Dear Fellow Muslim-Americans,
I know many of you are afraid.
I am, too. It’s hard not to be, when it could’ve been us.
This letter is a token of faith to all of you – if you have been discriminated against for your beliefs before or after Feb. 10, and if you have been, or are, scared toleave your home today.
This is for anyone who feels like they’ve been bullied into silence.
I’m sure you’re probably asking yourselves: do your lives hold any value? Are we worth any headlines?
They do, and we are.
We’ve heard each other’s voices resound as we continue to digest the tragic, horrifying Feb. 10 terrorist attack that took the lives of three Muslim-Americans in North Carolina: 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister, 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. The victims were shot to death in the head by accused killer Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46-year-old man who was been charged with killing the three at a residential complex of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after turning himself in, according to multiple news organizations.
In less than 24 hours since the shooting, we had read countless statements of encouragement and support expressed by non-Muslims over social media, easing the pain if just a bit, and allowing us to feel that we are not always ostracized. I feel safe speaking for many in that we do feel marginalized and alone in times like this where we easily could’ve been in the place of the three victims who were killed.
While this letter is not meant to derail from how meaningful and appreciated this solidarity is, we naturally have qualms with the alarming, twisted tweets and comments on articles raining down on us, as well as the fear they are attempting to instill in us, or anyone who supports our right to follow our faith.
Some users said in chilling tweets that the three victims of the shooting deserved to die due to their Islamic faith. Another person commented they were glad the tragedy occurred because it gives Muslims a taste of how Americans felt after the tragic 9/11 attacks (they do realize we’re also Americans and felt that pain too, right?). Despite the fact that the Muslims who died in the Chapel Hill attack were known for their volunteer work both at the University of North Carolina and in other countries, they are still deemed “terrorists” and “ragheads” by some. I even saw a Twitter user refer to Hicks as a “hero” for committing the hate crime, and others personally told me to go back to “where I came from” due to my opinions and religious beliefs.
These may just be faceless Twitter users clicking keys behind their computers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t reflect the thoughts and beliefs of real people in our country, just like Hicks.
In response, countless many Muslim-Americans on social media and in articles have expressed they are truly afraid for their safety and even fear leaving their homes or going to school.
Here’s an obvious question playing on repeat in our minds right now: Is this really happening? Because I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that in the United States of America – a democratic, free country that constitutes freedom of religion among other freedoms in its very doctrine and foundation – people are being executed for their religious faith. Many news organizations have cited police as saying a “parking dispute” led to the killing, and that it isn’t yet classified as a hate crime. But investigation into Hicks’ Facebook account, and conversations with the victims’ family, prove otherwise despite what authorities and the media tell us, or care to tell us.
The bigoted beliefs displayed clearly stem from a dehumanization of Muslims, which, in itself, stems from age-old stereotypes that Muslims are violent and should all be apologetic and held responsible when a Muslim commits a crime or act of terror. It’s enough that we are expected to condemn attacks by a small minority of Muslims, and what many people don’t realize is that we already do. Despite this, apologies are demanded from our lips for actions we are not responsible for. But if Muslims are killed, the same is not demanded from the other side, and our right to feel sadness and empathy with the Chapel Hill victims is consistently questioned.
But I refuse to apologize for feeling afraid, or for feeling like the whole world has collapsed on our shoulders, translating into this never-ending burden we are forced to carry on our backs despite the fact that we are Americans.
Many who are quick to judge Muslims fail to grasp that the three who were killed are Muslim-Americans. It could’ve been me and my family. It could’ve been yours. It could’ve been us.
And in a way, it was.
Because now, not only do we stand in solidarity with the loved ones of those whose lives were lost, but we are afraid more than ever before. To see that this could happen without any condemnation or mere recognition by President Barack Obama – makes us think twice before leaving our homes in fear of being attacked. It makes us think twice before revealing our Muslim identity to others in fear of retribution – the antithesis of what the United States was built on. After the Chapel Hill shooting, my mother, in avid fear, warned me to consistently check that the doors at our home were locked and to not open the door for strangers. In a dark, grotesque way this almost seems comical – a mother telling her grown, 22-year-old daughter to not open the door for strangers.
What I should have told her is that I am more scared for her – she steps out of the doors of our home more visibly Muslim than I, wearing the hijab. I am scared for my aunts, my cousins and friends who also cover.
If mainstream media – or those who do not clearly understand the fear Muslim-Americans face in society – would actually ask us how we feel, they would learn this is not the first time we’ve been afraid. Police said in a news conference after the shooting that the recent shooting was an “isolated” incident. But it wasn’t to us, because this is not the first time we’ve been treated as if we aren’t human, that our lives do not matter. I vividly remember the times I was called a terrorist in school growing up, spat at verbally and scolded with words that dug through my heart like the sharpest of knives. I refuse to minimize the impact these moments had on my self-esteem and self-worth, especially when my family members and friends have been assaulted in public simply for wearing a head covering, because their names sounded foreign or even because they wear beards.
Trust me, I know it hurts and we can’t deny the pain. This may be a stark reality to some, but we should not have to defend our worth and beliefs to the world. The media and those with bigoted beliefs don’t always think Muslims can be victims of terrorism because to them, it’s only newsworthy if Muslims are the ones behind the gun.
But we know this isn’t true, and we can’t let the constant fear-mongering drive us into silence like they want it to. Our very words brought light to this issue from the start, and we should be proud of ourselves today, and tomorrow, and in the future because in the wake of this tragedy, social media users across the globe – both Muslims and non-Muslims – reacted to both the shooting and the media’s delayed coverage – or lack of any immediate coverage — on the attack. This pressure seemed to finally lead to coverage by large, conglomerate news organizations, including CNN, NBC, FOX as well as globally acclaimed print and digital publications like the New York Times.
I know it’s scary, and even though it’s undoubtedly risky due to the incessant Islamophobia surrounding us, we can’t stop speaking – even if our voices shake. This Chapel Hill tragedy depicts the overwhelming support we actually do have in this struggle, and how our words, our breaths – just like the breaths of the victims that were taken away, whose lives were robbed in North Carolina Feb. 10 – are worth headlines. They are powerful, they are valuable, and we will give them value even if others do not.
We must not be afraid, apologetic or embarrassed to identify ourselves as a Muslims. We must be proud of who we are, and we must continue to challenge systemic racism and bigotry that continues to plague the chance that minorities can actually live completely free. We are Muslims, and we are humans, and we are breathing things with dreams and goals and voices and lives that, just like Deah, Yusor and Razan, matter and deserve to be heard.
Your fellow Muslim-American,