Aman Ali near his home in Harlem
“What I see in the news and what I see on television really isn’t mirroring the reality we see when we’re traveling around the country. Most Muslims are living very content lives, and their neighbors are wholeheartedly accepting of who they are. I feel like a lot of people don’t give America enough credit in regards to how open this nation really is.”
And yet… as the saying goes, just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. For instance, one entry from Tariq and Ali’s 2010 trip describes an encounter with an Alabama cop who used the occasion of a traffic stop to express his opinion of the Ground Zero mosque. (Spoiler Alert: He was against it.) More serious was a comedy club run-in several years earlier that left Ali with a line of stitches in his face.
He was performing at the Comic Strip Live on the Upper East Side—a five-minute spot for which he had driven from Ohio, where he was living at the time. At some point during his set, he mentioned he was a Muslim, and a drunk man in the audience stood up and started yelling. “He was like, ‘You effin’ terrorist! This is New York! Who brought you here? I bet it was your family that knocked those buildings down. Get the eff out of here!” Ali recalls. “So I motioned to the bouncer and he pulled the guy out of the room, but as he pulls him out—and I’m not seeing this as it happens, I’m just onstage doing my thing—the guy reaches for a beer bottle at the bar and throws it at me. And the bottle smashes when it hits me, and I had to get three stitches underneath my eye.
“This was my dream,” he says of performing at the club. “This was where Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, Ray Romano all got their starts. So I went through this rollercoaster of emotions. I was like, ‘What am I doing? What’s going to happen?’”
Ultimately, Ali says, the experience “motivated me to be more comfortable with my identity, because it showed me there’s a lot that people don’t understand about us, that we’ve got a lot more work to do.” How, though, do you preserve that attitude when you know there might be some guy waiting to chuck a bottle at your head? How do you know where to draw the line between openness and prudence?
Probably, you can’t. Nzinga’s sister Faatimah was 10 years old on 9/11 and, she says, she too deliberately chose after the attacks not to be afraid. “I think from the beginning I decided that I didn’t want to feel like I was going to be a target. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn. I didn’t do anything wrong. And I think for the most part that people are good people.”
As much as anti-Muslim sentiment, her parents were worried about religious radicals she might encounter. “They definitely talked to me afterwards about Islam, just to make me understand that the people who did this were wrong, and that if I met people who had those sort of extremist views to be aware and cautious about interacting with them.”
Still, “I definitely had insecurities,” she says. “I was definitely conscious of the fact that I did know of Muslims who had been assaulted. So I couldn’t be naïve about the fact that something bad could happen to me.”
Strangely, Faatimah says, while day-to-day interactions have become less fraught with the passing of time, the country’s political and media environments have in recent years actually become somewhat more threatening. “I don’t really recall feeling threatened when I watched the news in the early 2000s,” she says. “I feel like maybe television was more fair back then, especially where news is concerned. There was a time when I think Muslims felt more comfortable both out in public and watching TV, and then the balance sort of tipped to where things became uneasy and tense on TV and in the media, but not so much with regard to people’s everyday actions.”
McGoldrick, who is civil-rights manager at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New York office, thinks this change started with President Obama’s campaign in 2008, when opponents seized on his Muslim background in order to portray him as an outsider. “It wasn’t appropriate to seize on his blackness, just like it’s not appropriate in most media platforms to be anti-Semitic or homophobic. So Islam became the acceptable target for that fear of the other.” That attitude, he suggests, has led us to where we are today, when the likes of Pamela Geller can pose as an Islam expert on cable TV and a Republican presidential candidate feels comfortable declaring that he’d exclude Muslims from his administration if elected. (Although, to be fair, Herman Cain hasn’t exactly been setting the world on fire.)
“I oscillate between two perspectives,” Faatimah says. “Sometimes I feel comfortable and ok because when I walk outside I don’t feel threatened, and what’s on TV feels distant and sort of cartoonish. But then sometimes I definitely do feel discomfort to the point where it sort of spills over into how I feel when I’m outside and interacting with people. Because I feel like the anti-Muslim rhetoric on TV can be so repetitive and so extreme that it does make me feel insecure.
“Especially when, you know, they show a group of people out protesting against a mosque being built or something. When I see that, it really troubles me because I think, ‘Well, where do those people come from? I don’t meet those people—where are they?’ So it gives me this feeling of like, ‘Well, I guess they’re out there, too.’”