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(Sarah Turbin | Vox)

A personal history of Islamophobia in America

Islamophobia isn’t new. It’s been part of my daily life for years.

I.

Don't stay out past sunset.

Don't talk to people you don't know.

Speak only English when you're outdoors.

Don't talk about politics.

Don't talk about religion.

Study hard, and come back.

I'm 17 when I move to this country, anointed with a scholarship to a prestigious college.

I'm 17, and out of the arrogance of being 17 I am dismissive of my parents' advice. What do they know, my mother and father who live across an ocean? I'm in the liberal Northeast. It's been a whole two years since 9/11, and this can't be the America we talk about back home. This America isn't scary. This America is Doritos and discussion sections in which I'm still figuring out how to speak up. Fall colors and libraries galore, my first time seeing snow.

This America is also smiling white faces who want to be friends when they hear where I'm from. Tell us what it's really like back home, they say. What do you call that thing on your head? Do you sleep with it on? Do you really have to pray five times a day? Are your parents going to arrange your marriage? Are you sure you don't want to try beer just once? I laugh at these questions, indulge their curiosity, and move on. There is too much else to experience, too much novelty to drink in.

II.

My freshman spring, I take a psychology class meant for juniors. I'm a good student, and in a class of more than 200 students, the professor — a bearded ex-hippie partial to flannels that stretch tight across his belly — knows me by name. I ask questions and score high on the tests, but I still get the feeling he doesn't like me.

This professor is supervising our lab one week. We've split up into groups of six and are doing electroencephalograms, attaching electrodes to each other's scalps and recording the data. The professor comes by to talk to my group, and as he's walking off he says, "I'll let you get back to your last reading."

"Oh, we're done," we say. "Just cleaning up here."

He stops, backtracks. "But there are only five readings?"

Everyone in my group looks at me.

"I didn't do one."

His mouth becomes noticeably small, stern. "You need a reading for your lab participation grade."

"I can't put the electrodes on my head because of my hijab. Religious reasons."

I can see his mental calculations, his frustration mounting. What comes is out is perhaps a little louder, a little more forceful than he intends.

"You need to stop using religion to make your own and everyone else's lives so hard."

The entire room goes silent, and I'm grateful for brown skin that hides my bone-deep flush.

III.

"Hey!"

The referee stops me as I'm about to be subbed into a soccer game. "Hold on a second. You can't play like that."

I'm halfway onto the pitch, but I turn around, thoroughly confused. I've been playing club soccer at my college for almost a year now and have never had any problems wearing a hijab and sweatpants during games before.

"Division rules," he says.

But it's a friendly tournament. The scores aren't being reported. The extra clothing I'm wearing won't affect anyone but myself. Still, he stops the game. Calls over my coach and my captain, who argue with him loudly. Calls over the opposing team's captain to ask her if it's okay if I play dressed like this. She wants to get back to the game too, but spends a few moments looking me up and down, trying to be intimidating.

"Yeah, yeah, I guess it's fine."

The game restarts, and there are cheers of relief.

"Fucking Ay-rab," someone yells from the sideline. It sounds as if it came from a group of hooting men in the crowd. My teammate is standing closest to them on the pitch. She chews them out and they continue to laugh, but I don't remember very much through the fog of my embarrassment.

Later, I convince myself I must have heard wrong.

IV.

There are 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States.

Forty-eight percent report personally experiencing discrimination.

On average, 12.6 hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim are reported per month. After the Paris attacks, this number triples.

Sixty-three mosques are vandalized in 2015 alone.

There are as many as 15,000 paid FBI informants in the Muslim community, up to one in 94 agents for every Muslim in the United States. There are counterterrorism initiatives that turn communities against each otherNo-fly lists and death threats as consequences for refusing to spy on your neighbors.

Fourteen Muslim-majority countries have been bombed or invaded by the United States since 1980; 23,144 bombs dropped in 2015 alone.

V.

I'm walking down the street one evening, on the way back from an old roommate's new apartment. It's still fairly early in spring, but the weather is beautiful, and I'm suffused with the kind of happy that comes from a lovely time with friends.

I pass by an older man, shaggy-looking and some shade of brown. "Hello," he says and I nod and smile at him because he's wearing a cap that reminds me of my grandfather.

Suddenly he's in step beside me. What's your name, honey? Where are you going? Can I come with you? Will you wear that thing on your head when we fuck?

I'm on a crowded street. I'm not worried, not really. I ignore him and walk faster to the beat of my heart in my head. But he doesn't stop. Are you Islamic? Where are you from, honey? Does your man make you wear that on your head? Why won't you answer me?

