I have developed an overwhelming urge to tell everyone I meet I’m a Muslim.
As a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear a headscarf, I’m often mistaken for a Latina and other ethnicities that my features match. But as anti-Muslim sentiment has risen across the United States, so has my urge to say: “Hey America: I’m a Muslim. Let’s talk.”
That urge took me to the sidewalk in front of Park51, the proposed community centre and mosque near Ground Zero, over Labor Day Weekend. I spent four days with a small but dedicated group of sidewalk activists who for more than three weeks have stood in front of Park51 with signs reading “Peace Tolerance Love” to support its right to build.
The volunteer sidewalk activists are a mix of non-Muslims and Muslims, and newly-minted activists in their 20s as well as veteran activists of their parents’ generation.
We were not there to defend or speak for any of the spiritual or financial backers of Park51. We were there to defend Park51’s constitutional right to build. For me, opposition to Park51 was part of that larger pattern of anti-Muslim sentiment that had expressed opposition to several other mosque projects around the country. It was much bigger than Park51.
The easiest people to deal with, for me, were what I called the “hit and runs” – passersby who thanked us or those who would hurl insults as they moved on.
Those four days in front of Park51 taught me a lot. First, I learned to resist labelling as a “bigot” anyone who opposed its building. Some of those against Park51 were indeed bigots, but as my sidewalk activist friends taught me, when you call them bigots it makes them defensive and it ends up shifting the focus from the issue at hand – the necessary discussion about Park51’s right to build – to the hurt feelings of the people you just called bigots.
And that necessary discussion can bear fruit. Two women who had walked over to Park51 from a nearby protest against the centre had some questions. One wanted to know about jihad. I said I condemned all acts of violence committed in the name of any religion, including my own. After some back and forth, Meryl said we both should launch a jihad against violence in the name of any religion and asked if she could hug me.
“Why aren’t there millions of Muslims like you?” she asked.
“There are,” I answered.
Mary wanted to know how, as a woman, I could remain a Muslim when Muslim women were treated so badly.
I told her I would be lying if I denied that women in Muslim-majority countries enjoyed equal rights but also said I belonged to a movement called Musawah, which means equality and which aims for equality and justice in the Muslim family by working to remove misogynistic and male-dominated interpretations of Islam.
Again, after a back-and-forth discussion, Mary hugged me too.
Later, another woman asked: “Can’t you see that you’re hurting people’s feelings by building so close to Ground Zero? Think of the victims’ families.”
“Can you see when you ask me a question like that you’re assuming that I had something to do with the attacks on 9/11?” I answered. “Those men were Muslim but it was 19 men. None of us here had anything to do with it.”
“But would it be so hard to move it somewhere else?”
“That’s a really slippery slope,” I told her. “There are mosques across the country being opposed. Where do you draw the line? Once you make Park51 move, anyone can say ‘Oh I don’t want Muslims around here. Move them.’”
She too gave me a hug!
I often went home not just ready to collapse but wondering if I had at all helped to stem that wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. Does talking to six or seven people change anything?
One man who identified as a liberal Christian stopped to ask general questions about Islam. He had many. After talking for about half an hour, he thanked me and said it was the best conversation he had had about the religion. So I have to believe that my “Hey America: I’m a Muslim, let’s talk” campaign is worth it.
* Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).