By: Sumayya Saleh

It has been hard to watch the news in the last couple of months without feeling some anguish over the state of Muslims in the West, generally, and in America, specifically. Blatantly xenophobic, Islamophobic rhetoric has permeated the social sphere. Elected officials and presidential candidates alike have not shied away from making derogatory, hateful remarks about people of the Muslim faith.

            And then San Bernardino happened, altering the face of “Islamic” terrorism in America. Previously, this threat could largely be attributed to outsiders who had somehow managed to infiltrate the United States. But the alleged perpetrators of the December 2, 2015 attack in California did not, at first blush, appear to fit this profile. They were the average Muslims next-door, embedded in American society and leading nondescript lives. 

Immediately, the narrative shifted and the anti-Islamic rhetoric intensified tenfold. The American-Muslim community in its entirety suddenly became suspect. Accepting the government’s narrative as true (the veracity of that account is another discussion for another day, but let it suffice to say that the math does not quite add up and there are plenty of questions that need to be answered), Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were radicalized Muslim extremists who managed to conceal this aspect of their lives and appeared to have blended into the fabric of American society without incident. In theory, then, San Bernardino could be replicated anywhere, as any average-looking American-Muslim fits the profile of the alleged perpetrators in this tragedy. The proposition is, of course, absurd. But there is no denying that this theory is being propagated.

I suppose there are two possible approaches that we, the American-Muslim community, can take to shield ourselves this escalating Islamophobic rhetoric. We could adopt what would essentially be a defeatist attitude, sticking to ourselves, worrying only about our own safety and managing our own personal affairs, and avoiding confrontation. Or we could proactively engage American society at large in an attempt to alleviate the plight we are currently experiencing. I submit that it is incumbent for us to adopt the latter approach as opposed to the former. For too long, we have been reclusive. And perhaps, historically, the isolationist approach has not directly operated to our detriment. But given the current climate, our failure to act will undoubtedly take its toll on the state of Muslims in America.

Certainly, on an individual level, many of us have worked to shift the lay American’s perspective on Islam, be it through our daily interactions with colleagues at work or with the cashier at our local Publix. But while it is important for us to have positive interactions with individuals unacquainted with the true meaning of Islam, this alone is not enough. We need to be brave enough to have candid conversations with people, to address the elephant in the room that our coworkers are not likely to bring up of their own volition. We need to have conversations about anti-Muslim hatred and the various agendas that have cultivated these bigoted and harmful sentiments. We need to create safe spaces that allow for such uncomfortable conversations to take place. And most importantly, we need to band together as a community – both locally and nationwide – in order to shift the tides that threaten to overwhelm us. Further, it is imperative that we find allies in other marginalized communities across the United States, as their struggles and their interests often intersect with our own.

Reclaiming the American-Muslim narrative is certainly not going to be an easy feat. In fact, it may seem downright impossible at this particular moment in time. But one thing is for sure: the ball is in our court, and if we do not have the impetus to take action for ourselves, no one else is going to come in and defends our rights as Americans.

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