Zainub Amir

This Is What It Feels Like To Be A Teen Muslim Growing Up In America

I’m not asking for sympathy or pity. I’m not asking for a simple hashtag on social media. I’m asking for more than that.

I felt helpless. I felt powerless. I felt humiliated. It was another quiet night. I was helping my parents run our small-town convenience store. Two gentlemen parked their truck in the parking lot and walked in, approaching the cashier counter. They picked up miscellaneous snacks and beverages and placed them in front of my parents. I was taking out the trash, seeing that we were an hour away from closing up.

I walked back in and witnessed my parents getting yelled at over having higher prices than big-name supermarkets: “You all should go back home to where you came from," and “Stop running a store to send money to the Middle East." I wanted to say something. Those are my parents. This is my family. You can’t speak to us like that. You can’t be ignorant and place us into a category that we do not belong to. This is our country -- the only home that we know. I was so flustered and my heart raced. I watched my parents stay silent as the guys muttered to each other, took their goods, and left. I froze. I hadn’t known what to say in that moment, but now I do.

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Zainub Amir and I’m an American Muslim born in New York. Everything was “normal” for me until I was 5 years old sitting in my kindergarten class. The Twin Towers had been attacked, but I didn’t know or understand what was going on. I didn’t understand for the longest time until I was bullied by people who I'd thought were my friends. I was an outcast all through elementary school, middle school, and, for the most part, high school. People made their minds up about me before they even knew me, thinking it was a harmless joke to make fun of me because of the way I look and the religion I practice. It’s not funny that I would walk onto the bus only to be called a “terrorist." It’s not funny that the middle school rumor everyone talked about after we discussed 9/11 in history class was “there is a family that runs a business in town and they’re associated with Al-Qaeda," and everyone's eyes were on me. It’s not funny to see my parents being discriminated against at their business every day. It’s not funny at all.

It was hard to take in that people actually thought this -- not just the kids around me, but their parents, too. These are only a few of the many incidents that I’ve experienced. I can’t even imagine what other American Muslims who have been silent on this issue have gone through to this day, especially after the San Bernardino attack in California.

What I want people to understand when they hear my story is that what I’ve gone through is not isolated. There are Muslim families in America who have experienced legitimate hate crimes, such as the tragic shooting of three Muslim students in North Carolina. There are Muslim families out there who experience hatred every day because of who they are. The most tragic thing is that these hate crimes often go unexplained or overlooked by others.

I’m here to speak up and combat the assumptions a vast majority of people here in America have about Muslims. I’m here to fight the ignorance in America through the power of knowledge.

Terrorism has no religion. It’s so easy to think that the two correspond with each other because of what the media and core values of past generations have ingrained in us. Every time a shooting happens, the first thing the media feels the need to mention is whether the shooters were Muslim -- as if their religion motivated them to pursue such a terrible crime. The thing is, that is not Islam.

Innocent people, civilians, of any race, religion, gender, or any kind can never be harmed in Islam. It’s impossible for any Muslim to engage in such an act and think that it has anything to do with jihad. The Arabic word jihad is often translated as “holy war." But in a purely linguistic sense, the word “jihad” means "struggling" or "striving to be a good person." In Islam, killing one human being is like killing all of humanity.

As an American Muslim, when we see another tragic attack, not only do we condemn it, but we think, “Oh no, what are we going to do? How are we going to get through the airport this time?" or "Next time at the mall, will people stare and think, What do they have in their bags?” It’s a terrifying situation that we, as Muslims, know all too well.

Those who preach Islamophobia -- and some of our presidential candidates -- are trying to benefit from this fear of Islam. Fear is a natural human tendency. However, when we let it overpower us, we befriend irrationality. Terrorists have used this fear of Islam and associated it with their organization. They have essentially hijacked the religion and have twisted it to advance their own political goals. When we allow this, we are feeding into what terrorists have wanted us to believe all along and are helping them achieve their goal.

I’m not asking for sympathy or pity. I’m not asking for a simple hashtag on social media (#MuslimLivesMatter). I’m asking for more than that. I’m asking my country to use knowledge and not judge through the eyes of terrorism and ignorance.

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