An American Tale: Growing Up Muslim In Alabama

Like America, Islam contains multitudes

I grew up in one of those politically progressive, socially liberal, areligious New York families that are now critiqued for being emblematic of the kind of bubble wherein nobody inside knows anyone with a different experience than their own. It was the type of upbringing that led me, when I was two years old, to tell my nursery teacher that my family was going to leave NYC for Minnesota, a destination I'd chosen when I found out it was the only state which hadn't gone for Reagan in the 1984 presidential election. (Ultimately, we stayed put; it hadn't been a consideration for anyone other than me.) It was a family wherein rebellion would have meant voting Republican, and, in fact, when one of my cousins did just that and supported Rudy Giuliani for mayor, it became part of an ongoing family in-joke, about how my aunt and uncle were stunned that they'd raised a son who would do such a thing. Like, could you even believe it? Much less of a shock was the news that Felicity—my other cousin, the Republican's younger sister—had converted to Islam.

When I heard about Felicity, who at five years older than me and always infinitely cooler (for a long time, the highest compliment anyone could pay to me was telling me I reminded them of her; I especially loved when teachers we both shared would accidentally call me by her name), I was surprised; this was a feeling based less on the fact that she had converted to Islam and more upon the idea that any religion would be appealing enough to someone with our upbringing to actually inspire a conversion and the accompanying devotion. But, of course, what seemed like a sudden change to me was not something that had happened overnight; a religious conversion is a lengthy, internally driven process. It felt like "news" to me because I was a typically self-involved high school student, who only even saw my cousin anymore when she was home from college for short stretches of time.

I was also curious. Within that New York bubble that we lived, I knew plenty of people from a diversity of religions, races, and ethnicities; it wasn't the fact of Islam that made me curious, but the decision to seek it out. Like, did her conversion signal that there was something fundamentally different about her now? Something that I wouldn't recognize? In a word, no. While my cousin displayed many easily recognizable external changes upon her conversion—she wore the hijab,  she dressed in modest attire—in so many other ways, she was still the same person—she was compassionate, smart, and funny; she was an excellent teacher; she soon became a mother, and brought up her daughters with the same level of care and love that she brought to everything else. While Islam was clearly an important, defining part of my cousin's life, it was also just another aspect of her, like her artistic talents and big brown eyes; these were the things that were integral to who she was; they evolved as she did, but they were steady and real.

Then, just under a decade ago, my cousin moved with her family from Brooklyn, New York, to Birmingham, Alabama. In all the ways that her call to Islam had not, her move to the Deep South triggered every alarm in my consciousness. It roughly coincided with Barack Obama's initial run for the presidency; a time when Obama's middle name—"Hussein"—was used as a weapon, a means of attacking his American-ness. The South seemed like it would be an incredibly difficult place for my cousin and her children, all of whom are also mixed race, to live and grow up. Of course, I knew prejudice, racism, and xenophobia exist in New York City, but the move to Alabama still felt fraught. And that was merely how I felt; what would it be like for them?

Since their move, I mostly stay in touch with my cousin via social media; she has had two more children since moving down to Alabama and teaches at an Islamic private school which all of her children have also attended. Insofar as anything resembling a full portrait can be gleaned from Facebook and Instagram posts, their lives seemed vibrant and full; there exists in Birmingham a sizeable, if not huge, Muslim community, one which fosters a strong sense of belonging among its members. And I see Felicity's daughters when they come up to visit our family in New York; I've seen them grow up from the bright-eyed, hyper-verbal little girls I knew in Brooklyn to the young women they are now—smart and thoughtful, funny and kind. 

While my initial fears from when they first moved faded rather quickly, they returned recently. While the last eight years have contained an abundance of times of racial and religious strife within this country, the last couple of years have been a particularly fraught time for Muslim Americans, thanks to the campaign and presidency of Trump. Reports of hate crimes against Muslims have gone up in the last year, anti-Muslim bigots have been emboldened, and their voices can be heard louder than they had in a long time. It is a hard time for millions of Americans right now but in particular for Muslim-Americans, and doubtlessly for the young Muslim-Americans who are growing up in a time when their very right to live in the place they call home is constantly called into question.

It was with all this in mind that I recently approached and spoke with the three eldest of my cousin's children—identical twins Jameelah and Juwayriah, who recently started college in Birmingham, and Sahlah, a senior in high school—about what it means to be a young Muslim woman in America's South, and how it has informed who they are in the world, both in relation to external things, like their location in the world, and to interior things, like their bond with their family, friends, and belief system.

Over matcha iced tea and french fries, I met with 18-year-old Juwayriah, up visiting New York for spring break, eager and open to talk to me about what it means to be a young Muslim-American woman in Alabama, and America at large. I hadn't seen Juwayriah in just under a year when we got together; she was the same confident young woman with the ready smile she'd worn since birth, but there was one immediate and noticeable difference in her appearance: Since starting college, she had stopped wearing the hijab. She explained to me that she'd made this decision not because "it was hard explaining to people how you can be American and still wear the hijab," though that did happen, but rather, because, for Juwayriah, it became clear that while "religion is something that should be shared with other people, your relationship with God should be your own. I feel like [that relationship] is more special to me now that I took it off. Now when I want to talk about my religion, I can do it when I want to, not when people tell me to or ask me to."  

