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How are Muslims navigating American social norms?

By Amar Peterman and Kevin Singer

At just 23 years old, Aysha Khan has written some of Religion News Service’s (RNS) most popular articles in the past year. She is an Ahmadi-Muslim journalist who reports on American Muslim issues and Millennial faith in the United States. Aysha was born and raised in Maryland, a child of first-generation immigrants from Pakistan who came to the U.S. fleeing anti-Ahmadi persecution.


A recent article that Aysha wrote for RNS explored new survey data on evangelical Christian attitudes toward Muslims. In the article, she mentioned the work of our organization, Neighborly Faith. We were inspired to ask Aysha about her own reflections on Muslims and evangelicals, her experience working in American journalism, and the struggles that Muslims are enduring in America.

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Kevin: Would you say that Evangelicals and Muslims have a common challenge in some of the social and political discourse which some would say is alienating religion from the public square?


Aysha: I think different communities within both the Christian space and the Muslim space would have different answers to that. But I agree because I consider myself to be a person of faith. I have definitely seen a lot of discourse about this among young Muslims who are looking at representations of Muslims in pop culture, which we're seeing a lot more of these days.


Representations of American Muslims in pop culture is not something I saw growing up. It's very, very new. But we are noticing a trend that in these representations of American Muslims, they're still very, I guess you might say, liberal. They're going out to clubs and partying and having premarital sex and girlfriends and boyfriends or they are LGBT. Not to say that any of these things are in any way wrong or that doing any of these things makes you less Muslim. But a lot of the faith components get cut out of these characters. Aren't Muslims just as valuable when we are at our mosques praying or when we are saying, "No, we don't eat pork. No, we don't drink alcohol. No, we don't do any of these things”? I think Evangelicals can relate to that.


Kevin: That’s a fantastic point! I know Eboo Patel, who is a friend of ours, writes in his new book Out of Many Faiths about this sort of tension of entering into pop-culture. Would you say that young Muslims are more influenced by pop-culture representatives, or political representatives, when trying to understand how to be Muslim in America?


Aysha: I almost want to say that you can’t really separate the two. At some points, when you look at figures like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she’s already a pop-culture figure at this point; she’s a pop-culture icon. The same can be said of congresswoman Ilhan Omar. I think she has been showing a lot of Muslims that there is space for us at the top tier of politics in America, that you can make it there and be successful.


Kevin: We’ve been seeing a lot of young Muslims moving to the political left. We’ve been asking guests in our latest podcast series, “Your Muslim Neighbor,” about this and they’ve explained how this doesn’t mean that they are any less devout or any less socially or politically conservative. There is just more of a home and embrace on the political left. But there’s been a growing sentiment among some of our friends like Dalia Mogahed, who said on our podcast, that there is Islamophobia on the Left and the Right. How do we make sense of this situation?


Aysha: I think the older I’ve gotten, the more I have come to realize how pervasive anti-Muslim sentiment is, and how pernicious it is that folks don't even realize they have it. I think the Clintons are a prime example, when you look at their rhetoric on a very surface level sense. It’s been very pro-Muslim and a lot of Muslims have looked at that and felt gratified by it and have a felt satisfied by it even. Like, "Oh yes. The top politicians in America are saying that we have a home here. Thank you to them for recognizing this.” Which I mean, I don't know that they're wrong, but if you dig a little bit deeper, you'll realize that a lot of their rhetoric towards Muslims and their acceptance of Muslims is rooted in the idea that Muslims are tools against extremism. Like, "Oh, we can clue you in when we see somebody doing something strange at the mosque. We can call the FBI and let them know that, ‘Oh, someone's plotting.’”


Kevin: I want to get a bit into your work, because I love that you’re in journalism and working for Religion News Service. Can you tell us a little bit about being a Muslim in American Journalism? When you think about your sense of purpose in this space, what does that look like?


Aysha: I don't think that I'm the best journalist and I don't think that I'm the best Muslim who's doing journalism. But I am so grateful every day that I'm able to write narratives about American Muslim communities that are new and that are fresh and that are told by an American Muslim speaking to American Muslims. Because a lot of people say like, “Oh, as journalists we're supposed to be unbiased.” So it doesn't matter if it's a Muslim writing this, or a Christian, or an atheist. In a lot of ways, no, it doesn't matter. But in some ways it does and those ways are really important because a lot of the journalism that is being done about Muslims in America is just so blatantly written for somebody who's not me.


What I mean by that is so much of it is very explanatory. It's like, “Who are these Muslims? Let me explain to you what their faith is. What is Ramadan? Oh, what is fasting? What is the hijab?” These kinds of things that are just so elementary, so boring. Then the next level up is it's like, "Oh look at this trailblazing young Muslim woman who's wearing a hijab and just going to school and living her life. How brave and incredible." It's just like, that's why a lot of Muslims aren't reading this kind of journalism. That's why you're not getting those clicks, that editors want so badly. They want them so desperately and are like, "Why aren't Muslims reading?" Well, because you're not writing for them.


Kevin: When you look at American life for Muslims, what are some of the struggles they are enduring and do you see foresee those struggles changing in the next decade?


Aysha: I think one of the universal struggles regardless of your race, gender, ethnicity, or language, is just the pervasiveness of Islamophobia. I think being the subject of this fear creates a sense of trauma among a lot of young Muslims. I mean it just follows you everywhere you go. I was just talking about this with my sister the other day... We were standing by the train tracks and she asked, "Hey, do you ever have this feeling where you're just afraid to stand too close to the train tracks because you never know who here might just not like you for wearing a hijab and just give you a little shove?” And I just realized that I've had that ever since I was young, you know? And she responded like, “Yeah, I have that in parking lots whenever I’m crossing the street; I’m thinking, what if this person just sees me, sees my hijab and isn't, you know, a fan of it and just decides to hit the gas”?


I can even trace this back to when I was a kid in middle school and we were in the locker rooms. I was afraid to take my hijab off in front of the other girls because what if somebody just didn't like me and decided to take a photo or video of me and post it on the internet? Every time there's something like what happened in New Zealand, it just kind of ignites those fears. I think for American Muslim communities, it's hard to make progress because we're so stuck on having to deal with the specter of Islamophobia.

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We are so thankful for Aysha’s honest insight into the everyday life, struggles, and thoughts of an American Muslim. We hope that Aysha’s perspective inspires Christians to spend more time getting to know their Muslim neighbors and doing whatever they can to eradicate Islamophobia in the Church.


Published in Faithfully Magazine in April 2019.

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