Anam Shah, 20, and Hiba Ahmad, 19, both Muslims, are first-generation American children of Pakistani immigrants. In the wake of recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists, and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S., the two VCU sophomores have been grappling with how best to educate Muslims and non-Muslims alike about their faith. (Photo by Tina Griego)
As a general rule, Anam Shah does not bother herself with politics, particularly during election season. She dislikes the posturing, the pandering and the ease with which what is true becomes a casualty of what will sell.
For much the same reasoning, Anam, who is a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University, is not a consumer of news, either.
She finds that her life, as young woman, as a Muslim, as a first-generation American daughter of Pakistani immigrants, is so far removed from what is depicted in the media that it both disorients and depresses her.
“There is a lot of good in the world, more good than bad, and we just don’t see it because the bad has taken over the media,” she says. “In the media, we all hate each other, Muslim and non-Muslim, but here we are holding interfaith council meetings, hanging out with each other, getting to know each other. You never see that in the media.”
In a national narrative that would divide Muslim from non-Muslim, immigrant from non-immigrant, where, she wonders, is there room for her relationship with her best friends, one of whom is white and one of whom is Catholic?
Where is there room for the after-Friday-prayers gathering of Muslim students at the Baptist College Ministry building for the feeding of the homeless in Monroe Park?
Where is there room for the meeting she and two other members of the Muslim Student Association had last week with VCU Police Chief John Venuti, a meeting he initiated to make sure that Muslim students were feeling safe and to ask if there was anything he could do?
“For us, people are doing these horrendous, heinous acts in the name of our religion, and suddenly we are all terrorists,” Anam says. “It’s very upsetting. The word ‘terrorist’ does not mean ‘Muslim,’ and I think people need to start understanding that.”
I met Anam at the mid-November forum VCU President Michael Rao had with students and faculty. She accompanied her friend Hiba Ahmad, who is also the daughter of Pakistani immigrants. Both are active members of the Muslim Student Association.
The Rao meeting happened five days after radical Islamic terrorists attacked Paris, and one day after protesters in Anam’s hometown of Fredericksburg shut down a presentation on plans to build a new mosque.
The days to come would bring the terrorist attack by husband-and-wife Muslim extremists that claimed the lives of 14 in San Bernardino, California, and, last week, the pronouncement by Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate for president, saying Muslims should no longer be allowed to enter the United States “until our country’s representatives figure out what is going on.”
Anam could no longer ignore the news. We met last week, joined later by Hiba, and they both say their hearts sank with the first reports that the San Bernardino attack involved Muslims. It sank further with the images of the wife, who wore a head covering (hijab), as Anam does, and who was Pakistani, as their own lineage is.
Maybe, the pair say, they could understand how someone in a war-ravaged country with nothing to his name and no hope would gravitate to extremism, toward radicalization. But someone who made it, as their parents did, to the United States and who had all the opportunity in the world to build a future?
“What could have been so attractive about a terrorist organization?” Hiba asks.
“I can’t fathom it,” Anam says. “And she was a mother.”
“It makes us question, not our faith, but the fact that this is happening within our community. How is this happening?” Hiba asks. “What do we need to do for our own people? What do we need to do to stop this? [...] It’s like these people are sitting here right in our community and we don’t even know. We don’t know what’s going on in someone’s head.”
Anam is 20, Hiba is 19. They were entering elementary school on Sept. 11, 2001. They have only known the post-9/11 United States and what Anam, in particular, knows because she wears a hijab and Hiba does not, is that to grow up identifiably Muslim in a predominantly Christian country is constantly to be wrenched outside yourself by the stares of curiosity — and, on rare occasions, hostility. It is to field the most basic of questions: Do you ever see your hair? It is to become accustomed to people assuming you don’t speak English, and to learn to smile first and often. Anam generally does not mind this. She will answer all questions, any questions, because, as far as she is concerned, the issue here, both within the community and outside it, is one of lack of education about Islam. So, she disagrees with fellow Muslims who say they are tired of defending their religion.
“I think some people look at it as an apology for something they had nothing to do with,” she says, “but I feel like you’re explaining what your religion is versus how it is being portrayed. I would never apologize for what they are doing because what they are doing is not us. It is not Islam. It is not what God teaches us.”
But neither will pretend it doesn’t get to them, at times. Americans' feelings about Muslim people and the Islamic faith are polarized and full of political, religious and generational contrasts.
“You take 10 steps forward," Hiba says. "We might do a panel, some community engagement — and then something like this happens and …”
“We’re back 20 steps,” Anam says.
“And then it’s like, ‘OK, now we have to do damage control,’ ” Hiba says. “We gotta come back out and make sure we’re posting our Facebook statuses and making sure we let everybody knows this is not us. Again.”
But having to do that is also motivating, they say. And they see themselves uniquely positioned, as children of immigrants, fluent in two cultures, to be the builders of bridges. They declare themselves optimists, believers in the goodness of humanity.
“I think the responsibility to counter the rhetoric falls on us. It falls on our shoulders,” Hiba says. “Our parents worked really hard to come here and build a life for themselves and their future families. They came here with dreams and hopes because they felt like their country back home didn’t offer those freedoms, whether political, religious or economic. And we are lucky enough now to be going to schools and universities, to live with the American culture in one hand and our faith in another. We are equipped, in a way our parents might not be, to navigate the tension between the two, and there is sometimes tension. But that is where tolerance is created and cultivated.”
Hiba, a journalism major who writes a lot about the Muslim community on campus, says her parents, worried, have asked her to adopt a lower profile. She says she told them no, that that would be the exact wrong thing to do. Anam says her father just reminded her that she knows her faith and what it teaches. What she tries very hard not to do, she says, is judge those who would judge her.
“Our Prophet tells us that we don’t know someone until we meet them, until we travel with them, until we stay with them.”
I called her early in the week because I wanted to know how she was doing, how she was processing what has been happening. She told me then that she has a lot of support from her friends and that she felt safe at VCU, but that at the end of the week, she would be going home to Fredericksburg, where anti-Muslim protests have been heated.
“I moved there when I was 5 years old, she says. “That is the place I call home. And I now I am scared to go home and I don’t want to be scared to go home.”
But when I talked to her and Hiba a couple days later, her optimism had restored itself.
“I was worried, but after talking to my friends, I was thinking, maybe I am stressing about it for no reason,” she says. “I think it will be OK.”
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