In my 11th-grade Advanced Placement language and composition class, my teacher would assign us weekly articles, and students in the class were expected to take stances on the issue presented in each piece. When articles were especially controversial, our teacher would hold and moderate debates at the end of the week that tackled the topic at hand. More than several times, these articles were centered around the Muslim community, but one of the weeks that I can clearly remember is one when we discussed whether Muslims should be able to build a mosque on ground zero.
When I logged onto our school’s online discussion forum to contribute to the conversation on ground zero, my everyday worries of tennis and calculus faded away. My mind was now more preoccupied with what my peers had been saying. In high school especially, having just transferred schools, I kept my religious practice to myself, even hiding it from my closest friends. These articles of the week turned into debates over my faith. Having to write and discuss my opinions on controversies surrounding Islam forced me to confront how I felt about my religion in an academic setting.
While I was aware that I came from a more politically conservative town, I had hopes that my peers would have been more accepting. Yet as I read through the discussions, I was met with the unfortunate reality that my peers were perhaps not so accepting. I read post after post in which students described Islam as a faith that was intolerant. They wrote that to allow the construction of this mosque was to endanger the freedom of Americans. Others even misquoted the Quran in their posts, taking out a small section of a large passage and twisting the meaning.
Given the heated interactions on the online discussion board, my teacher structured the debate around the ground zero article a little differently. She asked the class to divide itself into sections: people who supported the allowance of the construction of the mosque, people who opposed the construction of the mosque altogether and people who were undecided.
I waited to see what would happen before proceeding to publicly take a side — I wanted to see the divide in my class before showing what I felt. Personally, I struggled on the issue myself — while I firmly held onto the belief that Muslims had the right to build a mosque on ground zero, I had my own hesitations, afraid that a mosque there may become a breeding ground for hate.
While I was hoping people would stand on the side that allowed for the construction of the mosque, a majority of the class stood on the side that was against allowing Muslims’ construction of the mosque as well as on the side that was undecided. Before I even realized that the debate had started, I watched as classmates began arguing over the subject. I listened to people as they turned red in the face, passionately making their points, yet I remained silent. I had so many thoughts and opinions, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak. As far as I knew, I was the only Muslim in the class, and therefore the only one who could really speak to the Muslim narrative, yet I really couldn’t bring myself to say anything.
While I was processing other people’s judgemental remarks, I felt as if I were watching a movie of my own life. In my head, I played back trips to the mosque and all the various iftars I had sat through — I wanted for people to see the love and acceptance that was present in Muslim communities rather than focus on what they had read on the internet. I knew that outright banning the construction of the mosque was a breach of religious freedom, a premise that this country was built upon, yet I remained silent. This was an opportunity to tell my side, my story, but afraid, embarrassed and ashamed, I willingly stayed silent in the face of what others were saying about my faith and, alas, also accepted a loss of participation points.
Looking back at this situation, I resent myself for not saying anything. I now realize that even though that classroom was only a few dozen people, it would have been the perfect place to start change. It is important to start small, in our communities or in a classroom where we have been encouraged to share our thoughts. I had had the opportunity to speak up and tell my story, and I had been well-prepared for the debate, but I had turned down the perfect setting to help fight the battle that Muslims face over religious tolerance.
I realize that the battle of religious tolerance is one that is bigger than the classroom. Having been born Muslim, I am often asked why I did not take it upon myself to convert to “a religion more accepting” or to a religion that was “more supportive of my career aspirations.” It is difficult to take comments like these seriously knowing how much Islam has done for me and how grateful I am for all that I have learned and practice on a daily basis. I am well aware of the negativity surrounding my religion, and it is hurtful. However, this negativity just makes me want to educate people about all that Islam preaches and help to change that perception.
Zobia Quraishi writes the Wednesday column on being Muslim and first-generation Indian American.