When Islamophobia Gets Personal

Woman with beautiful legs holding bag. Many colours heels and bags. Shopping,choosing fashion items.
Woman with beautiful legs holding bag. Many colours heels and bags. Shopping,choosing fashion items.

If ever there were an election cycle that has taken a nonrefundable toll on the American psyche, this is it. And as an American Muslim, it has been all the more taxing.

Nearly every day, I am reminded just how much certain people in this country hate me without knowing me--by a breaking news alert or a campaign sign or a confederate flag or a fanatic overheard on the street or a fresh piece of hate mail in my inbox from either a third-grader posing as an adult or an adult with a third-grade literacy level.

For the most part, I choose laughter over tears in response to this flood of fear, ignorance and enmity. But I am not a robot. Sometimes words hurt. Sometimes it doesn't matter how fully I recognize the irrationality or idiocy of those words. Sometimes all that hate and hostility mars my mind, twists my gut and hangs heavy on my heart. Last weekend was one of those times.

Spending a lazy Sunday afternoon shopping near my home in North Carolina, I found myself perusing purses alongside a couple of elderly white women who made no effort to keep their voices down as they sang the praises of Donald Trump. Among their many assertions: "Jesus will put him in office."; "He'll keep them Muslims and illegals out."; "We'll be safe again." As they shook their heads in agreement, amen-ing each other left and right, one of them glanced up at me. I smiled politely as we do down here in the South, but inside, I was fuming.

Nonetheless, as a writer and an activist, I am one of those peculiar people who believes that words and stories matter, that they can change lives and minds and ultimately, the world. So I decided to share a tiny bit of my story, and myself, hoping it might chip away at their prejudice.

I strived to remain calm as I shook their hands and introduced myself: "My name is Melody Moezzi. I am a Muslim American. Do you know any Muslims?"

"No," they replied in unison. "You're really a Moz-lem?!" one asked, as though she'd just met a chimera.

"Yes, and American," I replied, struggling to maintain a modicum of mercy while disguising my pain and disgust at their remarks.

Visibly shocked, the women proceeded to bombard me with a barrage of statements and questions reflecting what I expect was well more than a decade's worth of Fox News viewership. The first words out of their mouths were among the most ridiculous: "But you're so pretty." "Where's your burka?" "You're not a terrorist though, right?"

My throat tightened, my face grew hot, and my eyes filled with tears miraculously skirting overflow. By the grace of God, I somehow managed to respectfully respond to their comments and answer each of their painful questions in turn. I informed them that veils and burkas were not Islamic constructs. I explained that not all Muslim women cover and that among those who do, many consider it a sign of respect for the Virgin Mary. I let them know that Jesus was a revered prophet in Islam. I assured them that I was not a terrorist. I told them that jihad meant struggle and not "holy war," that jihad is about seeking love, peace and justice in the world and in our hearts, that there is nothing "holy" about war in Islam.

All of this was news to them, and while they remained perfectly polite, it was clear that my efforts to educate had fallen on deaf ears. Bless their hearts, their response was as startling as it was delusional: "So you're still voting for Trump though, right?"

Somehow, they genuinely believed that I--a brown, Iranian-American Muslim woman often mistaken for being Latina or multiracial--could vote for a racist, Islamophobic misogynist.

Realizing that reason would not work with these two, I offered action--specifically, I asked to hug them. Both enthusiastically accepted. It took every ounce of composure I had left to hug those women, but I did it because I believe that racists, bigots and xenophobes can be rehabilitated. Sadly, at present, many of them tend to get far more outraged by being legitimately called racists, bigots and xenophobes than they do by actual racism, bigotry and xenophobia--but I believe there is hope in human interaction.

As I hugged those women, I left them with a truth and a lie in that order: "Now you can never again say that you haven't met a Muslim. It was lovely meeting you."

But of course, it wasn't lovely meeting them. It was emotionally draining and traumatic. The minute I left their sight, I broke into tears--and for the record, I'm not a big crier. But I was tired, exhausted in fact. Over the past couple years, I've sensed an intense rise in anti-Muslim hostility in the air, and I'm tired of inhaling these toxic fumes and pretending they don't affect me. Because they do. And whether we realize it or not, they affect all of us.

According to a new report from the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, a compilation of official U.S. hate crime data across twenty states has found that from 2014 to 2015, anti-Muslim hate crimes surged 78 percent to levels unseen since 2001.

When reached for comment, the author of the report, Professor Brian Levin, also noted "a dramatic increase [in hate crimes] of 87.5% in the days following Mr. Trump's Muslim ban proposal . . . [while] hate crimes dropped significantly after President Bush spoke of tolerance at a DC Mosque six days after 9/11."

As Professor Levin states in the report: "[U]nderlying prejudicial stereotypes that broadly paint Muslims in a negative light are pervasive, making them among the most disliked, distrusted and feared groups in America. These negative stereotypes can further fuel the retaliatory spikes [in hate crimes] seen following a catalytic event."

But actions need not rise to the level of hate crimes to affect the targets of hate, and catalytic events are relative. For many Muslims--as for many Blacks, Latinxs, immigrants, women, members of the LGBT community, people with disabilities, and individuals belonging to other historically marginalized groups--the constant xenophobia that has dominated this election cycle has become deeply traumatic. Sometimes our wounds are visible. But more often than not, they fester beneath our frequently non-white skin, just as neglected, dismissed and belittled as the bodies and minds that so often inhabit that same skin.

I highly doubt that my hugs or my 10-minute impromptu Islam 101 seminar made any difference in my fellow handbag enthusiasts' lives last weekend, but I do not regret what I did. I will continue to engage strangers--in my writing, speaking and yes, on my shopping adventures--to try and change hearts and minds. Of course, some days, I will ache inside because of it. But it is this very ache that keeps me and so many other Americans going, leading us to acknowledge and investigate the systemic sources of our wounds, to continue applying steady pressure, and to seek help when we need it.