Muslim in 2016 America: An Interview

12/13/16

I try to be intentional about listening carefully to the voices of minorities and really, in this age of social media that's easy to do.  I have black, latino, gay, and transgender friends whose feeds I am constantly seeking to learn from because there is no way for me to truly know what their experience is like unless I listen to them.  

But I'm going to admit something to you today that feels like eating humble pie: I can't think of a single Muslim American whom I follow closely.  Now that I've realized that, you can be sure I will be remedying it, but that's the truth of it today.  I thought that maybe some of you might be in the same boat, so we find ourselves here with this interview.

Kristin Hassan was my housemate and close friend in college, though she wasn't a Hassan back then.  ;)  Two years ago she married a loving, gentle Egyptian Muslim man named Mahmoud and they live in the Washington D.C. area. I have absolutely loved hearing about their tender relationship and I have appreciated the unique lens that Kristin offers as an American-born now in a Muslim family. 

I asked Kristin if she and Mahmoud would be willing to do an interview for the blog, and she enthusiastically agreed.  The answers are written in her voice, as he is not as comfortable addressing these types of questions in his second language, but they worked on them together and her answers are meant to speak for them both.

Grab a cup of something warm and settle in with an open mind to hear about a reality likely quite different from your own.  Join me in giving Kristin and Mahmoud a very warm welcome!


Tell us about how you two met!

I had begun working full time in refugee resettlement in Texas and was enamored by the beauty and resilience of each person I encountered. I wanted to learn all the vibrant languages that made up an enchanting symphony in our office on the daily. I decided to start with Arabic. Mahmoud and I were fatefully matched as online language partners and a friendship blossomed right there in the interwebs. I visited Egypt, met Mahmoud in person, and set out on a larger journey than I was expecting; we’ve been married now for a little over 2 years. For me, the biggest challenge and gift has been experiencing that ache that I’ve heard described by others but never understood; that ache to create and see a world realized that is good enough for this man that I love so much and for the family that we hope to have one day. I want a world that is fair, unapologetically open, and safe for all.


Kristin, you worked professionally with Muslim refugees for years before marrying Mahmoud. I saw how emotionally invested you were in the lives of your clients/friends even then, but your marriage has surely made the Muslim experience in America even more personal to you. How has being married to a Muslim man shaped your perception of religious prejudice here?

My time working directly with refugee clients all occurred in post-9/11 America. I think the implications of that really informed my emotional investment in my Muslim refugee clients. In many ways, my Muslim clients seemed like underdogs; they were fighting to build a life in a country that was increasingly more suspicions of them and certainly more suspicious of them than of the Christian refugee clients I encountered. I saw religious prejudice or preference as well as the reality of the immigrant experience long before Mahmoud arrived to the U.S. I can say for certain that all of these things became more personal to me once he was here trying to carve out his own place in our society. Would he be treated well? Would he find meaningful work? Would he be able to be himself without shame? Suddenly, the questions that I asked myself often about my refugee clients became heavier as they became real questions bouncing off the walls of our own home.

It is hard to describe exactly how overwhelming it can feel to suddenly feel immersed in the minority experience. As a white, college educated, middle class girl, I have never had to worry. Not once. Not about whether my name would cause others to judge me. Not about whether my capabilities or ability to learn would be called into question. Not about whether others may be suspicious of where my loyalties lie. But now, I do worry. I worry about all of it for Mahmoud. He is the best, he takes it all in stride.

It is no secret that we are living in an era of distrust of the Muslim community. I don’t really know what to say about how it has impacted our lives, but I can say without doubt that it hurts my husband. I’ve seen him watch the news defaming Islam or engage in conversations with those unwilling to entertain the idea of Islam being a religion of peace, and watched the light within him dim. His faith is personal to his very core and to live in a society that does not always value his faith is exhausting.


In the few years that Mahmoud has lived in the U.S., has his experience been more positive or more negative than he originally expected?


Mahmoud does a great job of avoiding the chatter, which likely contributes to his ability to remain calm, warm, and open to others. He does not have a single social media account. Mahmoud is a very ‘mind your own business’ type of guy; he desires to go about his daily life without bothering anyone and hoping to find others offering cordial exchanges. Although he makes conscious efforts to stay away from drama, he is not oblivious to the rhetoric around him. 

