"What do you think of ISIS, Dina?"
The question pierced through the air in the room and left a heavy, deafening ringing in my ears. Around me, I felt the quiet but stinging gaze of my other coworkers turn to me, anxiously waiting a response. Maybe they were holding their breath, hoping I wouldn't say anything that would get me fired or make them suspicious. Perhaps some of them, knowing my commitment to social justice, were certain I would dissociate myself from Da'esh and their criminality.
I lifted my head from the papers I had been reading and put down the bright yellow highlighter in my hand. Suddenly, I grew conscious of my cheetah-print hijab and felt it weigh heavily on my head. I met the gaze of my questioning coworker and waited a few seconds to compose my thoughts. She doesn't mean harm. She doesn't mean to offend me.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Did you hear about what they did?"
"Yeah, it's all over the news...it's awful, of course," I found myself blurting, almost defensively.
"It's crazy," she continued, shaking her head and then looking around the room at my other coworkers.
I have worn the hijab for more than 5 years. It has been and continues to be a long but dynamic journey. I have grown with and through my hijab. I've gone through what seems to be every possible "hijab phase", graduating from the two-piece slip-on hijab, to the cool, cotton hijab, to the fancy lace hijab, to the light and elegant chiffon hijab, and finally, to the Pashmina hijab. I have gone through years of wearing no under piece beneath my hijab, to thinking I absolutely needed to wear one to detract attention from what I thought were hideous eyebrows, to not wearing one again. I have learned to tuck my hijab into the color of my shirt when getting on roller coasters or when cliff diving. Through trial and error, I have finally figured out what the best beach hijab was for me. I've even learned to enjoy snowboarding while wearing my hijab (it's actually been very helpful in keeping out the cold).
My hijab and I have developed a loving and comfortable relationship and most days, I walk unconscious of it, the same way a person is not conscious of their nose or their eyes. Until, of course, I am being interviewed for a job and find myself seated across from a white middle-aged man, or when attending a senator's press conference and looking around to find men with earpieces sprinkling the crowd. Or until an atrocity occurs and the New York Post fills its front page with big and bold words "Muslim Killers". It is then--especially then--that my hijab, suddenly and without warning gains, 50, 60 pounds.
With every tragic massacre and act of violence, my stomach churns as I wait to hear reporters compete to announce the perpetrator's name. A couple of years ago, I used to silently pray that it wouldn't be al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but since they've been tossed to the side I have begun to pray that the perpetrators aren't people who've sworn allegiance to Da'esh. Please don't let them be Muslim. Please don't let them have a "brown" name. Please, please, please.
It still baffles me that despite the number of massacres led by white men, the perpetrators are recognized as individuals. White men as a whole are never held responsible for condemning white terrorists' actions nor is the white race accused of being a breeding place for extremism and violence. However, when a Da'esh-related attack occurs, Islamophobia takes another roller coaster ride and steeply climbs up the camel back. Despite having absolutely no relation or connection to the attack, the Muslim population, as a whole, is held responsible to prove its innocence. Because Muslims and other minority groups do not have the privilege of being individualized, Da'esh and independently carried attacks are not attributed to the single person or organization who conducted them but to the entire population. One person or groups' criminality suddenly becomes representative of 1.6 billion people. In America specifically, our coworkers start questioning us and begin to wonder if we support ruthless killings, even if we've written and spoken extensively on human and civil rights. What used to be an easy subway ride becomes a tense, fear-filled one riddled with nightmares of being pushed onto the tracks, as a Muslim woman in London recently was. Given the rise in anti-mosque incidents, the mosque becomes a place of discomfort and anxiety, rather than a place of restful worship and spiritual revival. With most categories of hate crime decreasing except those against Muslims--which are on the rise--simply existing as a Muslim in the West, and especially a visible Muslim, becomes scary.
To exist as a colored, middle class woman who wears hijab is not easy. While I do not intend to tuck my hijab away to decrease my chances of being targeted and assaulted, I am afraid. It is terrifying to hear GOP candidates--especially Donald Trump--openly toss hateful words towards Muslims and accuse them of cheering on 9/11, despite there being no evidence of such claims and the fact that many innocent Muslims have died both on 9/11 and in the aftermath. Mr. Trump has also openly called for illegal surveillance of Muslims, the closing of mosques, and a "complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States", including American Muslims who are currently overseas. Even the President of the United States, in his recent Oval Office speech, has called out Muslims, only, for the extremist ideology. With the airwaves full of hateful rhetoric and accusations we should all be mindful be that violent extremism is not exclusive to Muslim communities but finds its way into every community, regardless of religion, race, and sex, leaves me and my community in an existential struggle due to crimes we did not commit.
Muslims and other minority groups have been denied the privilege of being individualized. Until attacks by groups like Daesh stop being attributed to an entire population, Muslims will never be safe from demonization.