Muslims, Allies, and Tolerance at Arm’s Length

My deen, my religion – Islam. I list it along with other identities when trying to encapsulate who I am – “brown Latina Muslim woman” – but that might be a mistake. My faith is not the same as my ethnicity or gender. Sure, these overlapping lenses color all of my experiences and perspectives, but that does not make them a series of identical elements. Islam is a religion I choose to follow. I did not choose to have brown skin or to be a woman. These are just facts of my existence. My white friends have always done their best to understand my experiences as a person of color, and my male friends have consistently been open to learning about the difficulties women face in just about every facet of life. But something different happens when it comes to my faith. I have never felt so simultaneously supported and ignored as I have as a Muslim convert.
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Most of my friends and loved ones are not Muslim. That is the reality of being a convert and lacking community at the present moment. But no one seems to know much about my faith at all, or even bother to ask. For the most part, when I told people that I had converted to Islam, everyone wanted reassurances: that I wasn’t being pressured, that I wasn’t going to “change” too much, that I was sure of my decision. After that, hardly anyone asked any questions. I remember feeling touched that some of my closest friends, including one who had recently become Christian and one who is an atheist, actually wanted to have in-depth discussions about my beliefs. And when the mother of one of my oldest friends found out I was Muslim, she sat down with me and we had a beautiful, well-informed chat about this important decision in my life. To this day, my mom and dad send me articles and photos of inspiring Muslims and ask questions about my faith. These moments stand out to me because they have been so few and far between.
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In college, I felt that my faith was not actually of interest to other students, but was instead seen as a political or social identity to be wielded for different causes. While in many ways my Muslim identity has informed my political views, I didn’t particularly enjoy this characterization. My other peers of color, though vocally and consistently supportive of Muslim students on campus, seemed to know little to nothing about our religion. I think back to the only things I knew about Islam when I was in high school: the 5 pillars, Ramadan, and the Qur’an. Not much to go on. I had no idea what Muslims believed, practiced, or valued. I could assume it was similar to other “people of the book,” but I never thought much beyond that because I didn’t know any actual Muslims. Even today, a lot of people have not moved past that rudimentary understanding I had back in high school. I think that many of my progressive, kind, and inclusive friends and loved ones fall into this category. I know it is not because they hate me or my faith. It is not because they are intolerant or unwilling to learn. But it suggests that many allies of Muslims are practicing some kind of tolerance at arm’s length.
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So, as the Instagram posts and direct messages faded away after the New Zealand terrorist attack, and the anti-Islamophobia allies returned to their regular lives, I wasn’t expecting any different. But New Zealand wasn’t finished. The videos of biker gangs like the Waikato Mongrel Mob performing haka in tribute to the victims were just the beginning. Then they showed up to physically protect and support my brothers and sisters in Islam during Friday prayers. I showed my fiancé an article about it, beaming as I read aloud. Even then I was sure that would be the extent of it. Marginalized communities supporting one another in the face of majority distrust or empty thoughts and prayers. But I had no idea what would follow.
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As I watched New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, reading a hadith of the Prophet (saw) and broadcasting the call to prayer, I was astonished. When non-Muslim New Zealand women put on the hijab in solidarity, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had never even considered the possibility of a country having that kind of response to such an attack. The people of New Zealand are making an effort not only to learn about the faith of the victims but also to legitimize and embrace their religious traditions as part of the tapestry of the nation. In the aftermath of the attack, there were no empty thoughts and prayers, no touching but oversimplified drawings about loving one another despite our differences.
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Rather than trying to reassure everyone that Muslims are people too, which is a move the American left consistently makes after hate crimes in our country, the people of New Zealand were a step ahead. It should go without saying that Muslim communities have a right to exist, to live in peace and be treated humanely. That idea should not need rehashing. Instead, New Zealand has made an effort to normalize the practice of Islam. Where left-leaning news stations in the United States would never dare to breathe a word of Arabic on television, Ardern read aloud, “The Prophet Muhammad, sallallahu alaihi wasalaam, said, ‘The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion, and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain.’
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It’s true. We are hurting. Aching inside at the thought of our brothers and sisters who died at the hands of a white supremacist, xenophobic terrorist. Sick at the thought that the same thing could happen to us in the masjid as we pray one Friday afternoon. Disturbed at how quickly the world can move on from things like this, and how easily the media can overlook the social and political forces that are producing white terrorists at an alarming rate. There has not been a single moment since I took shahada in 2016 that I have not felt the pain of part of the body suffering.
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But New Zealand has shown me that there is a better way to handle these tragedies. There are so many people who are willing to learn about Islam and who recognize that the Muslim community deserves to be treated with dignity and inclusion, not just tolerance at arm’s length.
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After all, as Prime Minister Ardern declared: “We are one.”