That Time a Famous Stranger Publicly Accused Me of Being a Terrorist -- and When My Mom Feared for My Life

It's not every day a complete stranger publicly calls you a terrorist. A terrorist propagandist, to be precise. Nor is it every day that the stranger happens to actually be someone famous--or infamous depending on who you ask. And it's certainly not every day that you have to calm your hysterical mom over the phone as she fears for your very life--to desperately try to find a way to convince her that you are not in imminent danger of being brutalized, kidnapped, or murdered. Yet within the span of a few weeks, both of these highly unlikely events actually came to fruition. Believe me world: This is not a game of "Never Have I Ever" I ever wanted to win.

A Series of Islamophobic Events

My story takes part in the backdrop of a theme of a distinctive brand of fear and ignorance-based xenophobia, bigotry, and intolerance: Islamophobia. In particular, we have witnessed a renewed spike in Islamophobia occurring in what should otherwise be bastions of community, respect and understanding-college campuses.

Fresh on the heels of the Duke Chapel controversy--and the amazing response it inspired from the Duke and greater Durham community--there was another outbreak of Islamophobia in my undergraduate alma mater--Vanderbilt. It began when a professor of political science and law tried her hand at religious studies by penning a now-infamous op-ed in Nashville's The Tennessean. Let me be clear and say that my problem is NOT that she criticized Islam. I mean the Prophet Muhammad himself has been called the anti-Christ since virtually the moment he began preaching, so criticism of Islam is nothing particularly unique or noteworthy in of itself.

Rather, the op-ed compromised the public image of Vanderbilt's otherwise world-renowned faculty--and as such, I was simply embarrassed as a Vanderbilt alum. As a Vanderbilt professor (again it must be said, not of religious studies), she demonstrated a spectacular lack of understanding of Islam and religion in general. Indeed her op-ed contained so many factual errors that the administration actually released a statement in which they officially disagreed with the premises expressed in the op-ed, while another Vanderbilt professor--a foremost expert in Islam and religious studies--was also compelled to step into the fray. So redemption points for my beloved VU.

Commodore Nation, however, was not through demonstrating its unbreakable strength. In glorious tandem with their Duke brethren, there was an unprecedented outpouring of outrage and solidarity within the Vanderbilt family in order to demonstrate to their fellow Muslim members that they live and learn in an environment which loves, respects, and protects them.

That is, with the notable exception of one highly vocal and decidedly non-Commodore attendee: Former (like way former) SNL cast member Victoria Jackson. She attributed the solidarity rally with the sinister workings of the President of the Vanderbilt Muslim Students Association, who she incredibly derided as a "liberal student" who also somehow secured "the help of the Muslim Brotherhood." Those damn chai-sipping, NPR-listening, abortion-loving, gun-hating Muslim Brotherhood liberals! How could we have been so blind?!

The Best-Worst Terrorists Ever

At this point I have to admit that I was previously not aware of Victoria Jackson's participation at the rally, her slanderous harassment of the MSA, or even who Ms. Jackson was-until one of my Vandy friends shared with me her damning and factually airtight article "Facts Proving Vanderbilt's Muslim Student Association (MSA) is Terrorist Front Group." Seriously.

In it lays out a massive and nefarious Dan Brown-esque conspiracy which entangles the Muslim Students Association with the Council on Foreign Relations, Islamic Society of North America, and virtually every Muslim American organization in North America with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al Qaeda, and possibly jihadist polar bears working secretly with Greenpeace in order to destroy glaciers as part of this whole "climate change" conspiracy.

In her attempt to forge a coherent case against a student organization which has existed since 1963, she resorts to dubious red herring after red herring and scaremongering myth after myth--all of which have been thoroughly debunked. Every one of her regurgitated allegations--from her depiction of CAIR as the next Cobra Command to the universal threat of "stealth jihad" by Muslim citizens--have been thoroughly addressed by multiple reputable and neutral sources dedicated to fact-checking precisely these issues.

Yet even with the existence of this veritable mountain of evidence, common sense alone should prevail. If any of these mainstream organizations--the very institutions and pillars of the Muslim American community--were dabbling in terrorism on the side, don't you think our government would have been on that like Saul Goodman on an ambulance*? In the ultra-scrutiny of a post-9/11 world, wouldn't these organizations would have to somehow successfully elude all the heightened measures which routinely nabs even the world's biggest corporations? Don't you think that among the sea of politicians, policy makers, and attorneys desperate to make their careers, at least one of them would have nailed these organizations to the wall?

Finally, as the final splash of wine on this weaksauce, I learned that I was honored with an official shoutout in the article--apparently Ms. Jackson was a huge fan of my article on the NYPD's now officially defunct surveillance program!

