August 12, 2005
A 15-year-old student named Basil, who attends a racially and ethnically integrated, middle-class public high school, says, “When I walk down the street, I know they’re thinking I may be a terrorist.”
Over the last year, I joined colleague Selcuk Sirin of New York University in conversations with Muslim-American youth in the New York metropolitan region, in a small effort to bear witness to the collateral damage at home, in the bodies and souls of U.S. Muslim-American youth, a small but deeply affected part of the great mass of people for whom Barbara Lee was compelled to find a voice. These young people, aged 12 to 18, were unsuspecting teenage citizens of the United States of American — until 9/12/01.
Between then and now, our nation has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, exchanging Osama bin Laden for Sadam Hussein. We have constructed, detained, and abused at Guantanamo; passed the Patriot Act; and orchestrated mass detentions of Muslim Americans, including some young people under 18. We have elected George Bush to a second term, witnessed the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. Estimates range from 25,000 to 1 million Iraqis who have been killed, as we near the 2,000 mark for number of American soldiers killed.
“How do you know they’re thinking you might be a terrorist?”
“I know,” Basil replies, his voice dropping. “I just feel constantly violated . . . even if they say nothing.”
Evicted from the Community
As the Muslim-American youth talk to us, they tell us — one of us Turkish and raised Muslim, the other a Jew from the Northeast United States — that on Sept. 12, 2001, they were evicted from the moral community of psychological citizenship in the United States. From that point forward, maybe before, these young people and their families have experienced a relentless undertow of challenges to their psychological well-being, social relations, and public life; placed at once under intense surveillance and rendered fundamentally invisible as human, critical, engaged citizens.
Marian, age 18, told us:
I remember that day [9/11/01] my father drove home a number of children from school, a religious school. As he dropped them at the elementary school, where they would meet their parents, the police were there, taking names, phone numbers, and licenses. That was frightening enough, but as we drove off we found ourselves in a big traffic jam, and some woman screamed out of her car, “Why don’t you just go home?” I knew then that everything was going to be different.
These young people describe daily walks to school, being on the streets, at the mall, in the library, on the bus, escorted by the specter of terrorist (for boys) and oppressed/uneducated (for girls). Living in the new “world,” they were now outsiders within their own communities and schools. We heard stories of airport delays, dates broken because “my parents wouldn’t understand,” tongues bitten in history class for fear of being sent to the principal for a dissenting opinion. Abid, a sophomore at a public high school, told us, “My history teacher got mad when I challenged him about the war. . . . I think his son is fighting there.” Ahab, at age 11 the youngest and smallest in our discussion group, joined our conversation with a whisper: “I don’t like it either when people think me, or my father, is going to throw a bomb.”
When we asked whom they turn to, in the face of these difficult adolescent interactions, they explained: “I don’t really tell my parents. They have enough to contend with.” Salma elaborated with a story about her father and his job. Originally from Macedonia, Salma’s father works in the food industry at a major hotel. Importing a long and deep history of hiding his Muslim identity, at the hotel he remains silent about his ethnic and religious commitments. Asked by the hotel chef to “taste” a new chicken dish dipped in wine, he politely refused and later told his family that he told the chef he was “allergic to chicken.” Salma laughed, “Dad, this is America. You can say you are Muslim, and you don’t drink wine.” And then turning to the focus group, she continued, “My parents hide everything, but we’re free here.” Protecting parents from knowledge of persistent discrimination and “parenting parents” about U.S. ways of life appear to be two of the related labors of adolescent hyphenated selves.
We asked these teens to draw identity maps, to reveal how their “American” selves and their “Muslim” selves overlap/interact/negotiate life in the United States post-9/11. As the identity maps reveal, Muslim-American youth craft hyphenated cultural selves in a sea of contested global relations and representations. How young people negotiate at the hyphen varies widely, and often by gender, class, and type of schooling (public, religious, home schooling). But they all have to negotiate.
Consider the map created by Omar who, at age 14, humanizes what we heard from so many of the young men we interviewed: the factures of being Muslim and being American have seared him in half, filling him with “tears for racism,” a frown, a severed soul. Living with the haunting ghosts of “terrorist” looming around him, he, like so many young men, feels swallowed by a representation he can’t actively resist, lest he embody the hegemonic trope — young Muslim man filled with rage. To resist, he tries to contain the anger, to protect himself and his family.
