I paused on this line from Ayisha Malik’s otherwise lighthearted British novel, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, because it brought back memories of my experience on the same day in the United States. It was September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed two passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York, another plane into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a fourth one into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, and many more were injured in the attacks.
I was a college student in Connecticut at the time, and like so many others, I sat in my dorm room feeling anxious and depressed while watching the news. As a person from a Muslim background, I was acutely aware of the “shift” that happened after that day. Now, I’m worried that we’re experiencing another one.
After 9/11, I went from being a so-called “Model Minority” to a threatening “Other,” someone targeted by TSA at airport security almost every time I flew (which was often during my first year of law school). I had thought anti-Muslim sentiment had improved over the last few years, at least in my own life, but maybe that’s because I now travel with three redheads who call me “mom,” and we live in a diverse community that knows us well.
Outside of this community, I feel far less secure.
Last Friday, after waking up to disturbing news about the attack in Nice, France and Newt Gingrich’s call to “test” Muslims, I was stopped by security at a building I’ve visited many times before because they thought I was a threat. They held me and my intern (who was “guilty” by her association with me) as they let everyone else pass, making us late for the presentation I was giving. I don’t know for sure that my Muslim name and brown-skinned appearance had anything to do with it, but it’s hard to come to any other conclusion when (1) that’s the difference between me and the visitors they let through and (2) I live in a country where many people accept, and some even encourage, discrimination against Muslims.
Maybe if more of his supporters actually knew a Muslim they wouldn’t be as susceptible to his fear-mongering. They would then know that the vast majority of Muslims are just like everyone else, individuals who are simply trying to live their lives in a peaceful and productive way. As the Pew Research Center found in 2009:
[H]igher levels of familiarity with Islam, and especially knowing someone who is Muslim, are associated with more positive views toward the religion… Not surprisingly, people with lower levels of familiarity with Islam exhibit higher levels of non-response in attitudes about Islam, saying they do not know whether it is more or less likely than other religions to encourage violence.
Can literature help fill this gap? As I said in What Parents *Should* Do:
For children [in communities blighted by homogeneity], their first exposure to diversity may be through books. Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.
Books that feature Muslims in an honest way — like Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged — are important tools to break down stereotypes. It’s hard not to identify with 30-year-old Sofia as she explores Muslim dating in London, a project that begins after someone calls her a terrorist during her morning commute to work one day. I wish there were more books like this one.*
However, the impact of these “fictional friends” may depend on the audience. There’s a big difference between a child at a formative stage in life and a person already old enough to vote this November. The people who need to read these books the most are probably too close-minded to ever give them a chance.
*See Word Contessa for more on this topic.