Another Shift? We’ll Know For Sure In November

Nine Eleven

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.

Remember when Donald Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country? His polling numbers went up afterwards among members of his party.

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 the need for literature featuring Muslim characters in a realistic and honest way.

**Update (1/28/17): We all know how the U.S. Presidential election turned out. Love will trump hate eventually, but that time is not now. Donald Trump was inaugurated last week, and he has already signed an executive order banning at least 134 million people from predominately Muslim countries.



  1. I don’t personally know any Muslims in my every-day real life, but because I read many stories of different kinds of people, I am more understanding of other people’s plight. I also have faced discrimination, so I know that targeting all Muslim’s unfairly for the actions of a minority is wrong.
    Books with positive Muslim representation are very important, but you’re right that people who are already prejudiced would be less likely to read these kinds of books anyway.
    That’s why fostering a passion for reading in children is so important. Reading of any kind is crucial for people to understand nuance and build compassion for others. But it’s reading diversely from an early age that can make all the difference.

  2. Sadly the hardening and increased vocalising of racist attitudes is exactly what the terrorist loonies thrive on. If all peace-lovers, i.e. 99.9% of us, stood up shoulder to shoulder denouncing both everyday discrimination and it’s perpetrators of violence (who are few in number) then there would be an end to it. The Trumps of the world are positively feeding the flames.

  3. It is terrible for you having those experiences. I know immigration is a delicate subject right now and many Americans are on guard right now with what is happening here and around the world. I don’t want anyone banned that is seeking asylum, but our country does need to be better about screening. I know we have had our own home grown terrorists too. On my own post in a comment to a reader, I further explained my experience with the Syrian men in Germany. I am certain they were Muslim, and it is really sad people like that represent your religion. There are many fine Muslims and a small number of radicals are corrupting the religion and making very serious confrontations. They are destroying Islamic heritage over there too. I wish the Muslim people would take on the terrorists so they would be able to keep and protect their homes.

  4. I’m so sorry this happened to you. We are seeing an upsurge in racism in the UK at the moment and it’s very distressing. We personally get trouble at airports because we look “Mediterranean”, both having southern European blood MANY generations back, but that’s nothing to what some people go through. I’ve been wearing a safety pin and have put one up in our house window to indicate that we’re safe people for people who are scared or worried to sit or stand by on public transport etc. and I’m ready to intervene where people are being hateful. It’s really scary, though.

  5. I am so sorry that happened to you. There was nothing fair or okay with that. I am sad and angry and frustrated by the prejudice and hatred being expressed and acted out today. It’s scary and I fear for the future. Ignorance and fear often go hand in hand, and it has never seemed more obvious than it is now–at least in my life time.

    I read an article online yesterday about a neighboring city unanimously voting against the building of a Hindu Temple in their city. The arguments against it showed only ignorance and prejudice.

    1. Thank you, Wendy. The prejudice and hatred people feel comfortable expressing these days–reinforced by a presidential candidate who divides our country–is terrifying. I am feeling inspired by the DNC, though, especially Michelle Obama’s speech.

  6. “The people who need to read these books the most are probably too close-minded to ever give them a chance.”

    Sadly, truer words never spoken. I agree with the other commenters who feel it’s only getting worse. And sadly my response is also to stay home with my phone and computer, the only difference being that I watch MSNBC instead of Fox. Very very sad state of affairs we find ourselves in. 😦

    1. It is a very sad state of affairs. However, I am finding the speeches at the DNC to be uplifting, especially Michelle Obama’s speech. I hope Americans will choose the candidate “who will teach our children that everyone in this country matters” (as Mrs. Obama said).

  7. What you experienced makes me angry and sad not only because I “know” you but also because I know it has happened to so many others as well. The rhetoric from Trump and his supporters is truly terrifying and I hope November brings them huge losses so this country can begin to shift back to a more positive direction.

    1. Thank you, Stefanie. I hope November proves that our country is headed in a positive direction. At first, Trump’s rhetoric was almost “refreshing”–he was saying what a certain portion of his party believes but won’t say–but it incites violence and threatens the safety of everyone in our country, not just the Muslims and immigrants who are the focus of his words. It’s very scary.

  8. Wise and thought-provoking words, as always. I’m so sorry to hear of your personal experiences with discrimination and that they are continuing. Trump’s disgusting rhetoric is frightening, but even more frightening to me is the fact that there are factions in this country that agree with him and feed off him. Yesterday a few of my friends posted a Ted Ed video to Facebook on how Hitler took over a democratic country and the parallels were eerie. We must never allow this repulsive mindset to gain authority!

    Also, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged sounds great! I’m going to seek out a copy. Thanks for the recommendation!

    1. Thanks, Jaclyn. Trump’s rhetoric is truly frightening. I can understand that there are people out there who want “a change” or who may see a vote for Trump as a form of protest, but I wish they would think more carefully about the changes he promises. Is that the America they really want? In some cases, it is, but I think there are many others out there who just haven’t thought about it. It’s like “Regrexit” in Britain. People didn’t really want what they voted for.

      As for Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, I recommend it. It took me a little while to get the hang of it, but it’s hilarious and well worth reading. Sofia’s family reminds me so much of my own. My husband is reading it now, and I keep hearing him laugh at various parts of it. I’m curious to know if people who aren’t as familiar with families like mine would find it as funny as I do.

      1. I will see if my soon to be new library has a copy. I’m trying to read more diversely this year and have been really enjoying getting to know characters with all kinds of different perspectives.

        By the way, now that I FINALLY have a Kindle, I bought and downloaded Amelia Elkins Elkins today! I can’t wait to read it.

        1. I hope your new library has it. I’ll let you know what my husband thinks of it when he’s done.

          I also hope you enjoy Amelia! Thank you for buying it. Putting a modern twist on Persuasion was so much fun to do. 🙂

  9. I’m so sorry you had (and continue to have) this experience. That’s always my response when people start talking about whichever group they have an opinion about. “Well, do you know any of them?” The answer is almost always no.

    I have the unique perspective of being the daughter of a woman whose family has been here since the Mayflower and a father who came to this country as a teenager via a refugee camp. We all know that we get through security much faster if our father doesn’t speak while we wait in line. His Romanian accent gets him pulled aside every time.

    It is crucial for us to teach our children better, both through the relationships we have and the books we read.

    1. I am sorry that your family has had a similar experience. The anti-immigrant sentiment is so strong these days. I love this part of your comment: “It is crucial for us to teach our children better, both through the relationships we have and the books we read.” Thank you for saying that. I am hopeful about the next generation. I am less hopeful about ours.

  10. Fear makes people say and do crazy things, and some of our leaders have refined the tactic of inducing it in this country’s citizens to an art form. 😦 I’ve never seen America so divided or full of hate and terror. It’s appalling. I think it will get worse, too, as people are withdrawing from normal social lives to stay home with their phones, computers, and Fox News. People tend to lose perspective when they’re not out and about, mingling with their neighbors. Old studies revealed the more people watched nightly news, the more fearful of others they were. It’s only gotten worse with the advent of 24-hour news shows. Crime has gone down in this country, yet everyone feels they have to pack a gun to protect themselves. It’s ridiculous and frightening.

    1. I fear it will get worse too. The election this November will be very telling about how this country really feels. I’ve been feeling vulnerable lately, and I went back and forth about whether to blog about it. Your comment has made me feel a little bit better. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s