Comfortably Numb
Adam Elrashidi

 

The continuing backlash against Muslim-Americans in this era of the “war on terror”, highlights the deep contraditions between US ideals of equality and freedom of religion and the harsh daily reality of discrimination. Image: USmuslimmatters.org

I don’t think I’ve ever been asked how I feel about being a Muslim in post-9/11 United States. And to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have an insightful and concise answer if someone did.

It’s not as if I haven’t spent a substantial amount of time contemplating my own and others’ feelings about the Muslim-American identity (or American-Muslim identity, if you’re nationalistically inclined) in public and private; I have...exhaustively.

At a certain point, you learn that people are people. Aside from things such as fasting during the month of Ramadan or the belief in absolutely one God, the wisdom found in Islam is too detailed a topic of discussion in an era where ideas are transmitted in 140 characters or less.

Plus, you eventually become numb to the dynamics of trying to explain to people the difference between what Muslims do and what Islam actually says.

Numb to the rhetoric; to the constant flow of gray propaganda from “reputable” news organizations; to politicians masquerading as righteous statesmen; to commentary from “experts,” self-serving pundits and Vaudevillian cable television personalities; to asinine comments on Internet articles and message boards; to protesters holding up misspelled, sometimes bigoted, signs; and even, to the struggles of other immigrant and minority populations. It’s all just too to dissect, contextualize, discuss and (ultimately, for some) disregard on a daily basis.

This is sad, really, because the truth is that being numb to challenging, perhaps culturally inconvenient, topics of discussion is completely antithetical to the truly core values (at least, as I learned them in school) of each part of that Muslim-American identity, which both encourage social and intellectual engagement. But that fact doesn’t make the realities of the current socio-political landscape any easier to cope with, especially when you’re young and the strain of trying to mix the supporting aspects of those identities successfully worsens with each disingenuous statement about what it “really” means to be one or the other.

Indeed, it is quite strenuous to process the abundance of negativity about Islam put out by the media, as well as the actions of “Muslim” states fueling that negativity. Especially when you’ve been processing it for nine years.

Indeed, it is quite strenuous to have been born in the United States and instilled with knowledge of its civic values and potential for positive action, but gradually lose hope in the abilities of your fellow citizens—your neighbors—to ever live up to those ideals and optimism. Especially when you’ve been hoping for nine years.

Indeed, it is quite strenuous to stand guard at the gate of your own heart when pessimism—or worse, indifference—presents itself as a quick and easy way to relieve the mental stress of repeatedly explaining the history and tenets of Islam to people who just might not care for the lesson. Especially when you’ve been standing for nine years.

And indeed, I have been doing all of this for nine years.

I was a junior in high school on September 11, 2001 getting my picture taken in the auditorium when a friend informed me that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.

“A plane flew too low and clipped the World Trade Center?” I thought irreverently, “Great—I have to get back to class.” After all, I was the president of my class and had more important things to worry about than some freak accident happening in New York City. Sure, it was tragic—I’m not heartless—but this was going to be my time to establish a strong name for myself among peers and faculty.

I can’t say I remember very much after having my picture taken. I do remember going back to class only to find it empty, then following students from neighboring classrooms to another room where a single TV was set up (the school’s closed-circuit system was disabled at the time due to renovation) and realizing that this was not the result of a random plane clipping a skyscraper but something far more horrific.

From there, September 11, 2001 becomes a jumble of dark, hazy memories—most of which I am unable to determine as my own or as amalgamations of news coverage. No, I don’t remember much from that day, but I do remember the following days.

I remember the nonstop news coverage delivered by Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings, who earned my enduring appreciation when he pronounced the word “Muslim” as “Muslim” and not “muzlim,” something other anchors, journalists and certain heads of state couldn’t be bothered to do—even today.

I remember telling (and by “telling,” I really mean, “sobbing nonsensically to”) my civics teacher and mentor, Tim Anderson, about how the whole situation was “bullsh--” because Islam represented something better than what I saw at the time as America’s committed love for only those things alcohol-fueled and superficial.

I remember other teachers, who had previously received me warmly and in friendship, now receiving me with suspicion and resentment.

I remember Afghanistan.

I remember Iraq.

I remember hypocrisy from government officials and opinion leaders in both the non-Muslim and Muslim worlds.

I remember “sand nigg--” and “camel jockey.”

I remember the films Fitna and Obsession, and videos of Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

I remember statements from people that had no grasp of history, Arabic or their own religion—or lack thereof—telling me the “truth” about my faith.

I remember propagandist TV news reports disguised as investigative journalism.

I remember a set of cartoons from Denmark and the subsequent discussion about the concept of “Freedom of Speech.”

I remember being called “blind, dumb and illiterate” because I said in a newspaper article that Islam was a religion of peace, and the violent response to the Danish cartoons was not representative of Islam.

I remember the stabbing of a Muslim cab driver in New York City.

And I remember bans on hijab—the head and torso covering worn by many Muslim women; dirty looks; myriad insults about my culture, prophet and religion; and a plethora of other digs, jabs, hate crimes, deaths, murders and tragedies that hardened my perspective about human nature at an age far younger than I expected or was probably prepared to handle.

But I also remember people like Dave Mousel, another teacher who said, “Adam, if there’s anything you need during this time, don’t hesitate to ask.” When I thanked him for his gesture, he said, “For some people, it’s easier to offer than to others.”

I remember the support and kind words given by good neighbors and friends—from all backgrounds and beliefs.

I remember the feeling I had—and still have, buried deep in my heart beneath layers of journalistic skepticism—when I realized that I could still contribute positively to my community and, through good works, perhaps change others’ opinions about Islam and Muslims—or at the very least, encourage them to do research for themselves.

And I remember verses from the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, saying there is no compulsion in religion (2:256) nor an obligation to convince people to follow Islam (16:82), and that hope and patience are far better than despair and frustration (93:2-8).

While I knew these verses prior to 9/11, I had never reflected on their profound significance and meaning until much later. In fact, not until my very early 20s did I finally begin to understand, through personal study, that my responsibility as both a Muslim and an American is to always strive toward that which will benefit myself and others, for both victory and failure are totally in the hands of God.

This realization has made me now comfortably numb. At once conscious of the fact that I, like all Muslims around the world, have my work cut out for me as a journalist, citizen and human being, but accepting of the fact that the administration and reception of truth is an exercise in endurance.

Now, if asked about what it means to be a Muslim-American in post-9/11 United States, I feel confident in saying that it means the same thing it did pre-9/11. Because to be Muslim is to struggle for the sake of  truth and justice, and that struggle is, and always will be the American way.


Adam is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is now a Media Studies graduate student at Syracuse University.