The Silencing and Shaming of Muslims: An American Epidemic

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I have had premarital sex but never married. Happily, I have zero children but am a proud mother of two dogs, animals that are forbidden in Islam. I may not be the epitome of piety, but I still identify as Muslim and I have a worldview that is undeniably Muslim. While I choose to not wear hijab and don’t pray regularly, I would never take on another religion, even though the Islamophobia I face at times is nothing short of shattering.

I represent a far larger demographic of American Muslims than what’s represented in American television and books.

I’ve met many other Iranian-American Muslims in Southern California who live a similarly secular lifestyle but still consider themselves Muslim. But they only admit to it amongst other Muslims. Some even go so far to pass that they attend church just to get the Christians who see our religion as invalid off their backs. Conservative Christians seem to think that Muslims pray to a different God just because we call Him Allah. It’s never enough that Jesus is revered in Islam, too.

When I was in grade school, my mother asked me why I stopped wearing my Islamic necklaces, hand-etched 24-karat gold emblems that bore the (supposed) likeness of the prophets. She was disappointed when I told her that they were embarrassing. I didn’t want to be ridiculed the way my older sisters were when they wore theirs to school. “Who’s that? Your boyfriend?” one guy asked, before my sisters became a school-wide joke.

I cringed whenever I saw Ayatollah Khomeini or chador-clad Iranian women on the news. The reporters made them all out to be fanatical lunatics. I knew these people were the reason why we’d left Iran, but like me these people were Muslim and Iranian. I was very confused. I also wanted to be like all the other American kids at school, and here was this extension of me that revealed something else entirely — something that wasn’t even familiar to me! I felt ashamed.

I completely stopped identifying as a Muslim after my cousin was shot and killed just for being Iranian during the Hostage Crisis. I didn’t make a conscious decision to push aside my religion, but that’s when I stopped thinking about God altogether. Instead, I gravitated towards the Christians and Jews who never attended church or temple. There were no other Muslims at school and didn’t feel like I was missing anything.  

After 9/11, I was labeled a Muslim and I couldn’t shake it off. My world changed, and I could no longer pass. Six years later, a string of Iranian-American writers released books, but not one of them was even faintly Muslim. Most of them were Jewish, but just so the publishing world could claim that they were showcasing diverse voices, they threw in a Zoroastrian. We were invisible, our voices silenced in the midst of a war on the Muslim world.

The published Iranian-Americans' politics were stupefying – maddening, even. One writer compared Hasidic women with Muslim women because they both cover their hair. Her story was about a brown Jew getting adopted by a Hasidic family after the Islamic Revolution (no mention here whatsoever about racism in Ashkenazi Jewish communities or the fact that Mizrahi Jews have completely different customs). Another one bashed all the Iranians in Southern California while admitting that she’s entirely oblivious as to why her family emigrated to the U.S. in the first place. There were also the fabricated claims of anti-Semitism in Iran, when everyone knows that the Islamic Republic treats the Jewish community in Iran very well, which is why they refused to move even when Israel and the U.S offered to pay each Jewish family upwards of $60,000 so they could bomb the country without killing tens of thousands of Jews.

After pitting us against one other via exclusion (and censorship), the media/publishing world claims to wonder why there is suddenly a growing rift between Muslim and Jewish Iranian-Americans in the U.S. According to younger Iranian-Americans, their Jewish friends also endured abuse after 9/11 – until they sought refuge under the wings of white Jews (Ah, so similar to the ridiculous book!). Since then, a fissure has occurred between Jewish and Muslim Iranian-Americans, and the gap continues to grow. Meanwhile, Muslims hide their identity, even going so far as to describe themselves as “Persian,” never “Iranian.” Most Iranian-American Jews (unlike their brethren who refuse to leave Iran) are also staunchly pro-Israel and say nothing of the Palestinians whom they resemble far more than Israel's Eastern European majority.

Sixteen years and many pharmaceuticals after 9/11, I’m used to being called a “Jihadi,” “a terrorist,” “a dirty Muslim,” “and other such foul names. American men have even physically and sexually assaulted me because of my identity. Instead of cowering from the incessant attacks, I’ve reclaimed my Muslim identity. I also believe in God (yes, Allah), who has given me strength to endure the toll this “War on Terror” has taken on me, an otherwise assimilated American citizen.

Strictly observant Muslims even sometimes snub me because they feel my connection to Islam is more political than faith-based. While they may be somewhat correct, a secular Muslim is borne of adversity and bigotry, much like atheist Jews who still cling to their Jewish identity. This sort of response to persecution is very real, valid and empowering.

What I'm saying to all the haters out there is, I'm not going away. Bismallah!