The Reasons Why I Haven’t Sided with My ‘White Heritage’

Last December, my husband and I returned home from a wonderful six-week long trip to Turkey and the Middle East and were immediately confronted by the rising tide of Islamophobia in America. While we’d been away, the Paris terrorist attacks had shaken the world and left many in the West feeling vulnerable and concerned for the future. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s proposals to both ban Muslims from entering / re-entering the country and to require all Muslims to register in a national database were making headlines around the world. And an uptick in hate crimes against American Muslims and Sikhs (who were thought to be Muslim) was sparking demonstrations and solidarity campaigns across the country. Needless to say, it was a strange time to be sharing fun vacation photos from the Middle East with anyone.

In an effort to show solidarity with the hijabi women who were being attacked for being “visibly Muslim” in public, I began celebrating “Hijabi Friday” with several of my activist friends and wearing a headscarf once a week. While this fortunately resulted in more positive interactions with strangers (both Muslim and non-Muslim, alike) than negative, I did experience some pushback from friends for taking part in the campaign. In one particularly heated argument with a non-Muslim friend, she accused me of abandoning my “white heritage” in favor of my husband’s “Middle Eastern” one. (This was bizarre for multiple reasons, not the least of which being that my husband is an Indian Muslim who has no Middle Eastern heritage, whatsoever. But she clearly meant “Muslim.” See below for more examples of this assumption.) She wanted to know why I felt so drawn to the Muslim community that I was “siding” with it over my own “white” one. (Because white people also apparently cannot be Muslim. Another false but constant assumption.)

I never properly explained my reasons to her then, but I’d be happy to do it now. So here’s my chronological list of reasons why I feel so strongly about fighting Islamophobia, even though I am not personally Muslim.

- Because after 9/11, several boys in my senior high school class signed up for the military bragging about how they were going to “carpet-bomb” the Middle East. When I wrote an essay for my A.P. Government class about why our government needed to plan carefully before mounting any overseas offensives, I was booed by my classmates and called a “terrorist.”

- Because in 2004, our local community paper ran a front-page op-ed piece, entitled “Why Can’t We Call Them Towelheads?”

- Because I first started taking Arabic classes in 2008 for purely professional reasons, but immediately had friends tell me that I was endangering myself by carrying my textbook around in public.

- Because I flew to different client sites with my manager every week for my job at the time, and he refused to sit near me on the plane when he saw me doing my Arabic homework and continually made jokes about me becoming a terrorist.

- Because my Arabic professor was a highly educated, sweet-natured Syrian man who was married to a Jewish woman. And no one ever believed me the first time I told them that.

- Because the first time I visited the Middle East was in Oct 2008. I flew to Jordan by myself and had plans to meet up with an Israeli friend of mine later in the day outside Amman, so I took a taxi alone from the airport to Madaba to get settled in and to check out the ancient churches. Five minutes into our drive, the taxi driver suddenly pulled over onto the side of the road, and my first thought was that I was going to get kidnapped the way I’d always seen American women get kidnapped by Arab men in the movies. But no — he was stopping because it’s customary in Jordan for drivers to get you tea, free of charge, on long drives. Welcome to Jordan.

- Because every person I spoke to on that trip in my broken Arabic was delighted that I was even attempting to speak Arabic, so I was invited for lunch into people’s homes, for tea with shopkeepers, and to stay with Jordanian women indefinitely to help teach their children English. My male Israeli friend didn’t speak Arabic, at all, so he tagged along behind me while I found us taxis, got us directions, and attempted to make small talk with people. And only one man ever did a double-take on me being the one initiating all the conversations, instead of my male friend. Otherwise, everyone I spoke to was respectful and kind.

- Because I next went to Israel and the West Bank on my first Compassionate Listening citizen delegation, and the Palestinians I met there were nothing like what I’d been expecting. They were warm, generous, highly educated, and eager to talk to our American / Canadian group. There were just as many Palestinian peacemakers reaching out to Israelis as there were Israelis reaching out to Palestinians. And I was suddenly introduced to the world of checkpoints, violent Israeli settlers, national curfews, and house demolitions that I had previously been shielded from in my readings about the conflict.

- Because, although we were traveling back and forth between Israel and the West Bank and staying with Israelis and Palestinians alike, the low point of our trip (and one of the lowest points of my life) came when we visited a Palestinian family of all women who were terrified because their upstairs neighbors had been killed earlier in the week by extremist settlers who were wanting to take over their apartment building. They had knocked out all the windows in the women’s apartment, so the four of them (one grandmother, one mother, and two little girls) were sleeping on the floor of their kitchen. The settlers were out of the building during our visit, and we actually went upstairs and saw the wrecked apartment and the smashed windows and the blood on the wall where the family had been shot. And then I needed to explain to the women (in my broken Arabic) that we couldn’t stay and help them, but that we’d try to send them help as soon as we could. This experience is what actually brought about my PTSD.

- Because the night after I met that family, I called my Jewish boyfriend back home and tried to tell him what I’d seen, and he told me not to worry because “all Palestinians lie” and that this experience hadn’t really happened.

- Because my first day back to work after the trip, my boss asked me if I’d become a terrorist over the course of my visit and if I’d brought a gun to work that day. When I tried to tell him about the Palestinian family, he told me that we weren’t allowed to talk politics at work.

