I’ve lived in North Carolina for 16 of my 17 years of life, and I’ve enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I am blessed to live so close to the beautiful Bond Park where I enjoy my daily runs. My head cover speaks to the fact that I am a practicing Muslim, but it never prevented neighbors walking and running the trails from complimenting my dedication and cheering me on. I can’t remember the last time I smiled at someone without immediate reciprocation, and I love it when they ask where I was if I miss a couple of days. I took the warmth and sense of community for granted until just a few days ago. When I came across opinion polls reporting that 72% of North Carolina conservatives agreed with Dr. Ben Carson that a Muslim should not be allowed to be president and that 40% of them thought that Islam should be illegal, I thought for sure I was reading The Onion.
I was raised to project respect and kindness towards everyone, with the belief that such an attitude propels a positive cycle of healthy relationships and productive communities. In my household, we are proud to be Muslims and we are also proud to be good neighbors and active citizens. We reach out to classmates and coworkers and take pleasure in volunteering at outreach centers, homeless shelters, the neighborhood YMCA, and with area schools and churches. I have been brought up to live by the Islamic ideals, which lead me to uphold the law, value human rights, and pursue social justice. Qualities like these that allow me to proactively embrace my identity, and put forth a positive name for my faith, but clearly this is not enough for some.
I believe that statistics like the one referenced above are a reality not because of their rationality, but because of the lack of exposure to Muslims that many North Carolinians have. After hearing a faith tradition get repeatedly bashed by mainstream media, one can only expect listeners to start taking these unjustified insults seriously. However, it’s surprising to note how apparently few listeners rely on their own research and experience and so willingly accept and defend insults directed at Muslims and at people with different backgrounds entirely. Two nights ago at a school football game, I overheard one of my peers talking about how an Indian family didn’t tip her while she was waitressing, and how she couldn’t wait for Donald Trump to take office and “deport them back home.” In defense of the Indian family, I wouldn’t have tipped such a clearly hateful and intolerant waitress either, no matter how good my wings were.
As Muslims, I believe that it is our duty to dispel negative expectations and stereotypes such as those referenced above, and I think the best way to do so is through first-hand communication. It’s a lot easier to hate someone you’ve never met than it is to hate someone who projects compassion and positive energy through their every interaction. Although it’s difficult to come across as pleasant and inviting to people who have already made up their minds about Muslims, it’s important to step up and break the cycle of distrust and misunderstanding. This will take persistence, and patience, as well as maturity and self-restraint from returning such destructive negativity. But as Muslims, I think we’re up to the challenge.
In the fall of 1999, my next door neighbor asked me how I felt about my new place after having moved from Illinois to North Carolina two months earlier. I told Mrs. Tice that I loved it here as the weather closely resembled that of Egypt at this time of year, while the smiling faces and caring gestures reminded me of home where I was always among family and friends. Things did not change much over the next sixteen years; my appearance with the Muslim attire never got in the way of cheerful interactions, and my Egyptian accent did not get in the way of making friends and engaging my community. Several universities trusted my husband and me with student education while school districts and sports teams relied on us as involved parents and active volunteers. We answered more questions about Islam than I can count, and have participated in interfaith events and service activities with numerous churches and groups. It comes as a great surprise to learn that a recent poll found that 72 % of Republican primary voters in North Carolina believed that a Muslim could not be president, and that 40 % of this group was also as likely to say that Islam should be illegal. Either things have changed too much too fast, or I have been really lucky to have been mainly surrounded by members of the 28 % who invoke reason and reject ignorance and bigotry.
It is amazing how being a Muslim would not get in the way of being a cardiologist managing critical healthcare, a college professor guiding the intellectual development of a generation, an activist defending the disenfranchised of all backgrounds, but it may have a negative effect on presidential candidacy. I wonder how such generalization could be validated and how people who think this way address the questions and concerns that their opinion raises. Should there be any consideration for a Muslim candidate’s academic background? History of civic engagement and coalition building? Experience with the political process? Voting record and views on the issues? Are the 72% willing to risk losing a well-equipped leader who is dedicated to honor and serve his country and base their decision on the presidential candidate’s faith tradition? If that is the case, I wonder which Islamic tenets cause this apprehension, and which credible sources revealed the risk to them. I also ask what happened to the separation of church and state, and whether neutrality towards religion stops at Islam. What makes a Muslim presidential candidate any less American than a Presbyterian real estate tycoon who collects bibles and pledges to be the greatest representative of Christians if elected, or a Seventh Day Adventist neurosurgeon who attributes his success to faith and determination and proudly shares his favorite Bible verse?
The image of America that the 72% envision is not clear to me, but I am perfectly clear about the America that the rest of us know and want to maintain. Our America continues to be a pluralistic society that accepts all; it is a place where individuals are valued on the merit of their contributions to society. In our America, political campaigns do not cause seasonal changes to guiding principles; it is a place where reason prevails to substantiate opinions and inform decisions. In our America, individuals do not denounce faith traditions that are different from their own, and we do not ask others to deny parts of their religious doctrine, redraft their religious text, or reject a portion of their guiding principles. In our America, members of the electorate ensure credibility and accuracy of any information that they receive, and are not fooled by politically-motivated comments and flashy media tactics. We reserve our right to check out sources and question wild claims, and we are constantly reminded how religious affiliation and personal integrity are not mutually exclusive, and that applies across the board.