It’s Time for Me to Speak: I am an American Muslim

I never planned on giving a bio when I started this blog, never intended to share personal narratives, never intended to detail my education or merit. This magazine was to be a platform focused on the issues that matter in order to encourage activism on topics that matter. However, due to the recent events in Chapel Hill, the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA laws, the new even worse Indiana law which will allow for discrimination in hiring and employment based on religion, and ending with the arrest of two men here in the Heartland who are being called “home-grown terrorists,” I cannot silence myself any longer regarding these topics.

I am afraid. This threat feels very real. I am stunned and terrified.

John Thomas Booker Jr., 20, was once enlisted in the military and later rejected after posting several comments on Facebook about dying in a jihad–the Arabic word meaning “struggle” or “resisting,” but more commonly used and defined in the West as “holy war.”  Authorities alleged that Booker was on a mission to bring devastation to this rich, vibrant country from the state I call home. Alexander E. Blair, 28, was arrested along with Booker based on evidence that he too allegedly knew of the attack plans and did not report them. Both men are from Kansas. Booker was arrested based on evidence and statements regarding the planning–more specifically, an attack targeting Fort Riley and numerous threats to the safety of soldiers, families and children in a crusade of destruction.

Normally, I write about this type of topic in editorial form, without bias. I ended up with three editorials, none of which had a handle on the heart of the message. I sent the pieces to my editor and my best friend who responded with a series of questions. After reading those, I knew it was time to share a little about me and how these events have censored me, scared me, and changed me.

My parents were both forced to flee Beirut, Lebanon due to the war that was tearing their country apart. The last straw was a car-jacking. My parents were driving their new SUV up the mountain from Beirut to Kayfoun when they were held at gunpoint. The carjackers told my very pregnant mother to run. She did, but she ran to my dad instead of away despite the guns pointed at her face. My father calmed the men down, and gave them instructions regarding the vehicle so they wouldn’t overheat the engine. The men with guns left my parents on the roadside. With sectarian tensions so high, they were lucky to be alive.  

The first thing that my father did was take my pregnant mom to Cairo, Egypt. His goal was her to get her to safety in a country that spoke her language and was similar enough to her homeland that she would feel safe while waiting for her first child to be born. Egypt is beautiful, but it is no Lebanon. And, likely due to the fear my mom experienced after the trauma she endured fleeing to Cairo, my older sister did arrive in Egypt, prematurely.

My father also ensured the safety of my mom’s brother and her parents, and eventually moved us all to Kansas where I was born.

***

I am a Kansas native, born in Wichita, Kansas at Wesley Medical Center on September 13, 1977. Shortly after my birth, we moved briefly to Saudi Arabia where my father exported and imported Coleman Coolers and supplies that, in a desert, proved to be as valuable as oil. Water, clean and transportable to a desert region, was a commodity.

My father was successful in Saudi Arabia. He was wealthy and great friends with one of the many princes of the area. Although my father was very comfortable, my mother was less happy. As a woman, she did not have the same freedom she would have had in Lebanon. By the time I was ready for Kindergarten, we moved back to Wichita, Kansas  and rejoined my mother’s family.

As children, our mother instilled in us–with the help of our grandmother–the importance of freedom of religion. Although we were Muslims in America, our mother ensured that we were able to experience life the way she imagined we would in Lebanon. Our experience in Islam with our mother was nothing like Saudi Arabia. Moving back to Wichita was vital because living in Saudi Arabia was very oppressive for all of us.  

An aside: I never sensed that that the women of Saudi Arabia felt oppressed. My impression remains that with their wealth, these women could travel frequently if they desired. Adulthood lends a new perspective. Reprehensible actions are perpetrated not solely in Islam, but across the world by representatives of varying faiths, including here in the USA. Oppression of women is an example. In some cases many women do not know they are oppressed. In contrast, others fear the blow-back for speaking out.  

Back to my mother’s discontent. Simply, she was not free in Saudi Arabia as she would have been in Lebanon. Unwilling to allow her daughters to live any differently than she expected for herself, she insisted that we leave the Middle East. She missed her country and the freedom she had there, but could not go back because it was no longer her Lebanon. War changes everything. Moving to the States was the only safe option. Our relocation made us one small part of the large exodus of so many Lebanese.

My mother, a stunning beauty, to this day is a strong woman of faith. She is modest, classy, but not a woman who would wear a hijab. (Although, I imagine if it were Burberry or it happened to look amazing on her, she would). After returning to the States she was able to move freely, dress modestly, fashionably, and have faith in God/ Allah as she had in Lebanon before the war.

