SHAFAQNA – I was seven years old when my best friend asked me what religion I was. I responded, “I’m Muslim.”
They shouted back, “You can’t be Muslim! Muslims are covered up and live in the desert.” They pulled out a reference book and flipped to a page featuring a colorful picture of a woman praying and wearing a hijab.
I’m a white, Bosnian Muslim and according to the vast majority of people who meet me for the first time, I don’t “look Muslim.” I recognize that in some ways I come from a position of privilege: I don’t face discrimination based on my appearance like many Muslims do, and I know that I can never speak for those who do or claim to know their struggles. On the other hand, my deceptive appearance presents me with the disadvantage of hearing a lifetime of unabashed, heartbreaking attacks on my religion and, ultimately, on myself.
I was 12 years old when my parents and I befriended a kind French woman on an overnight train from Venice to Paris. She was funny and charismatic; I liked her, and I hoped that we would keep in touch. And then she – unaware of our religious background – blurted out bluntly, “I hate Muslims.” My dad, the blunt man that he is, immediately told her that we were Muslim, and asked her how she could say such a thing.
Flustered, she apologized and went to purchase her dinner in another cabin. We never saw her again.
I was 13 years old when a boy in my science class held a cross in my face in an attempt to exorcise my “Islamic demons.”
I was 14 years old when a friend jokingly called me and another Muslim girl her “favorite terrorists.”
I was 16 years old when I ran for student government in my high school. After a long and trying campaign, I won. Until a boy made a joke that I should be impeached and assassinated because I was a foreign-born Muslim.
I love America. I love our history, our constitution, our government. I love our authors, our newspapers, our movies. I love our helpful, friendly people, and the way that strangers smile at you at grocery stores. That doesn’t happen everywhere.
But this isn’t Religious Freedom.
These are just some of the memories that have stayed with me, but I couldn’t possibly recount all of the hurtful moments – all of the times that I’ve watched shock, disappointment, and fear wash over the faces of people who discovered my religion; the invasive, sometimes hurtful questions; the acceptance of the politicians who hate us.
I’ve come to be afraid of loving my own religion – my beautiful, peaceful, loving religion. I’ve subconsciously or sometimes very purposefully hidden it; by leaving religious categories blank on standardized tests and on job or school applications, by being discreet about fasting on Ramadan, by not taking religious texts with me to college, by avoiding mosques and religious celebrations, by praying silently, by staying out of religious debates, by remaining calm in the face of pointed insults. I’ve adjusted.
But I shouldn’t have to adjust. Religious Freedom should mean that I get to love Islam publicly and without fear of repercussions. We left Bosnia because of a genocide against Bosnian Muslims, and we certainly didn’t come to the land of the free to be suppressed here too.
I won’t go into why hatred doesn’t move America forward, because our ancestors and our Founding Fathers already knew this, and mankind has known this for centuries. I won’t go into why it’s wrong to punish an entire group for the actions of a few, because that would fill a novel. I won’t go into why it’s wrong to make people afraid to be who they are, because your parents raised you better than that.
But I will ask you to consider something next time you meet a Muslim or talk about Islam in any context: a Muslim is not described solely by the word Muslim. A Muslim is a person, with parents and feelings and hopes and dreams. I will remember the things you think and say about me, whether directly or indirectly, and I will pray for you to be better.
By Melina Delkik