(Related story: A former Muslim Vanderbilt student named Atif Choudhury, Political Science B.A., who was a Vandy MSA Board member and is currently an international law student at William and Mary, wrote a sarcastic article for HuffPo, on 3/25/14, saying he "apologizes to the FBI, NSA, and Nashville Police Department who may have been doing surveillance" on MSA groups that his MSA was so boring. Link here. His article is propaganda, just like the Rally on Jan. 17. Islamic Jihad propaganda. Civilzation Jihad. Stealth Jihad. Non-Violent Jihad. "We're harmless - you're racist, blah, blah, blah." Media is a powerful tool to sway the masses.)

Once again I confess: Ms. Jackson has me nailed. I came to this country at the age of 4, went through two decades years of schooling, worked in more internships than there are letters in the word "internships", and dedicated a year of my life to teaching and mentoring kids in neglected communities as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I am now studying law (well not at this moment, because I'm writing this article duh)-all so that I can continue serving as a nefarious terrorist propagandist and conspirator. Yet I've been a proud and privileged American for 21 years...when the hell am I going to start this "stealth jihad" party already? According to Ms. Jackson, I am either running ridiculously on CPT or I am literally the laziest/worst/most incompetent terrorist on planet Earth--as are all of the aforementioned the Muslim American organizations who have existed for nearly half a century. If only all terrorists were like us, we could relegate terrorism to our history books because it wouldn't exist.

Americans in the Crosshairs of Fellow Americans

As you can tell, originally all of this was hilarious to me and I laughed it off as a monumentally ridiculous joke--even when my mom first called me about the article after seeing it on Facebook. I chalked off both incidents as just coming with the territory of writing about important yet contentious issues as well as "friending" your parents on social media.

However, the shocking murders of Deah Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha (21), and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha (19)--all of whom are younger than me--have once again served as an horrific demonstration of how deadly serious the culture and politics of fear-mongering can be.

Hate speech can kill and has killed--and Islamophobia in particular snatched away the life of another innocent teenager just a few months ago. The Chapel Hill Massacre is a real-life horror movie that America has seen before-perhaps unique only because in this case the young victims were so patently unlike what decades of Hollywood depictions of Muslims and brown people have primed us to believe, while the perpetrator is miles away from the popular image of atheists as erudite intellectuals or snarky comedians. Hence the media's collective verdict seems to have already decided that it was just a parking dispute--despite compelling evidence to the contrary.

There is so much that can be said about all three of these beautiful souls. But I'll summarize it thus: They were devoted students, loving family members, world-class humanitarians, and all-American heroes. They were everything that I and countless other young people across the nation and around the world hoped to be. Nevertheless they were gunned down simply for existing while Muslim--for existing while being different.

Muslim Student Associations across the nation are full of Deahs, Yusors, and Razans. By making the extraordinary irresponsible accusation that the Muslim Student Associations is a front for a "terrorist organization"--and that students who are members are by association terrorists--Ms. Jackson and her ilk may be committing libel or even reckless endangerment.

By claiming that a group of 18 to 22 year old college students are secretly terrorists by association, these mythmakers are directly manufacturing a pseudo-intellectual cover and lending ammunition for a segment of our society who already hate and fear "the other"--including possibly a "justification" for violence by a subset of this segment who may be willing to kill. Beyond any legal ramifications lies a fundamental question of common decency. Nothing I have ever published can ever be accused of inciting hateful thoughts or violent actions. Can Ms. Jackson and others like her honestly claim the same?

Reclaiming the Narrative

Immediately after the (much-delayed) news of the Chapel Hill Massacre broke, my mom once again called me-this time hysterically worried about my safety. The same mom who was mildly worried about me after I had condemned ISIS' hypocritical brutality was now terrified that I might be harmed by my fellow Americans. She had just seen three kids--highly educated, intelligent, widely loved and admired, and all younger than me--murdered in their own home by a man who explicitly hated them for their faith. This time I had no witty jokes or soothing words which could calm her down, and I had not seen her that distressed since a fateful Tuesday in September.

No parent should ever have their peace of mind so suddenly shattered; no parent should ever have to be as utterly mortified about the well-being of their child as my mom worried about me that day. Yet for parents of black and brown children facing police brutality, or college-bound daughters, or LGBT kids, this is an all-too-familiar struggle. Far too often, entire communities must endure life in the shadow of fear rather than truly experience the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as equal citizens and members of society.

In the aftermath of the Chapel Hill Massacre, vigils have been held across the nation. Last night, the William and Mary community held our own vigil, during which I was invited to speak. I made a brief statement emphasizing the inherent goodness of Deah, Yusor, and Rizan--how their humanitarian good deeds will continue to benefit them even in death, and how their lifelong dedication to service should inspire all of us to try and use our unique talents to service humanity.

While last night was a moment for collective mourning and solidarity, today is a day for action. As part of the struggle to make our communities, nation, and world a better place, now is the time for all of us reclaim the narrative from those who would try to sow mistrust and fear among us instead of respect and love. As a writer and future legal professional, my only weapons are my words both spoken and written.--but I hope to join the growing number of voices who have been stepping up to the plate to speak truth to power. I hope Ms. Jackson, FOX News, et al. are ready for my own "stealth jihad."

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