As for my mother’s family, we taught my grandmother English so she could become a citizen. My uncle, who had studied English as a second language in Lebanon, attended Kansas State for Architecture, all the while blending in with his fair hair, hazel eyes and light skin. These distinct features betrayed not a hint of where he came from.  My grandfather, a man of great joy and humor, worked diligently to earn a living. His English was also excellent, and his fair skin melded with hazel eyes–like my uncle’s–never gave away his status as an Arab and Muslim.

At that time, my aunt and her husband were globetrotting. Her husband. a pilot, and their two children, moved to New York to California and even abroad. She too, with her blonde hair and bright eyes–was strikingly gorgeous. As with my mom, my aunt clung to the more free rules of Islam under which she was raised, back home, amongst other Muslims, in Lebanon. Neither of my cousins (on my mother’s side), myself, nor my sister were ever taught that being a Muslim meant anything more than believing in a higher power and that being good people was the way to win the grace of God/Allah.

We were never told to discriminate, alienate, or judge. We were taught that every person is different even within our own family. My cousin served as a Marine and studied law at Washburn University while his sister remained with her parents jetting back and forth between the States and Lebanon, always traveling.

As I grew up, it became clear I was never going to be like the rest of the women in the family. I was the stereotypical Lebanese woman in my tenacity, will and, most importantly, my voice. Melding the Lebanese woman with American freedom, I transformed into a unique, driven person. I was  insecure and made mistakes, but had a big heart and well-spoken, loud voice. I was once told I was like a bull in a china cabinet by my favorite instructor; a compliment on her part intended to encourage me to use my voice but not destroy the beauty of the message or its importance. A voice cultivated to articulate and represent a new demographic appearing in the United States: Muslim women who, although they believed in Islam, controlled their own modesty, wove science and common sense, and worshipped and believed as they chose.

***

Although, it may seem that I have wandered from the point I was trying to illustrate, let me tie this back for you: the new discrimination laws and the arrest of Booker have been driving my writing in directions that I did not wish them to. Long ago, I gave up on my voice, doubting and subduing it. I inflicted a gag order. I stopped speaking Arabic frequently. I didn’t teach my kids Arabic, and I silenced the parts of me that are Lebanese. It was a slow change that reshaped me.

I began censoring myself on February 26, 1993. On that day, Osama Bin Laden made his first attempt at killing innocent people in New York City during the first Twin Tower attack. My most major censorship occurred on April 19, 1995 when the Oklahoma city bombing occurred. I covered the Oklahoma City bombing as a teenage intern at a local TV news station learning to navigate the field of Journalism. I grew traumatized by the media rhetoric (language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect on its audience, but often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content) in the form of non stop messages, words and accusations–all questions of whether the bombing was an act of terror by Muslims.

From my unique perspective–from the inside looking out–I could see the media rhetoric as it was produced. Forced to endure incessant coverage of the event and press conferences where reporters would ask if it was related to Islam, a door began to close inside me. I took all my faith, all my pride and buried it. I stored it, never nurtured it, never grew it. The young American elementary school student who had once shared a large detailed presentation of Lebanon was no longer feeling safe. This was the reason I chose not to pursue a career in journalism.

After the arrests of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, it was discovered that this attack was not related to Islam at all. Rather, it was the actions of two unstable Americans who were upset over the government’s actions in Waco and Ruby Ridge. It was an irrefutable fact that had the Oklahoma bombing been committed by a Muslim, only then would it be an act of terrorism.

***

9/11. That was the day when everything changed. That was not something I could ignore.

I chose to use my voice. I wrote an editorial for the local newspaper. I’d had an editorial published in this paper before in which I urged young voters to care about the country and vote. I urged them to use their opportunity to create the government they wanted to have, the laws they wanted, the changes they begged for. This time, my editorial was a condemnation of the attack.

The Twin Tower bombings were horrific and my words were intended to echo those of other Muslims who were afraid to speak up. Others like me who wanted to speak and say this is not Islam. I chose to write the editorial for them and myself. September 11, and any other attacks like it are not for God/Allah. What happened on 9/11 was not something any person regardless of religion, race or creed would ever be able to commit if they truly believed in God/Allah.