- Because six months later I was still reeling from nightmares over what I’d seen in the West Bank, so when a Jewish man whom I just met asked me why I’d quit my previous job to “support the terrorists” (i.e. join the Compassionate Listening Project to help bring conflict resolution delegations to the Middle East), I went into a full-fledged PTSD attack and have no memory of the next hour of that night.

- Because when I met my husband at a random singles event (completely separate from my job) around six months after that, he was sweet and kind and more supportive of my career than my previous boyfriends had been. We fell in love and got engaged six months later.

- Because my husband’s family was completely loving and supportive of our relationship. When I met his enormous extended family of over 100 people during Thanksgiving later that year, everyone was welcoming and only one person took issue with the fact that I was white and Buddhist and had no intention of converting to Islam. And he later made amends by inviting us over for dinner and gifting me with a beautiful statue of the Buddha.

- Because my family was unfortunately less welcoming of my new husband, at least in the beginning. When I called to tell one aunt that I was getting married, she expressed concern that I wouldn’t be allowed to drive if I married a Muslim man. Several sent me email chain letters about the dangers of Islam and Sharia law and only stopped when I publicly shamed them about this in front of other people. Another aunt thanked Sameer at the end of her first visit with him for “not being one of those violent Muslims.” (Fortunately, my family has since come around over the last seven years — with only a few exceptions — and has grown to love my husband and our daughter. So we are immensely grateful for that.)

- Because my husband and I have only ever fought over two religious things since we got married: whether or not I could cook bacon in the house and where we should put my Buddhist shrine.

- Because even though my work has been in conflict resolution between Israelis and Palestinians and I have actually spent more time studying Hebrew to talk to Israelis than Arabic to talk to Palestinians, dozens of Jewish Americans and staunch Christians have questioned my allegiance to the Palestinian cause over the years. I have now been called a “terrorist” more times than I can remember, as well as “a traitor to America.”

- Because even after I got my Master’s degree in Middle East Studies and began extensively researching the Israeli / Palestinian conflict in order to write a book about its competing narratives, the Islamophobes in my life wouldn’t believe me when I would try to explain nuances in Islam to them or what exactly Sharia law is.

- Because when I did a six-month internship at the Council of American-Islamic Relations, I used to answer the phone every day and take calls from local Muslims who were being targeted in hate crimes and by discriminatory practices in the greater Seattle area. Every day.

- Because my liberal non-Muslim friends tell me that Muslims are safe in the Seattle area and when I tell them about all the hate crimes happening here, they’ve never heard about them.

- Because when I tell my conservative non-Muslim friends about the hate crimes that are happening across the country and places where Muslims are being targeted, they don’t believe me.

- Because whenever my local Muslim friends are harassed or assaulted, they call me and other members of our activist circle for comfort. And this happens all the time.

- Because when I was interning at CAIR, I read three different online posts and one op-ed piece about how our annual Muslims Visit the Capitol event was being orchestrated by members of Hamas and local extremist clerics. And then the two other non-Muslim white women and I (who were planning the entire event, ourselves) looked at each other and burst out laughing.

- Because every time I visit the Middle East (or Turkey, for that matter), multiple friends and acquaintances express shock that my father or husband “allow” me go to “such a dangerous place,” even when I am literally doing nothing but visiting family members and laying on a beach in Dubai.

- Because countless people still refer to me as an “American” but my husband as a “Muslim” (as though American Muslims aren’t a thing) or talk about “white people” versus “Muslims” (as though my white Muslim friends don’t exist). See the introduction to this post, for just one example.

- Because even some of my liberal friends still make comments to me about Islam or the supposed widespread misogyny of Muslim men and are always surprised when I disagree with them.

- Because Islamophobia isn’t just an American or European thing. When we visited India five years ago, my husband and I had to keep quiet when local Hindus told us not to go to certain parts of the cities “because they are full of Muslims” and are apparently too unsavory for visitors. This happened multiple times.

- Because the main reason my non-Muslim friends gave for me not celebrating “Hijabi Friday” last year was that it would be too unsafe for me. But when I asked them about their concern for Muslim men and women who were already being targeted, they said they didn’t like “getting political.”

- Because the worst interaction I had while wearing a headscarf was with an elderly liberal white woman who said it wasn’t surprising that I wasn’t actually Muslim “because Muslim women aren’t allowed outside of their homes.” We proceeded to have a 30-min argument over this, and when I finally offered to introduce her to all my feminist hijabi friends who are involved in the community, she had no interest in meeting them.

- Because there was an active shooter who had barricaded himself outside the Bosnian mosque in north Seattle earlier this year, and two other mosques in the area have had bomb threats or armed protesters outside them within the last 13 months.

- Because there was a white man in a pickup truck with a huge American flag in the back driving around my husband’s mosque at 6:30am this last year on Eid (one of the two holiest days in the Muslim year), and my husband was scared to bring our daughter there for the next two weeks.

Because I could actually go on, but you get my point. If you’re not involved in the Muslim community or knowledgeable about Islamophobia, you probably don’t notice these things or have any idea about many of them. But they are happening. All the time. Many of you probably still don’t believe me. Or you have “reasons” why all these things have happened and keep happening. (It’s called “minimizing.”) And that is why you don’t understand why my husband is freaking out this week and why he is terrified for his safety and the safety of our daughter and our unborn son in this country, going forward. Most of my other Muslim friends are freaking out, as well. I’m not exactly in the same terrified head-space that they are — at least not today — but I completely get it.

If you still don’t get it and still don’t understand why I’m standing with them, I don’t even know what to tell you. Insha’Allah, maybe one day you will.

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