He gets louder. Don't you know that I could buy you? Isn't that what they do in your country? They sell women. I could just buy you if I wanted to. It's that easy.

No one around me intervenes; no one even slows down. I walk faster and slip between people until I'm sure I've lost him. I will myself not to look back until it's been a couple of blocks. When I check, he is standing at a corner, still yelling and waving his arms. I tell myself it was my mistake for smiling at him.

VI.

I take up running. I do it to be fitter and faster and more disciplined in general, but in the back of my mind I think it would be a good skill to have. In case.

People like to yell things at runners, perhaps because the interactions are iterant. I've been warned about this particular absurdity by a friend. "Run, Forrest, run!" I hear a few times. It never fails to make me laugh.

What I'm less prepared for is the "God Bless America" that a lady in a fur coat hisses at me as I pass her one day. Or, "Take off your hijab! Be free!" courtesy of a graying grandmother parked on a bench.

I shout the first response that comes to mind: "I am free! Don't tell me what to wear!"

I feel terrible afterward. For not stopping to have a conversation, for not changing her mind. For yelling at a lonely old woman.

Chapel Hill Protest

Members of the Muslim community staged a vigil to call for justice in the killing of three Muslim Chapel Hill students in February 2015. This activist holds up a picture of the slain students.

VII.

Two bombs go off during the Boston Marathon.

I've spent a summer in Boston, run stretches of the marathon route, and I hurt as if I'm there. A friend's sister disappears near the finish line. She isn't heard from for a few tense hours, but she's safe. An acquaintance of my cousin loses his leg. My friend recognizes Tamerlan Tsarnaev from his mosque. And an international student who was watching the marathon, whose only crime was running away from the vicinity of the finish line, has his house searched while he is recovering from injuries in the hospital and immediately becomes the Saudi Suspect.

Everything hits hard, and I find myself in the embarrassing position of crying at my desk at work. My work best friend notices, brings me water and tissues, and offers to run down to the vending machine for a pack of M&Ms. He sits with me and asks gently: "Are you okay? Are your Boston friends okay?"

I find myself blubbering. About the victims, the connections, the blowback the already marginalized Muslim community will face, the innocent international student caught in the crossfire.

"But that makes sense, though," he says. "About the international student. They have to follow all possible leads."

I am aghast. That's the point. There were no leads. Can he not see this? Can he not see that this could have been me? I could have been working in Boston. I could have been watching the marathon near the finish line.

I want to say these things, but all that comes out are angry tears. Everyone leaves me alone for the rest of the day.

VIII.

"Um, you might want to change your shirt," she tells me, right before we're leaving for the airport.

"What's wrong with my shirt?" I say. It's a nice shirt, button-down with small skulls on it, loose and soft and perfect for traveling.

"You don't want to wear anything antagonistic while flying."

I remember my friend's friend who wasn't allowed to board his flight because he was wearing a sarcastic T-shirt about terrorists. The two imams who were escorted off a plane because they were wearing traditional clothes. I hate that she's right, but I change.

My plain T-shirt doesn't stop me from being singled out at the airport. Ma'am, may I see your passport? What's the purpose of your trip? What's your final destination? Can I see your boarding pass, please? We round the corner en route to the bathroom and the process begins anew, blatantly directed at me while my bareheaded travel companion — who doesn't present as visibly Muslim — stands by and fiddles nonchalantly.

We finally make it to our gate, and, anticipating a "random" search, I let her go ahead. The security guard stops me right before the metal detectors, gestures to my head, and asks me to take off my scarf.

I feign ignorance at first. "What?" I say. "I don't understand."

"That," he says loudly, pointing to my hijab. "You can't wear that through security. Please take it off."

The line is growing exasperated behind me.

"No."

"All right." And just like that, waves me through.

I am seething, and throw myself into a seat. "Did you see that?" I say. "Did you see that back there? It's like he was testing me."

"He's just doing his job," she says, this woman I have made the mistake of traveling with while we're rapidly falling out of love. "Why do you have to make everything about Islam? It's exhausting."

We never acknowledge it, but this is the moment that breaks us.

IX.

My parents come to visit, and we drive up to Canada to see my cousins. It's a tense trip: a lot of time spent in each other's company in confined spaces.

We finally pull up to the border after an hour-long wait in line. We're exhausted. In general, and of each other.

The border agent flips through our foreign passports, looks at all of us in turn, and then spends some time looking hard at my brother. My brother, who is in the driver's seat: a male in his mid-20s with messy black curls and a hint of stubble. In a voice both polite and urgent, the border agent asks my brother to pull up to the side, to parking spot 3.

