A few days before some 1.4 billion Muslims around the world gathered with their families to celebrate Eid ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice), American television personalities took it upon themselves to make hurtful and obtuse comments about me and the religion that I and nearly a quarter of the world’s population follow. My mother shoved her iPad in front of me after dinner on Friday. “Look at what they’re saying about us now,” she said. “I thought this kind of stuff was over.”
Once again, as the United States embarks on yet another war in the Middle East, mainstream news anchors have insisted on framing their discussions about Islam and Muslims as those about the religion’s inherent and unique relationship to violence. It’s a popular framing that renders hundreds of thousands of American Muslims into a suspect class of citizens. I am left asking myself the same question that W.E.B. Du Bois asked himself and other African-Americans in 1903: “How does it feel to be a problem?”
On the Sept. 29 episode of “CNN Tonight,” Don Lemon bluntly asked author Reza Aslan if Islam promoted violence, a question that would never be asked about any other religion or ethnic group. Co-host Alisyn Camerota perpetuated the myth that Muslim women uniquely suffer from genital mutilation and are unable to drive due to a “primitive” justice system. In a follow-up “CNN Tonight” on Oct. 2, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo even went on to say that Aslan’s tone might have further affirmed American fear of Islam and its “hostility.”
And on the Oct. 3 episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” author Sam Harris confidently claimed that there were only four types of Muslims: violent jihadists, Islamists who work within the political system, conservative Muslims who hold “deeply troubling” views about women and homosexuals, and nominal Muslims “who don’t take their religion very seriously.” Maher went on to claim that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f–king kill you if you say the wrong thing.”
When an exasperated Ben Affleck criticized Harris and Maher for racist stereotyping, Maher retorted: “You’re not listening to what we are saying.”
But I was listening. I was listening to an incessant ringing in my head. It was Bill Maher telling his viewers nationwide that I might one day snap and kill him for saying the wrong thing. And because he feels that way, Maher is one of those Americans who fits the definition of an Islamophobe. He is quite literally afraid of Muslims. He is afraid of me.
By their broad characterizations and hasty conclusions, I could tell that none of the four television hosts had any interest in telling real stories about the vast majority of real Muslims who are living in the United States and abroad in the post-9/11 world. Instead, they rationalize their own fear-mongering by pushing a narrative about the dangerous person they perceive me to be. With their attempts at writing and disseminating their own version of me, Maher, Harris, the anchors at CNN, and countless others take away the ability of Muslims to share their own stories. These are stories that must be told, but are of little interest to the mainstream media.
My story is mine to tell
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was 10 years old in Virginia and sitting in art class when my mother called the front desk and asked for me to be sent to the office until she arrived. When she finally arrived, she rushed me and my younger brother and sister into her minivan where I found the child she was babysitting laughing and jumping up and down in his car seat. I pressed my mother about why we were leaving school so early, but she refused to let us in on the secret and simply said we needed to go home.
When we reached the six-lane intersection directly in front of our house, we found three police officers blocking traffic heading toward Washington D.C and, in turn, blocking access to the street in front of our house. The police officer, a white man wearing black sunglasses, waved his arms and motioned my mother to turn her car onto the next street, away from our house. She rolled down her window and explained to the officer that he was blocking the only street she could use to get home. “That’s my house,” she said as she pointed over the officer’s head.
“Lady, you’ve got to move this way,” the officer barked, his neck glistening with the sweat of a warm September morning.
“But look officer, my house is right there and I have all these kids in my car.”
“You need to move right now.”
“Sir, there’s no way I can get these kids home without getting through to that street.”
“I’m going to count to three and you’re going to move. One…” The officer moved closer to the hood of the car and stared at my mother.
“You’re not listening to what I am saying,” my mother pled.
“Just do what he says, Mom,” I let out.
“…Two,” the officer said.
My mother lifted her foot off the brake. The officer shouted and raised his gun and pointed it at my mother. A scream left from my chest almost instinctively as I tried to hide myself by sinking myself lower into the seat. My younger brother and sister cried out. My mother swung the car toward the direction the officer wanted us to go and began driving away, her stony gaze set straight on the road ahead of her.
After maneuvering through some back streets, we finally arrived home and my mother went into the kitchen and told me to put on a movie to watch with my siblings. I gathered my younger brother and sister and the child my mother was babysitting in the other room, handing them each different toys to keep their hands occupied.
I wondered if my mother had a preference for what movie we picked, knowing that she didn’t really like movies that weren’t musicals or animated. Maybe we could watch “Pinocchio,” I thought. I walked back to the kitchen and heard the water running. My mother stood with her hands clutching onto the sides of the sink, sobbing into the drain. I stood there and watched, not knowing what to say.
The police officers stood and directed traffic for the next six hours. As we learned of what had happened in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, my mother felt that it wasn’t right for the police officers to stand out in the sun all day without eating. She sent me out to offer them leftovers from the previous night’s dinner and three bottles of soda. Later that evening, my mother organized a candlelight vigil in front of our house and invited all of our neighbors to take part in a moment of silence for all the people who died that morning.
This is real
Like many other Americans, my mother often thinks back to that day. She too shares a sense of grief, fear, and vulnerability, but her experience simultaneously welcomed her into an American tradition of xenophobia. Recently, my mother attended a community event regarding Ferguson and police accountability. She told me that as she witnessed the tragedy of Mike Brown’s murder unfold, she felt somehow connected to the families there. She too felt targeted by the police for no other reason than her appearance. At the meeting, she heard from a range of speakers, largely African-American, testifying to their experiences with the police. “I wanted to tell my story, but I knew the event wasn’t really about me,” she told me last week. “So I decided not to speak.”
My family’s story was forever changed by a single police officer who decided to try and write our story for us, who only saw my mother for what he thought she was, regardless of the kind of decency she embodied that day and every day. But now that pointed gun is part of our family story. No mother should have a pointed gun be a part of her story.
The police officer’s actions were aggressive and completely unnecessary given the situation and the fact that he could clearly tell that there was a mother in a car with her children. I don’t think that officer would have pulled a gun on us if we had been white.
As the media continues to write our lives without acknowledging the hurt they put out in the world, I am afraid that people will act out on the fear that Maher and others like him claim to feel about me and my mother. I am afraid that people will continue to profile me and my family because that is the logical conclusion of what Maher and CNN put forth to their viewers. It’s a conclusion that not only leads 37 percent of Americans to hold an unfavorable view of Islam, but also is a sad reminder that profiling, whether it is the police targeting black and Latino men or the government’s surveillance of American Muslims, has become an integral part of American life in order to make some people feel more safe
I don’t think my family’s story will ever be discussed on CNN or on Bill Maher’s show, because it’s not a real story to them. They would rather recycle, peddle and receive applause from the same tired and racist myths used over the past 13 years to justify wars overseas, surveillance at home and bigotry among ourselves. It’s a bigotry that leaves me and my mother living in fear every time we turn on the television and find someone else telling our story. Because we are not real people to them. And that’s precisely the problem.
My mother taught me that you defeat bigotry with humanity. If only we could find time to talk about hers.
This work was first published on Colorlines.com.