The editorial was published and applauded by many in the community. I spoke on the radio on one occasion, reiterating the points of my editorial. Any time I spoke about this issue, my words reflected the truth of what I knew of Islam, of God/Allah. Most important was the universal truth that this act was something a real Muslim would never endorse or consider right.

Years of media rhetoric following 9/11 shut me back down.

***

I am now 37 years old, a stay-at-home mom and wife.

If this religious freedom controversy continues, it may cause my family to move out of the United States of America and my birthplace-my home. My children must learn that religion is where you find peace, safety and comfort, and I genuinely do not feel safe or comfortable in saying I am a Muslim in America. I do not feel that speaking up about religious freedom  is acceptable or tolerated.

I am afraid that after writing this essay, the wrong message will be concluded. My parents taught us to be brave, sincere, honest and kind. I have lived my life much like every other American. Made the same mistakes, felt the same heart-break.

When the first plane struck the Twin Towers I was horrified. Seeing the devastation and death of so many innocent people remains one of the most painful memories in my life. I held my breath and hoped the attacks were not the result of Muslim extremist who were indoctrinated into Islam in the wrong way. Traumatized, I quit celebrating my birthday. My birthday is only a few days from 9/11.  Still to this day, my birthday is virtually non-existent. A deep shame resides inside me for that horrible act that was proclaimed to be an act of Islam.

***

If I am to be honest, I must come clean on numerous things. As children, my mother sent us to Sunday school. Her main goal was to socialize us the way she had been socialized in Lebanon. She proudly displayed the holy cross magnet we made at school on her refrigerator till my parents moved from the house we were raised in.

Additionally, my non-Muslim friends know I will take their hands and pray with them as well as for them. When I was in a coma, after the sedation stopped and I was awake, a pastor came into my room. I was very impressed with this man because he knew I was Muslim yet never hesitated to come into my room and politely ask me if it was okay to pray for me. I took his hand and let the words he spoke from the Bible help heal me. This was a man who reflected the ideals which my parents promised Christians would have if they were sincere.

Further, my husband is a Christian with devout Christian parents–a pastor’s son. His father left the States during the Vietnam Era to follow his dream to create art in Canada.  Most importantly, my father-in-law did not believe in taking lives. My husband is a Canadian-born, naturalized American citizen raised in Wichita, just like me.

Our kids are starkly different from one another. While both have the fair skin, the eldest has striking blue eyes and European features. He was born with blonde hair which has turned to an ash blonde while his younger brother has almond-shaped, brown eyes, fair skin and appears to be a muted version of me.

On this day, my choice to open back up and speak about my background is to serve one purpose: there is a lot at stake for me, my family and especially my children. My voice must be heard on this matter because of the diversity within our ranks.

The worst thing to do is remain silent. Silence will hurt my children and change them in the same ways I was changed. I cannot take their faith or pride, and I refuse to bury it to protect them. I stored my faith for too long. Now I will nurture it, grow it and cultivate it the way I was taught by mother and grandmother. The beauty of faith is that when one truly believes in God/Allah, they will find comfort in their prayers and thoughts.

***

While writing, the following were the questions posed to me that I grappled with:

Why don’t people speak out about religious freedom, especially muslims in the USA?

What happened to the separation of church and state?

Can you really tell the difference between an Atheist and a Christian, or a Muslim and a Jewish person?

Will businesses see a person with Middle Eastern features and assume they are Muslim?

How do you know a Caucasian person doesn’t practice Islam, especially a male? Or a person with Serbian ancestry isn’t Muslim?

Exactly how do businesses and employers cite religion to discriminate and alienate and refuse? How are they citing the religious freedom?

And, more importantly, can a Muslim run business cite religious freedom, too?

After trying to edit the three pieces I wrote, those questions became the heart of this story. Just asking them illuminated the conflict brimming inside me.

Although the above questions were enough for me to understand my struggle, I had more to ponder:  

Is this the America our founding fathers fought for?

Is this the world we want to raise the diverse generation that has evolved in our nation?

Is this what America is about?

Is America about oppression, racism, discrimination?

Is freedom of religion even real in America anymore?

Should I change my religion on Facebook?

Should I not wear my Allah charm?

Should I not speak Arabic in public to my mother or father?

Should I deny I am Lebanese altogether and say I am just tan?

The simple fact that these questions trickle out illuminates the obvious. There is something very wrong with the tide that has started.

Think about these questions. They are all about social justice. I hope you will join me in raising your voice to answer:

Is social justice expected for everyone or just a select few?