We know what that means. Secondary questioning; this is going to take a while. We collectively sigh and bust out snacks in anticipation of a long wait.

We drive up to the spot, and as soon as my brother kills the engine, we are surrounded by uniformed cops with drawn guns. One cop is telling my brother to get out of the driver's seat with his hands up. My brother complies calmly. He gets out of the car and is whisked away by two cops with guns still drawn. My brother is taken into the secondary questioning building, and only then, after he is inside the building, do the other cops who are still surrounding us lower their weapons.

You'll have to wait a little while, they tell us. You can lock up the car and wait inside if you want; we just need to ask your son a few more questions.

We get out of the car and walk into the low, prefab border building. We wait in hard chairs in a room with shiny linoleum floors and cheery "Information about Canada" signs, tense until they return my brother to us. An administrative mix-up, they say. There's a rule that all men on visas need to register before they exit the US, and my brother didn't know to do that. Everything's fine now, they say. He's filled out the right form, and you're all free to go on your way. Welcome to Canada. Hope you enjoy your stay.

X.

The Fort Hood shooting happens, Chattanooga happens; the Times Square bomb doesn't go off. My work colleagues want to know how come so many of these instances are connected to Muslims and not other minorities.

Meanwhile, three Muslim students are shot in Chapel Hill, and the FBI is revealed to be infiltrating Muslim clubs in college campuses. There are anti-Islam ads in the subway and suspicious fires at mosques. Tarek Mehanna is tried for thought crimes, and there are disappearances and entrapments and drone strikes and no one asks me how come it is my people who seem to be targeted.

Dylann Roof opens fire in a church in Charleston, and I'm relieved, so relieved, to find out that it's a white man, and then immediately mortified at my joy.

The Paris attacks happen, San Bernardino happens, Donald Trump calls for banning people like me. Suddenly there are stories in the mainstream media: a woman in a hijab who gets pushed in front of a train. A Sikh man who is beaten and hit by a car. Anti-Islam signs in front yards, people not being able to board their flights because they made the mistake of praying in the airport or carrying white stringed boxes filled with baklava.

Suddenly people want to know if I'm okay; they tell me that they're worried about me, ask if I'm experiencing any Islamophobia now.

"Don't worry about me," I say, but what I want to say is that this is not recent, this is not a trend, this is not going away because these incidents are being counted. Twelve years in this country, and I've switched to walking quickly down the middle of the subway platform, I've started pulling a hoodie up over my hijab and looking for exits when I enter a room. I've stopped being surprised, even stopped telling stories.

I was sitting at a museum with a highlighted map to make sure I saw everything important, and a security guard came up and asked to see my ID. "Where are you from?" he asked, "What are you doing with that map?"

I helped my friend move one fall evening with her distinctly Muslim-looking father. We clambered onto their car to wind rope around the mattress we affixed to the top. We were loading the rest of her stuff when the cops came by. What are you doing? Where are you going with that stuff? We silently raged, me and my friend, as her father put on a soothing voice to answer their unending questions.

Some punk kid yelled, "Allahu akbar," as I passed by him, a block away from my home. It was a school night and he couldn't have been more than 15.

"Fuck you," I said quietly, in a rare slip.

"What was that?" He turned back. "Fuck you, you terrorist motherfucker. Fuck you."

XI.

I'm flirting with a cute girl restacking shelves in a bookstore.

I'm not good at this flirting thing usually, but somehow I've found myself in a playful, easy conversation about books. What we're reading now. Her favorites and my favorites. Hoping for a laugh, I admit that I always overpack my bag because I'm afraid of being caught having just finished a book and without another. "I would have guessed you had a bomb in there," she quips.

She's trying to be funny back; I get it. But how does she not grasp the gravity of her statement? Is anyone close enough to have overheard? Misunderstood? Are they calling the cops right now? I'm done. I just want to leave, and I do. Leave her a little confused with my quick goodbye and walk out with my friend who has overheard the tail end of the conversation.

"That is so fucked up," my friend says. "It was going so well, too. Who says that? Can you believe she said that?"

"It's fine," I say, and change the topic. But my friend, who is not visibly Muslim, is enthralled. She tells everyone this story. She repeats it over and over to everyone we meet that day. She makes them agree loudly and repeatedly that it was fucked up. Until, embarrassed, I pull her aside. And ask her to stop making such a big deal out of such a small, commonplace occurrence.

Lamya H is a queer Muslim writer living in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Black Girl Dangerous, Autostraddle, the Islamic Monthly, and Tanqeed. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow 2015. Follow her on Twitter.


First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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