By Sara O’Connell, one of our Hijabulous writers. Honest and Eloquent. So glad she is writing again!
Fear and Loathing in America (and beyond)
I have slowly reached the point where I realized I not only should, but must write. I must speak my voice, in response to the intolerance that has plagued humanity. From the most recent Newsweek cover headline that screams “Muslim Rage”; to the tragic murder of Ambassador Stevens in Libya; to the increasingly widespread climate of Islamophobia in the United States, and beyond; to the provincialism that many Muslims so strongly cling to. Yes, I must articulate that which lies restless within me.
I just finished meeting friends, two sisters, for coffee. Following their departure, I sit at my laptop typing furiously. Sabina and Saira, one an accomplished writer, the other an aspiring filmmaker. Both highly opinionated, outspoken Muslim women (the best kind, in my humble opinion), working toward creating a better world, through the use of their respective gifts.
We met at Starbucks, along with Sabina’s charming, and very flirtatious, 7-month-old son, Musa. Sitting outside on a beautiful Fall day in the Bay Area, there was no shortage of topics to discuss amongst ourselves.
Sabina and I talked about the challenges we both face in wanting to remain truthful and honest in our writing, while at the same time, not wanting to hurt those we love by revealing too much. Although Sabina and I are both grown women, raised in America, we have not forgotten that we come from close-knit backgrounds, in which our personal confessions can often lead to judgment and isolation within our respective communities. We agreed that in our experience, there is almost an unspoken rule amongst Muslims that we are not to air our “dirty laundry,” as we are already under intense scrutiny by media, government, and people in general.
Saira shared her newest film project with me, in which she hopes to tackle the very relevant issue of Islamophobia, particularly in light of the global response to the film about Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). The three of us mutually opined that it is disturbing to witness a number of Muslims who immediately set out to apologize for terrorism carried out in the name of Islam. Personally, I don’t feel the need to apologize, for I in no way associate with those who hold the blood of innocent life on their hands. To me, they do not carry the right to call themselves Muslims.
I graduated from Portland State in June, majoring in communications. I left the path of least resistance, two scholarships at prominent schools in Northern California, the comfort of a tight-knit circle of family and friends, in pursuit of a greater challenge; I wanted to find out who I really am.
With a degree under my belt, and what feels like double my age in life experience, I still couldn’t honestly answer who I am, because as it turns out, life is full of constant transformations. Since graduating, I have struggled with being able to turn out a decent piece of writing. While I realize that I am my own worst critic, I still can’t help but listen to the doubtful voice in the back of my head. It’s all been said, and by those much more eloquent and intelligent than myself.
I’ve published before, each time receiving myriad responses. My writing mirrors me; it’s either a love/hate reaction, rarely in-between. It’s difficult coming up against that. While I would love to say my skin is thicker and that I’m able to brush off negative reactions to my work, I’m simply not at that point.
I have to be honest. To whoever ends up reading this, but mostly with myself.
This is where the fear comes in. Fear is what has crippled me as a writer. Fear of judgment from those within the Muslim community, fear of not being good enough (for whose standards I still haven’t figured out), fear that I’ll be labeled as “too religious” or “too liberal,” and fear of a thousand other things, which has now morphed into what we know as writer’s block. It turns out that me, the strong one as I’m known in my circles, is nothing more than a big baby, all 6’1 of me.
It’s not just fear– I’m filled with, as Newsweek oh so eloquently labeled it, Muslim Rage. Mostly because I’m tired of being lumped into groups I do not associate with. Labels can be dangerous, even if they are convenient; I for one do not want to be pigeonholed into a specific category. If all you view me through the lens of your own limited scope, you will never get the chance to see the real me. You will not understand who I am as a person. In the end, our humanness is the tie that binds. Until we are able to get past forcing each other into these narrow boxes, and limiting others to the standards that we set for them, true change will never come about.
“You have to write,” Sabina told me. “You’re a good writer. I’m not just telling you, I see it as your duty.” I agreed with her, albeit sheepishly, staring at the faux brick wall. As difficult a pill it is to swallow, she is right, it is my duty and I have not done enough.
In the past week, I’ve been disheartened by the ignorance and distrust which runs rampant in the West, as well as the Muslim world. But I’ve also seen great acts of courage and love. A group of Libyans holding signs, apologizing for the outrageous acts committed by a small group of their fellow countrymen. I grew up around Libyans, those are the Libyans I know. Warm, courageous people, who are generous to the point of almost embarrassing the recipient of their hospitality. Individual Americans who sent messages of hope and support to Muslims globally. I am American. It is in this country that I, and so many others, were able to foster and create a unique Islam, outside the limitations of that which is culturally-imposed.
Maybe the woman on the street was forced to wear hijab by a man, maybe she wasn’t. Maybe the person on the train who you perceive as staring you down is prejudiced, maybe they’re curious. Maybe the man on the street wearing a turban is Muslim, maybe he isn’t. Have a conversation. “The fool wonders, the wise man asks,” wise words once spoken by Benjamin Disraeli. It is only through asking questions and challenging our own deeply ingrained assumptions, that we will be able to liberate ourselves and others.
Ambassador Stevens was a martyr. Living a life of servitude and ultimately dying in defense of the freedom for a people he loved—he was more of a Muslim than the cowards who murdered him in cold blood. His death, and the deaths of countless others, is only in vain if it is a cause of division, rather than unification. I promise to lift the veil of fear from my eyes, and to speak truth in every form, regardless of personal ramifications, as I hope others will continue to do.