When I heard a story about a teenager in our area who’s reluctant to reveal that she’s Muslim because she’s worried about being harassed, it bothered me for several days. No one should have to hide their religion, or any other beliefs or personal attributes, to accommodate others or to avoid bullying.
I asked the person who told me the story if she’d put me in touch with the young lady so I could write about her experience. Long story short, I was able to interview her on the condition I wouldn’t divulge her identity. She’s worried that if people find out she’s Muslim, they’ll treat her differently.
She’s a second-generation American. Her mother legally immigrated to the U.S. with her family from the Middle East, works hard, makes an honest living, and enjoys the American dream. You wouldn’t know she’s Muslim by meeting her — just as you wouldn’t know most people’s religion by meeting them — and it shouldn’t matter anyway.
She has a common American name, a bubbly personality, dresses in typical teenage clothing, does not wear a hijab, and stands for the Pledge of Allegiance. And she wants to be free from prejudice and bias.
“One time a girl told me, ‘Oh, you’re going to hell because you’re not a Christian,’” she said.
Because of experiences like this, she’s uncomfortable talking about her religion or sharing that she’s Muslim.
“I don’t tell people because I’m afraid I’ll be judged. There are a lot of negative connotations with terrorism if you’re a Muslim and come from the Middle East,” she said. “The way the media skews everything in the world, they make being Muslim seem bad. It isn’t fair. We don’t support terrorism. People in ISIS aren’t really Muslims. They go against everything that’s in the Quran.”
When she was younger and told her Christian friends she’s Muslim, some tried to convert her, she said.
“I had friends take me to their churches. They were trying to ‘save me.’ They were raised to spread the word and wanted to convert me,” she said. “I had a friend take me to a lock-in at a church. She didn’t tell me what it was. Next thing I know, we’re reading the Bible, people are praying, and people are saying how they found religion and were saved. I was the only Muslim, and they kept asking me, ‘How do you feel?’”
She feels that being a Muslim creates a barrier to acceptance.
“There are sly things people do, like back up when you’re around them and start to get weird, like saying, ‘Oh, I never would have guessed you’re Muslim.’ Their whole attitude changes,” she notes. “People have told me not to wear a scarf and cover up. They don’t even know what the scarf represents.”
She wasn’t raised reading the Quran or pressed by her parents to be religious. Ironically, Muslims her age don’t accept her because she’s not committed to learning the religion.
“Some Muslims are very conservative. I’m not,” she said. “It’s like I’m Muslim so Christians don’t accept me, and I’m not a practicing Muslim, so Muslims don’t accept me.”
Once she’s in college, she hopes to be part of a friend group that welcomes her without judgement.
“I want to have our own friend community where we can laugh, cry, share experiences, even if they’re bad experiences, and have fun,” she explains.
Eventually, when she gets older, she may decide to wear a hijab.
“I do want to cover my hair eventually, when I’m older, when I’m old enough that it will be respected. Now, people would be like, ‘Why do you want to do that? Your hair is so pretty.’ But it’s not up to someone else. It’s a decision between me and my faith,” she said. “My mom works in the business world and doesn’t wear a scarf or hijab because of discrimination.”
Her mother was routinely teased and bullied in high school. Kids made fun of her nose, told her she smelled bad, and made rude gestures when they passed her in the halls.
“When she talks about it now, she still gets emotional and teary,” she said. “I try to avoid religions as much as possible. If you’re a good person and you don’t lie, don’t cheat, and don’t steal, then you’re doing the right thing. That’s what my mom says.”
Interestingly enough, that’s pretty much what my mother told me growing up too.