Last year on the Fourth of July, I boarded a packed subway train with my mom, my brother, and my cousin. When our train arrived at the next stop and the doors opened, no one moved. It was clear to everyone in the car and out on the platform that there was no space. Still, one middle-aged Hispanic woman tried to step on. When she bounced back onto the platform, she yelled, “Move!” When no one budged, her gaze fixed on my mom and me and she sneered, “Las terroristas!”
“What did you just say?” I asked in disbelief. But the sudden wave of silence that passed through the station had already answered me.
I felt paralyzed for what seemed like eternity, but I snapped back to reality when the train’s doors were about to close. I stuck one foot out of the train, ready to get off and give this lady a piece of my mind. My mom’s hand locked onto my wrist and pulled me back.
“What the hell are you thinking?” my mom whispered in Bengali as she tightened her grip.
No one said anything as the train’s doors shut. I realized I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway. I just know that I hated the pitying glances those strangers gave my family and me. While the train raced through the tunnel, my eyes burned with tears of anger.
There were more than 100 people on that train car. Yet that woman singled us out because she saw my mom wearing a hijab.
Terrorism Isn’t a Religion
A terrorist is someone who terrorizes people. Terrorism isn’t a religion or a race. I’m Muslim, and a minuscule fraction of Muslims are terrorists. That doesn’t mean we all are. Throughout my life, I’ve been reminded that many ignorant people think otherwise.
In kindergarten, a boy in my class told me his parents said to stay away from me because I was an “Islamic.” In 6th grade a boy asked me if my backpack was so heavy because I was carrying a bomb in it.
In 8th grade, I decided to do a research project on Osama bin Laden and the role he played in larger terrorist networks. I wanted to know more about the guy who messed up the reputation of about 2 billion Muslims around the globe. My teacher called me up to her desk privately and asked me if I was sure I wanted to choose him, reminding me that everyone would have to give a 20-minute presentation in front of the class. I was.
I went back to my seat and pretended that my classmates who were doing reports on Abraham Lincoln and John D. Rockefeller had also been called up so the teacher could check if they were sure about their topics, too. But I was the only one. Later, when a boy mocked my choice, saying I wanted to do a biography of bin Laden because he was my great-uncle, I understood that the teacher was trying to protect me.
Trump’s Comments Stoke the Fire
I’ve been on the receiving end of insults and stereotypes about Muslims as long as I can remember. But in my experience, it’s gotten worse since Donald Trump was elected president. People hear him making racist remarks and assume that it’s OK for them to do the same. His ridiculous tweets give people permission to discriminate. As a candidate, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” As president, he barred citizens of several majority-Muslim countries from traveling to the U.S., but denied that the policy was a “Muslim ban” like he’d proposed previously.
According to the FBI, reported hate crimes spiked the day after the 2016 election. FBI data also shows that hate crimes against Muslims increased by 19% from 2015 to 2016. I’m not saying that Trump necessarily caused these crimes to occur, but I do think that his administration has emboldened those who fear and hate Muslims to act on such feelings.
A few years ago, my grandpa stopped going to his mosque in Queens to pray after a violent attack occurred at another mosque nearby. An attacker followed an elderly Muslim man there and stabbed him multiple times. The criminal had called the mosque repeatedly and left messages threatening to kill Muslims. He was convicted of attempted murder and a hate crime.
My friend traveled to Florida alone last year, and at the airport, her mom told her to take her hijab off to lessen the risk of her being stopped or profiled. Do people really think a 14-year-old will use a trip to Disneyland as a cover to hide her real intentions of hijacking a plane? You don’t see a white woman take off her cross necklace because she’s scared of getting interrogated by airport security.
I used to tell myself I was just being oversensitive when people made comments about Muslims being terrorists. There are bigger problems in life than being called some stupid words. I tried to believe that it wasn’t important what others thought. But now, with our new administration, I feel differently.
Time to Speak Out
Last year I joined the Muslim Student Association at my school. It was a comfortable and empathetic environment. It was also the first time I talked to people about incidents like these and how angry and upset I feel about the fact that it is 2018, and people still have prejudice against others because of their religion.
I met some amazing Muslim teen girls who taught me that I can’t expect this to change without taking action myself. I used to think that I was too young to make a difference. But these strong, independent girls inspired me with their leadership and determination. Juggling school work, family, and friends, they still managed to be outspoken activists. I wanted someone to look up to me the way I admired them.
One girl was a leader in a global grassroots movement called MALIKAH, which aims to help Muslim women feel safe, strong, and powerful. One of their programs teaches Muslim women boxing and self-defense techniques. Another girl was part of an organization that held workshops focused on teaching teens what to say or do in the face of discrimination.
My Words Matter
They inspired me to step up and try to make a change; that led me to intern at YCteen where I got to write about how angry it makes me to be called a terrorist. For the first time, I felt like my words mattered.
This year, my best friend and I are starting a blog where we express our opinions on many different issues, including racial and religious discrimination. I want to go to more protests, talk to more leaders, and get inspired by more teen activists. Writing this story is just the beginning of my journey. I aspire to become an advocate that other Muslim teens can look up to.
- Race & Ethnicity