As a Muslim American, the recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino were doubly devastating. On one hand, I am deeply saddened by the loss of innocent lives, and on the other hand, I worry about retaliation against the Muslim community in America.
According to FBI reports, immediately after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed 1,600 percent. One example of this is the Chapel Hill shooting that took place in February of this year. Deah Shaddy Barakat, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha and Yusur Mohammad Abu-Salha, who were all college-aged students and the family of a dear friend of mine, were gunned down execution-style in their home by a man who openly hated their religion. The general atmosphere of Islamophobia is a serious problem, and it is the responsibility of our leaders to foster compassion and understanding.
Instead, we observe Ben Carson comparing Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslim, to “rabid dogs,” and Donald Trump advocating for surveillance and closure of mosques and suggesting we create a national database to track all Muslims in the country. Such racist rhetoric is unnervingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany and undermines the principles upon which our country was founded.
Although I am a mother, teacher and activist who has given many hours of service to my community, the racist rhetoric of our political leaders has made me feel blamed for the actions of people who claim to share my faith. Such xenophobia makes me nervous to leave my house wearing hijab, a religious head covering.
Recently, Muslim women across the nation have engaged in debates on whether to continue wearing hijab. One scholar even put out a ruling that women who fear for their lives can take off their head covering.
Personally, I worry that being an identifiable Muslim will cause strangers to grimace at me at best, and physically assault me at worst. I try to smile gratuitously and initiate friendly conversations with strangers to counteract some of my fear.
The pressure to represent more than 1.5 billion peaceful Muslims in the world has become immensely daunting. I know the temptation to hide my Muslim identity is a form of weakness. In fact, other Muslims have criticized me for feeling apologetic for something that has nothing to do with me.
My anxiety hit its peak the workday after the Paris attacks. That Monday, I fought every urge to hide in bed under my covers. I headed to the school where I work as a teacher. My heart raced as I walked down the hall choking back tears that desperately wanted release.
What I found when I got to work was many concerned friends, who genuinely asked me how I was doing, gave me warm hugs and told me I was not alone. Coworkers immediately planned a meeting to gather students and teachers to discuss the events in Paris. I listened as students went around the room expressing how ignorant it was to paint all Muslims with one brush and how disheartening it was to hear political leaders close the door on Syrian refugees. One administrator emailed to tell me she admired my courage and strength in this difficult time. I could hardly believe it. This was the America I knew and loved.
While I am privileged to be a Muslim living in one of the most tolerant and diverse areas of the country, I worry for other fellow Muslims who may not be as fortunate. I watch in horror as friends post videos of armed men rallying in front of mosques, or more recently a man opposing the construction of a mosque stating that all Muslims are terrorists. Does he not realize that Dr. Oz, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Aasif Mandvi and Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens) are all Muslim?
How can one person have so much hate and fear toward a billion and a half people across the globe?
In a world full of ignorance, fear mongering and political opportunism, I hope we continue to celebrate our diversity here in San Francisco and unify to promote peace and tolerance across our country.
Sana Khatib is an English teacher and community activist living in the Peninsula. She is a Syrian American who came to the U.S. as a refugee 30 years ago.