal parts unassuming and bright. If you never see me, you won't tear me up and toss me aside. If you do see me, you'll forgive me my tresspasses.

This is what it means to be a mostly unwanted ambassador for the only home I've ever known.

I was a teenager in Ohio when the collapse of the World Trade Center brought me to my knees. I prayed, like so many Muslims did that ashen evening, that one of us wasn't responsible for that heart-stopping catastrophe. Twenty misguided men became fused with more than a billion others in the heat of a single conflagration, and we were left to eat the soot of their sins. That's the problem with tasking any one of us to represent all of us.

Five hundred miles from the horror, along with the five hundred or so Muslims who made up my small, suburban community, I braced myself for the aftershocks.

When the televised photos of those men were layered over the smoldering ruins, I saw my brothers' bronze skin in theirs. I knew their expressions of fatigue from ones that had come to rest on the faces of my uncles. But those men were not my kin. My family, my community, was not made of people like those men. I needed everyone who knew me to know that.

I set up a meeting with my high school principal to propose an assembly where Muslim students could denounce the actions of the killers, and explain the differences between the terrorists' bastardization of Islam and what we believed.

"How many Muslims go to this school?" the principal asked.

"About 10," I said.

"I don't think we can call an assembly to address the needs of 10 students," he told me. And so, I was on my own to figure out how to represent my "violent" faith, which had always given me so much peace.

For years, I had considered my efforts to be a good person as part of being a good Muslim; to me, they were one and the same. "Even a smile is considered charity in Islam," my parents reminded me at the height of my teenage angst, when I would let the corners of my mouth fall like my hair, long and dark. It wasn't just for me that I tried to rack up good deeds. In public, I telegraphed my cheeriest self, lest my emo proclivities be read as anti-American malaise or a symptom of familial oppression.

It wasn't just for me that I tried to rack up good deeds.

But after 9/11, I realized how misguided I had been in thinking my actions could bring redemption to my religion, or rather, work against others' flawed beliefs about it. In the days and weeks that followed the attacks, I started to feel less and less at home in my once-quiet suburb.

Someone slashed the tires on my friend's car, and bomb threats were called into my uncle's clinic. When someone screamed "Terrorist!" at me in the hallway of my school, I curled up into my books and tried to be very small for a while. Screeching hate flooded the voicemail of the mosque. Then, someone shot through one of the stained glass windows lining its dome.

The imam gave a sermon to ground us in our faith. Unlike the terrorists who crashed planes into the Twin Towers, he told us, the man who delivered our faith to the world did not initiate violence. The Prophet Mohammad didn't seek revenge against those who buried thorns beneath the sand outside his front door. When the woman who made a daily habit of throwing trash at him didn't show up one day, he called to inquire about her health.

That was the faith we followed, the imam said, and the one we should try to live out. I decided to take what came my way and accept it with grace — not to change anyone's minds about Islam, but because that's what my religion taught me to do. And because doing so brought me a sense of solace in a world that had come to feel so cruel.

I stopped hiding behind my books, and went back to helping the girl who had the locker next to mine with the door that constantly got stuck, and guiding the boys at my lab table through dissections. But not to prove that I wasn't a threat. I did it because I wanted to, because that's simply who I was as a person, even with all the grandiose illusions stripped away.

And anyway, even if I still saw myself as an ambassador of my faith, there was little that I could do to overcome the actions of those who sought to destroy in the name of Islam — or to change the minds of those who want to rid this country of it.

Muslim teachers and leaders weren't the only ones telling me to behave like an ambassador over the years. I'm constantly being called on to serve that purpose. I'm asked by all kinds of people in all kinds of settings — in a cab, at a party — to explain the tenets of my religion, to condemn those who commit violence for some false rendition of Islam, held to account for atrocities committed in our name from Paris to Palmyra.

That's why no one is ever satisfied when I say that I'm from the Midwest.

After I participated in a panel discussion in Washington, D.C. about the economic and political impact of 9/11, an audience member wrote in chastising me for not denouncing the attacks. I was 14 years old and 500 miles away the day they happened, but he saw the responsibility as mine to share.

After years of these kinds of interactions, I no longer have illusions about combatting anti-Muslim sentiments, not least because I've come to understand that the flames of Islamophobia are systematically fanned. Since 9/11, reports a study from the Center for American Progress (the parent organization of ThinkProgress, a news site where I work), a number of well-endowed organizations have spent over $40 million spreading fear against a "manufactured threat" — the notion that Islamist groups are working to make sharia the law of the land in America and turn the country into an Islamic state.

Thanks in part to such campaigns, even if someone like me can hardly recognize their faith in the hate espoused by terrorist organizations like ISIS or Al-Qaida, we are seen to belong more to those groups than to our own communities. That's why hardly anyone is ever satisfied when I say that I'm from the Midwest. In their minds, I'll always be all tied up with the Middle East and their perceptions of its mayhem.

And so, I will always say please and thank you when I order my coffee. I will smile at you on the bus if you happen to make eye contact with me. I'll do so despite myself. And even if these habits result from my Ohioan upbringing as much as the traits imparted by my anxious, insecure, and yet incessantly good-willed immigrant parents, I know that I do these things because a part of me still can't believe that I actually belong here. Still, I refuse to be an ambassador in the country of my birth.

Beenish Ahmed is a reporter and writer. She covers international affairs for ThinkProgress and is the founder of THE ALIGNIST, a new media platform that connects literature to current events.

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