Faatimah Knight in her family kitchen in Flatbush
This went on for several days, Knight remembers, until, one morning, getting ready for school in her dorm room, she decided to put it back on. “I was listening to some music as I was getting dressed one morning. It was a Mos Def song—he has this song ‘Fear Not of Man’—and it was just so empowering, and I felt like, you know, the reason that I felt so ashamed walking around was because I was afraid of people. Like, I was afraid of every random person, and that’s why I wasn’t wearing the scarf. So I decided that I was going to wear it.”
This deliberate choice to not be afraid, to not be angry, is universal among the people interviewed for this story. That’s not to say, however, that it’s universally convincing. Asked if the city’s response to 9/11 changed the way she relates to her fellow New Yorkers, Gheith replies emphatically in the negative. “Not at all.” she says. “Not. At. All.” But the answer sounds a little forced—how can a person not be at least a bit insulted by, for instance, the implications of last year’s Ground Zero mosque controversy? And, in fact, moments later she admits how frustrating that episode was. “It’s like, why are they doing this stuff?” she says. “I thought it was unbelievable. I thought it was nonsense.” What, though, is the alternative to letting it go? Spending her days parsing the meaning of each dirty look she gets on the subway? Devoting herself to close readings of Robert Spencer blog posts? Unfair as it is, self-conscious rejection of what would be a perfectly understandable sense of estrangement is maybe the best, the only, way of getting on with things. Even if you actually are kind of pissed off about it.
Beyond that, notes Aman Ali, a Muslim writer and comedian living in New York, a danger exists in letting your detractors set the boundaries of your existence. Born just outside of Columbus, Ohio, Ali was a junior in high school when the Twin Towers fell. Since then, he says, he thinks American Muslims have been too reactive in making their voices heard, too willing to accept the narratives they find themselves plugged into.
“I think that recently we’ve only defined ourselves in response to something,” he says. “We’ve been on the defensive. We’ve only been clarifying. We’ve never, like, fully explained who we really are. We really haven’t done much to talk about our faith and just our average lives.”
Ali started doing stand-up around five years ago, putting together sets heavy with the expected TSA and terrorism jokes. Material like, “Going through airport security I’ve had my junk handled so many times, you might as well call me Antiques Roadshow.” The act always got laughs, Ali says, but after a few years of doing it, he started to wonder what his comedy had to do with his actual life. “I was making up jokes about being at the airport and getting held up there or being profiled or things like that,” he recalls. “And one day I realized, these things are getting laughs, but these things aren’t really my life.
“I got frustrated, because when you talk about Muslims in a post-9/11 environment, the only thing you talk about are hate crimes or airport security—all these narratives of Muslims being the victims of something. And I don’t want to downplay the severity of a woman getting beaten just because she wears a headscarf, or a guy being detained because he looks ‘suspicious.’ But to say that’s reflective of ordinary Muslims’ lifestyles is completely absurd.”
In 2009, Ali and filmmaker Bassam Tariq made a plan to break fast each night of Ramadan at a different New York City mosque. They called the project “30 Mosques in 30 Days” and blogged accounts of their visits, drawing as they went a steadily expanding readership, and attention from media outlets like NPR and NY1. In 2010, they took the project on the road, visiting a different mosque in a different state each day of Ramadan, following a route that stretched from Maine to California. This year, they’ve reprised the trip, hitting the 20 states they missed the first time around along with 10 repeats to round out the 30.
Traveling around the country has reinforced Ali’s growing sense that the now-standard tropes of Muslims as either terrorists or victims “aren’t even remotely reflective of ordinary Muslim lives,” he says.