Over the years, whenever I had a free Friday, my parents took me with them to Jumu’ah, or Friday, prayer at our mosque. On the mornings of these visits, I refrained from putting on hijab until after arriving at the mosque because I was well aware that, in the town that I lived in, wearing the traditional headscarf would be frowned upon. I felt that if I was seen with a headscarf, it would taint my public image.
Even if I eluded answering questions about what faith I practiced, from my name and appearance alone, people could deduce that I was Muslim. If I was simply sitting in the car, donning the hijab, I would notice that people would turn from inside their cars to look at me. When I would go grocery shopping after Sunday school wearing salwar kameez, a type of South Asian clothing, instead of jeans or dresses, people would turn to look. In the presence of these gazes, I felt nervous and unsafe knowing that whatever they were thinking or whatever conversations they were having about me were probably not positive — whenever there were stares, there was this feeling that anything different was not to be accepted.
I felt Islamophobia, or the irrational fear or prejudice directed toward Islam or Muslims, as something that I, as a Muslim American growing up in a conservative town, have had to experience ever since I can remember. And as time went on and political tensions worsened, such prejudice against Islamic communities worsened.
When I was a freshman in high school, our mosque decided to switch locations and convert a former church into our now mosque, the Unity Center of Santa Clarita. Public opposition only made the struggle to build our mosque more difficult — the Unity Center of Santa Clarita was built on money collected from donations. The negative attention surrounding our mosque and its construction also brought with it worsening financial struggles. As tension rose, people began to wonder if creating our own mosque in Santa Clarita was worth the financial and political burden.
When met with such intolerance from the outside world, our teachers preached patience and tolerance, asking us to remember that both the Prophet and Khadija also had faced much hatred as they tried to spread Islam’s message. They even went further, asking us to remember that the mosque should be a place where anyone could come for reflection and learning, preaching that if we tried to make an effort to be patient, other people may come around, even if it didn’t currently seem the least bit likely.
And while this opposition has been difficult to deal with, there has never been a time that I have been more ashamed to be American than during the first semester of my senior year in high school. It was during this time that I began to hear President Donald Trump’s comments on immigrants and Muslims. I can remember 17-year-old me fretting over college applications and SAT Subject Tests in addition to managing a role as the co-captain of my tennis team as well as leadership positions in several other student organizations. All of this came to a standstill when I heard about Trump taking to the campaign trail to call for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
When comments such as Trump’s regarding Muslim immigration came about, the first people whom I thought about were my parents, who were Muslim immigrants to the United States themselves. They had come to the United States hoping for a better life, counting on the ideal that they would be accepted by America’s melting pot. Trump’s words rang in my ears, and I saw fire. My faith — which had played such a large part in my upbringing, which remains a large part of how I define myself and which taught me some of the most beautiful lessons I have ever known — was at the center of national ridicule.
After many years of having annual banquets and urging community members to invest in the mosque, we overcame the hesitance of the surrounding community, and our mosque is well on its way to being fully established. However, I often wonder if victories of religious tolerance like the victory we had in Santa Clarita will continue in other communities in the Trump era. The issue of religious freedom for Muslims does not surround just one mosque in one community; it now extends to a much larger population that is endangered by the rhetoric surrounding Islam today.
In high school, it brought me to tears when I first heard such anti-Muslim sentiment on televisions everywhere. It brought my life to a standstill, and I felt unsure as to how to go on. Moving forward, in college, at UC Berkeley, I have found that there is great strength in communities standing together. Now, more than ever, it is important for me to remember the lessons about tolerance taught in my mosque when we were trying to establish ourselves. Regardless of what has been happening, staying silent on the sidelines is not the answer, but rather, it is time to mobilize and fight for our community to have a seat at the table.
Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American. Contact her at [email protected].