Selina, age 15, draws a distinct yet equally powerful visual narrative of fluid selves — American and Muslim — at the hyphen, voicing what so many of the young women told us. Actively refusing to separate the currents of Islam and America that move through the river of her body, she nevertheless recognizes the distinct pools of water from which they gather a fluid sense of identity, rightfully claiming both currents at the same time, decorated with smiles and (in color) a beautiful blending of shades.
Not at all naive to the flood of stereotypes held about Muslim women as uneducated, oppressed, or dupes of religion, these students look for ways to educate those who stereotype and “don’t know any better.”
Many of the young people mentioned times in school when everyone “turns to me, like about the war. Like I am supposed to educate them.” We asked if they mind being singled out as an authority. Most said no, they didn’t mind, although they were a bit discomforted by the attention. Amira offered an elaborate retort:
I guess it’s better that I educate them than they stay ignorant. I want to tell them there is more to know than just today, them alone, the mall, boys, music. I want to tell them to learn about what’s going on in the world. But they don’t watch the news or read the paper. I listen to CNN, Fox News, Al-Jazeera, and French news every night. So maybe it’s best that I do answer their questions. There is a big world out there, and I personally believe I am just one small dot in this world. There is something much bigger than any of us. I wish the American students understood that.
Both boys and girls are equally frustrated by the absurdity of questions tossed their way (Are you a terrorist? Why do you dress like that?), but the girls are nevertheless eager for others to “just ask me a question — don’t assume I’m gonna throw bombs . . . or I’m an uneducated woman!” They want the opportunity to share themselves, to teach, and to change minds.
We thought that Muslim girls who are veiled and therefore more visible would have a more difficult path than [relatively invisible] Muslim boys, but we were wrong. Amira helped us understand what seemed initially like an anomaly: “I finally figured out what to tell people about the hijab. I wear it like a bicyclist wears a bike helmet. It protects me from danger, and it gives me the freedom to wander where I dare not without it. Then they leave me alone!!”
Filled with confidence and wonder, the young women voiced concern that “people are afraid to talk to me because I wear a hijab.” They nevertheless seek contact with a larger world. When asked, “If you were on MTV, what would you tell other teenagers about being Muslim-American?” they were eager to tell their peers:
“Yes, we shower!”
“No, we don’t swim in a hijab!”
“It’s not that my parents won’t let me go to the dance, I don’t want to go!”
“We use cell phones, and can tuck them in. Look — I’m hands free!”
In contrast, in our discussions with the young men, hyphenated selves were splintered with the weight of the world; split open with the searing knife of global conflict. As Omar (see p. 41) articulates in his identity map, so many of the young men view the United States as an oppressive force on their souls (“get rich,” war, country sucks). Some wax eloquent with a mystifying romance (“wanna go home”) to return to their “homelands of peace.” This is despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the participants were born in the United States and have very limited, if any, real-life experiences outside of this country.
Adamant about the splits between the United States and “Muslim countries,” Adnan wrote in his map, under “U.S.A.”: “Land of opportunity, rich, war, get drafted and die.” On the other side of his map, the heading reads “Muslims in Other Countries” and under that is written: “People are accused but are not hurt or no action is taken against them. Muslims love each other and take care of each other. Land of peace.” Torn between the land where they live and are persecuted and a strong imaginary picture about peace abroad, taunted often at school and on the street, these young men try to prove the stereotype wrong and so struggle to contain the anger, the rage, and not fight back.
While so many of the young men — as teens — come to see themselves as homeless or displaced, most of the young women — like those shown in this article — present themselves as transnational citizens or citizens of the world. And still, all yearn for a conversation, in school and out, with educators and peers about the global conflicts they carry in their souls.
Like the Arab and Muslim students with whom we spoke, many students today may find themselves part of the “collateral damage,” exiled from mainstream culture. As teachers, we are charged with the responsibility of helping all students find a voice, and guiding them toward a deeper understanding of the multilayered circumstances that define a complicated, and often difficult, world.
If we do not teach about conditions of oppression and terror (state- and
corporate-sponsored, interpersonal, domestic, and suicide bombs), even in times of relative prosperity and peace, we relinquish the space of public education to the globalization of terror, greed, fear, obedience, and silencing. By so doing, we surrender democracy, hollow the souls of educators and youth, and threaten our collective futures.
Today’s students will become tomorrow’s voters, policy makers, and world leaders. With such important responsibilities to look forward to, they deserve an education that interrogates what they know, and what they need to know.