At a time of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination, communities nationwide are coming together to push back. This is the sixth in a blog series titled “Faith Under Fire,” which is meant to highlight this fight for equality and religious freedom.
Escaping civil war in Lebanon, my family landed in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1986. Like many immigrants, my parents still speak of Lebanon with the same familiarity they did in the weeks after my aunt opened her doors to her brother, his wife, and their four kids — including me, their clever but slightly odd four-year-old.
I had one friend, a cousin, and spoke only a few words of English (the necessities: food-related words, “no,” and “dude”). During this time, my social butterfly of a mother tried to convince me through broken English, “You don’t need friends; you have family.” I wasn’t helping my cause. I often wore a cheap red pleather jacket and pants suit with frayed fingerless gloves painted with glitter and told everyone I was Michael Jackson from the Thriller music video.
By my tween years, I won friends, wrote melodramatic poetry, and listened to Tori Amos on repeat. I also began to regularly fill in for my older siblings and cousins as my parents’ traveling translator and advocate. I learned quickly that disdain and disrespect are universal languages — even if I refused to translate a clerk’s exasperated quip at my parents’ expense, they would share a despondent look, understanding exactly what was happening. From time to time, I felt embarrassed on their behalf. I was not equipped with the tools to confront the soft bigotry that many American Muslims and immigrants face in their daily lives.
Recently, one of those annoying Facebook memories popped up, reminding me that — even though it’s been decades since translating for my parents has caused me embarrassment, and with 12 years of civil rights experience under my belt — bigotry has the power to silence, especially when it happens in unlikely places. Like a dog park.
A couple of years ago, 0n a hot Friday afternoon, I was playing fetch with Olivia, my three-legged pit bull. She quickly lost interest and started staring at a man walking through with his dog. Olivia’s nickname at the park is the “welcoming committee,” as she generally races to the gate to greet all incoming creatures for sniffs, pets, and scratches. Yet on this day and with this man, she had no interest. She just stared and when he finally reached me, she hobbled away. (She’s never been much of a guard dog.)
We exchanged pleasantries and our dogs’ names. It seemed like a routine give-and-take: He asked me about Olivia’s leg and commented on her speed as she ran in the distance.
Suddenly, and without warning or provocation, he demanded: “Do you know what’s wrong with Muslims!?” I knew he wasn’t looking for answers; people like him never are. His question was merely a rhetorical device meant to bait the like-minded.
I was shocked. My mouth gaped open, but nothing came out. He continued. And I watched him, like a disappointed and confused Olivia watching a ball fly through the air, bounce, and roll just slightly out of reach.
I stood silent and listened, doing silent calculations in my head — I was alone in a dog park the size of one city block.
He punctuated his bigotry with a finger in my face or a grab at my shoulder when I tried to glance or back away. I’d heard all his arguments before: Muslim men are rapists and terrorists; Muslim women are victims of their own oppression; “THOSE PEOPLE don’t know how to act when they are GUESTS in OUR country;” and “WE” can’t let them win.
Generalization after generalization fell out of his mouth and onto me with the weight of an elephant. I mustered an admittedly weak response through folded arms and a stiff back: “I disagree. I caution you against using these dangerous stereotypes and generalizations.”
His face turned red with rage. I could see his dilated pupils now only inches from my own. Olivia was anxiously chewing on a Frisbee about 20 feet away, ignoring my calls to go home. “Are you Muslim? That’s why you’d defend them,” he growled between clenched teeth. I acknowledged that I am indeed and stepped back, hoping that my revelation would embarrass him into leaving. This trick had worked in the past, after all.
He took my “confession” as an invitation to continue. “Let me tell you something. Your constitutional rights end here,” he said with his palm about an inch from my face. He continued to follow me as I walked away, cornering me at a fence: “I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do and what to believe. You hear me?” His voice was now loud and piercing.
Oddly, a smile never left his face. The best I can tell is that he thought we were having an engaging conversation — an arrogant symptom of his privilege. Perhaps he told his friends about me, calling me that “lovely Muslim gal at the park.”
For me, it was an invasion. Even more troubling, it affirmed my fear that progress had not been made since I was a kid in search of the meaning of the word “sandnigger,” after the taunt was lobbed at me along with a basketball on the foursquare court.
More than two years later, I still peer through the fence of the dog park looking for him before I enter. I cross the street if I see him walking and, on the rare occasion that we do cross paths, Olivia cowers, sensing my unease.
To be clear, that wasn’t the first time I had a run in with an anti-Muslim bigot. It certainly wasn’t the most heated exchange I’ve had, or even the most disturbing. After an op-ed I wrote supporting American Muslims ran in The Washington Post, I received thousands of vile messages and veiled threats, including pictures of beheaded women and the burned bodies of children.
It also isn’t the most egregious example of anti-Muslim bias and discrimination facing our collective communities. American Muslims and people perceived to be Muslim have been violently assaulted and scores of mosques and community centers have been vandalized. We live under the constant scrutiny of government-sanctioned discrimination and scapegoating, from unwarranted surveillance and unlawful profiling to exclusionary immigration policies. We are inundated with images of leading presidential candidates successfully promoting the dehumanization of Muslims as a campaign platform.
But wearing my favorite X-men t-shirt and Detroit Tigers cap just blocks from my home in a city that had just passed an inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance, I naively thought I was insulated from the insidious disease that is anti-Muslim bias.
I was wrong.
And while I was reminded of what my parents communicated to one another through those silent exchanges — that uncertainty and fear remain unescapable, even in the communities we have built for ourselves — I know that fear is not intended to impede progress, but to illuminate the obstacles in our way.
Read the previous posts in this series:
When a Headscarf Becomes a Target
FBI Borrows From Anti-Muslim Playbook in New Video Game
I Am a Muslim American Army Reservist Who Was Turned Away From a Gun Range Because of My Faith