“Oh, you’re a Muslim?
“But you seem so nice.”
The reactions I get when I tell people that I am a Muslim range from excitement and interest to hatred. I have been embraced by Christians, and I have been rejected by other Muslims.
I was just 10 years old when the tragic events of September 11 occurred, and from that day I have found it difficult to predict how people would react to my faith. I like to say that on September 10 I was a normal, white kid with a funny name. On September 11, I was a Muslim, an Arab, a terrorist or the enemy.
In elementary school I got teased and sometimes beaten for my faith. I never really expected the greatest compassion from fifth-graders, but I never expected to be tied up and assaulted.
The older I got, people became less ignorant. The beatings stopped and the harassment became less frequent. If people had a negative opinion of me or my faith, they generally kept it to themselves.
In high school, I joined the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at my school. We were five to 10 students who would meet after school on Tuesdays for meetings, and Fridays for Jummah Prayer, (literally Friday prayer, normally done congregationally).
We looked after each other should anything happen in school, and we discussed topics in Islam. My best friend and I operated as co-presidents our senior year, and often still reminisce about the younger students we mentored.
College was another milestone of prejudice. While attending West Virginia University, I had the most traumatizing experiences of my life. I was falsely arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer.
It was no surprise to me that this happened on the eighth anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks. I’m not sure if the officers knew what they were doing or not, but the situation was so blatantly biased and fabricated that all charges were dropped.
The police report described me as a “tall dark-skinned male” and the two officers who made the arrest could not keep their stories together. After the arrest, I lost interest in my major of international studies, and I left university after just one year.
When I transferred to my local community college, I found myself surrounded by more Muslims since my private school days before fourth grade. Afghans, Arabs, Black Muslims, Chechens and every other type of Muslim you could imagine attended Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA.
I never had a clue that there were that many of us in the area. I became a part of two social circles, both within my comfort zone. One group was predominantly white people, like the people I had grown up around and went to school with for most of my life. Another group was of other Muslim-American students who had gone through similar experiences and shared many of the same values as myself.
After studying at NOVA, I transferred to a tiny college in Winchester, Virginia. Shenandoah University is a United Methodist Church-affiliated private school of 1,400 undergraduates, and is known almost solely for its conservatory.
The town of Winchester was a bit more rural than I was used to and had a very Southern feel to it. My first wakeup call came when I was moving in for my first semester, and I saw a pickup truck driving down the road with a confederate flag flying behind it.
The biggest surprise at Shenandoah was the group I fell into, the group I felt most comfortable with. At first, I hung out with some guys I went to high school with, although we were never close back then. But then I met another group of guys, whom I quickly took to, as I looked for an intramural basketball team to join.
Then, out of curiosity, I attended a weekly, student-led church service with them called WNL, or Wednesday Night Live.
Never, and I mean never, had I been embraced as quickly and unanimously.
I found a group of devout, progressive Christian college students, who took a major interest in my faith and revered the similarities in our beliefs. They truly accepted the belief that the actions of a few do not represent a whole group, and they became my support system at my new school.
One of the most touching moments of my life came the night of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, on July 14.
I had become friends with French exchange students that came to Shenandoah. Having studied French in middle school and high school, I relished the opportunity to practice my French as well as discuss soccer with them.
July 14 is Bastille Day in France. This summer, it was also the date of a terror attack in the holiday city of Nice, France. I ran into my French friends that night of the horrific attacks while I participated in a fundraiser for a local homeless shelter.
I expressed my condolences for what had occurred, and naturally, apologized for the actions of Muslims who perpetrated the attacks.
But before I could finish, they wrapped an arm around me and told me not to apologize. They said they did not want my apologies because I had done nothing wrong. And they said they believed that not all Muslims are terrorists, and that the terrorists were not true Muslims.
The unpredictability of how people react to my faith applies to Muslims. too. Generally, I bond with other Muslims at school and in life. But I have been shunned by some with whom I share the same faith.
When I got my ear pierced in my senior year of high school, I was told that was “un-Islamic.” I sometimes listen to rap music and go to parties, which I have also been told make me “not a real Muslim.” I have been told that being a Muslim makes me “not a real American.”
Despite all that I been told, I still consider myself a proud Muslim and a proud American. I may not fit into the boxes the way people want me to, but my faith and my patriotism are for myself, and no one else.