It’s kind of awkward to “share” a religion with a band of killers who bomb capital cities and shoot up holiday parties in their free time.
It’s not the frustrating awkwardness of falling on the school steps, or even the tragic awkwardness of wearing a denim-on-denim ensemble.
It’s the kind of awkward where I actually ran away upon seeing a stack of newspapers on the sidewalk that described ISIS’s attacks on the Stade de France. (To be fair, my phone had died and I was hopelessly lost; away from the Washington Post seemed as good a direction as any.)
Terrorism is a hard thing to outrun.
Hardly a moment has passed since then and already there is a new group of people to grieve for, even closer to home. A new collection of xenophobic Republican statements that I must make a point to debunk before the next horror hits.
You have to understand that my initial thought following these terror attacks was probably similar to yours: Oh my God, these crazy fanatical Muslim terrorists.
My second thought was more like one of those dreadful realizations you have after you wake up: Wait, I am Muslim.
How do I forget something like that for even a minute, you ask? I mean that’s my whole thing, right? Like, hello, loud hijabi over here, victim of general American ignorance, self-appointed educator of both students and teachers (in a gifted school, no less), butt of all misconceptions, the fabulous star in her own sitcom life, etc?
Could it be possible that I, Hijabi in Plain Sight, am a secret Islamophobe?
I know that terrorism has no color or creed; that the word Islam itself means “peace;” that the Qur’an reads: “Whoever kills an innocent it is as if he has killed all mankind.” And that ISIS has not only violated this basic tenet of Islam, but dozens more. (What kind of Muslim bombs a mosque? You’re not even supposed to wear your shoes in a mosque. I’ve seen someone get the stink-eye for reading the Qur’an too loudly.)
Despite all these facts, every time I hear the name of my own religion — and it’s usually coming from the mouth of some politician who garbles the “s” into an omnipotent, multisyllabic “z” — I cringe. The Arabic meaning of the word bites at me like a personal mockery.
Peace. That’s my religion. Literally. There are only so many times I can try and explain what the word “jihad” really means. There are only so many times I can try to explain the difference between a helpless refugee fleeing ISIS and an actual member of ISIS. Between beheading people and putting it up on YouTube and actually practicing Islam.
Like all Americans, I have processed the Islam/terrorist association. Unlike most Americans, however, I am at once the target audience and the monster to be feared.
This is an unpleasant state of being.
For the first few days after the Paris attacks, I kept myself in the dark. But there was no escaping the tragedy. When I tried to look up sites on which to illegally re-watch The Mindy Project, I found myself staring at the tiny black ribbon on Google’s homepage. I tried to find humor in an episode of Saturday Night Liv only to a) be met with a Paris-related intro, and b) be reminded that Kristen Wiig was no longer part of the cast.
And when I went back to school the Monday after Paris, an exceptionally nice girl came up to me and hugged me.
I felt relief at first — she understands — followed by a twinge of annoyance.
Now, there are many reasons for why I would like to be hugged. Surviving a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with no Wi-Fi. Consistently dropping the ball in gym class in front of a certain someone. Enduring the SAT (again) at a testing site where the sole hallway decoration was a laminated Tupac quote — something about dreams — peeling off the wall.
Note that international terrorism is not on that list.
The girl was being nice. But even sympathy propels me further and further away from normal, from the possibility that being American and being Muslim could someday overlap.
I am 17 years old.
It is crushing to think about spending an entire life shape shifting and explaining and overcompensating in a desperate attempt to prove that I’m okay. That I too am American. An entire life watching people watching me and wondering what they think, even though it is entirely possible that they don’t care at all. My grief, my anxiety, my sense of alienation and obligation cannot be resolved with a brief “we stand with Paris” cold-open.
This column was supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be about gym class. But after the Paris attacks the plans changed. After San Bernardino they changed again.
What happens tomorrow?