For Juwayriah, talking about her religion is a huge part of her life, and thus figuring out how she wants to inhabit an identity which is partly one which she defines for herself and partly one which is defined for her, thanks to media coverage of Muslims and common public perceptions—and misperceptions—of those who practice the religion. Juwayriah explained that while her community in Alabama, which included her attendance at a private Islamic school wherein students—and even teachers—were more like family than simply friends, had an especially tight bond, which protected her from feeling like an outsider or too different from anyone else, it could still be hard to deal with encounters with intolerant people on the streets of Birmingham. 

Juwayriah explained, "I don't wear my hijab anymore, but my sister does; she's been called some pretty rude stuff in the streets. Even on campus, it happens. It's always been that way. I've been called horrible, horrible names since I was 11 or 12 years old. Going to the gas station, my heart would be racing because I would be so scared. People yelling at you in public is really scary."

I asked her what it was like to go from living in Brooklyn, which has a sizable Muslim population, to Alabama, and Juwayriah said that she noticed the difference immediately when she arrived in her new home state: "The first time I had someone yell at me, I was like, 'Oh, Alabama's different. It's not like New York.' I still got compliments for my clothes and things like the color of my scarf, in Alabama. But I still wanted to come back [to New York]. It's a little safer here, or I feel that way at least."

Sahlah explained to me over the phone that she was just eight years old when she was in public and heard a child ask about her and her family, "Daddy, is that a terrorist?" Sahlah told me that it was so shocking "especially because she was so young," and that she "always got weird looks." She wished she could explain that she "is not a threat; that this religion is not threatening." 

Hearing this kind of thing never ceases to horrify me; it's hard to imagine the kind of people who would be suspicious of young girls, and teach their children that someone who looks different from them ought to be assumed a threat. But though I heard similar stories from all three young women, they all have a much more positive view of humanity; they all spoke about the many people they've met who ask them out of curiosity and empathy about their faith, and they all shared an openness and willingness to teach people about what it means to be Islam. This, I think, is a heavy burden to ask of Muslim Americans; their generosity is incredibly impressive—a gift, really.

And I think that it can cause a strain, even if it's one that's handled with grace. Sahlah talked to me about the ways in which they're "taught to do everything right, because people are going to judge us. My actions affect how people see my religion overall." And Jameelah told me:

We're not all the same person. You can't just look at one Christian person and assume that's what all Christians are like. We're normal people. Just because I wear fabric around my head doesn't mean I'm not a normal teenage girl living in America. I like memes! And I like TV shows. And I like reading books and shopping. We're normal people. We laugh and have jokes, it's just that we pray five times a day and have a different perception of God. I hope that people can understand that when we see bad things happening around the world, we feel for everybody that's hurting.

This seems so obvious—or at least it should. And yet it's so hard for many people to wrap their head around. It's a reminder that one of the most damaging aspects of Trump's ongoing exhortation to "make America great again" is that it begs us to think of America in as reductive a way as possible; Trump asks us to put blinders on and think of America as one monolithic entity, something singular that can be, you know, "made great." For anyone who has spent any time in this country not comprised merely of Trump buildings and golf courses, this concept of America is absurd. America contains multitudes. And so does Islam.

Jameelah pointed out to me, "A lot of people think we're just Arabs, which is very broad. I'm mixed; I'm black and white. People automatically assume I'm not from America and I don't speak English, and I have to explain that I'm American and my parents are American."

Even within these three sisters, there's no way to make any generalizations about what a young Muslim-American woman is like—they're all different, in how they dress, think, live. Just as Juwayriah explained to me how not wearing the hijab made her feel closer to her faith, Jameelah told me why she wears it:

For me—I'm not speaking for all Muslims everywhere—it's not just the fabric around my head, it's more of a statement of this is who I am and I'm wearing it for me. And it's kind of a reminder of who I am, because being a Muslim makes me who I am in so many ways; it's a statement for so many people and for myself to recognize who I am.

And for Sahlah, the reason is similar: "Hijab is a sign to other people who I am; it's a reassurance to me as a Muslim. My faith is a support system."

And it's clearly a support system which has gotten all three young women through some difficult times; ones that have at least not been so hard that they aren't all able still to believe in a country wherein they will be seen for who they are, rather than what religion they are. 

There's lots of reason to despair at the state of our country today, but talking to these three made me believe that there is hope for a more inclusive future, one where, if the command to "make America great again" is still used (and, hopefully, it won't be, because it's tired), then at least the idea of what makes America great will include people like Jameelah, Juwayriah, and Sahlah; three young women who identify as both Muslim and American, but are, more than anything else, individuals whose experiences and beliefs inform who they are in the world, and what this world will become. And talking to them, it starts to feel like that world has a brighter future than I otherwise might have believed.