He is keenly aware of who offers a safe space for him and who may not. Overall, on the micro level, where he meets with individual coworkers or perfect strangers, the experience is typically positive. It’s in those macro level, national rhetoric type conversations that certainly feels more negative than he expected. The main confusion lately has been this overwhelming feeling that these cordial individuals, who engage with Mahmoud in an open, friendly manner, go home and nod their heads in agreement with the larger negative rhetoric. Even if not nodding in agreement, failing to say “no way, this is utter foolishness” amounts to the same thing—passive agreement. 


In the past year-long election season, when the idea of a ban on Muslims entering the country was initially presented, and of course ultimately with the shocking election outcome, have you felt the general attitude of Americans change towards Muslims? Or does it feel about the same as it did a year ago?

America is the greatest experiment on the face of the Earth. We are a nation of immigrants, utilizing the ingenuity and strength of diverse individuals to build a strong and cohesive society. Somewhere along the way it just feels like we have forgotten that we belong to one another. We’ve been personally hurt this election season as we have seen those we love fail to stand up to the bigotry.

In terms of American attitudes changing toward Muslims, there are numerous examples of this. Failure to call crimes against Muslims hate crimes, such as the Chapel Hill shooting that took the lives of three promising young American Muslims. A knee-jerk response to all crimes committed by someone with a Muslim sounding name or Arab decent to be labeled as terrorist acts, while angry white men on shooting rampages are called mentally disturbed. Calls by some to only admit Christian refugees into our country, as if Muslim refugees will certainly plan to hurt us regardless of the fact that they too are running from terror. Numerous hate crimes which are on the rise since the election season began. Some examples of hate crimes targeting Muslims include a tourist in NYC with a hijab on who was set on fire, a teacher told to hang herself with her hijab because it “isn’t allowed” in Trump’s America, and relentless threats of deportation for those that appear Muslim regardless of their citizenship, including a NYC cop. The Muslim community has reported that they feel less safe since the election season began than they did in the aftermath of 9/11. That is scary.


Have you or other Muslims you love experienced any acts of hate or xenophobia in the past month?

I have not and I have not heard Mahmoud talk about experiencing that in the last month. He has had the luck of being out of the country visiting family during the final stretch and immediate aftermath of the election. We also have the distinct luxury of living in a bubble. We live in the greater DC area where we walk outside our front door every day and see a mosaic of humanity. Frankly, I chose to move here shortly before Mahmoud arrived to the U.S. for this very reason. This is not to say that acts of hatred do not exist here. However, when we are in parts of the country that do not feel so diverse, I do sense personally and from Mahmoud a tense feeling. We know the xenophobia is out there, and of course we will do what we can to avoid meeting it in a dark alley.


After the election, were there certain responses from friends or family members that were particularly comforting to you?

To be perfectly honest, I did not really hear from friends or family unless they had some reason personal to them to be stressed about the election results, be it a mom friend raising a dark-skinned child, a mom raising a child with disabilities, a friend who identifies as a minority ethnicity American, a friend who is in a same sex marriage, or a fellow Muslim. From these friends, I received encouragement that I am not alone in my worries and that we will at least have each other for the next 4 years. I wish I could say that I received any comfort from others, but sadly that’s just not the case.


Were there responses that were particularly hurtful?

I can’t say that we received intentionally hurtful responses, but there has been this sense of dismissal of our concerns and worries which is so very hurtful. We’ve been encouraged to “wait and see”, “don’t take it personal”, and maybe it won’t be as bad as we’re expecting. It feels like our concerns fall on deaf ears. I was even told not to worry about a Muslim ban or anything of the sort until someone showed up at our door with a deportation order. I was floored. Should I not worry and just let this thing ride out until there is nothing left to be done? No way. I will fight this tooth and nail. Elie Weisel once said that “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.”


I know you – and others like you – are hurting. What do you need from us, maybe specifically from your Christian friends and family?

There is a real need to get back to the true teachings of your faith. Jesus stood by the outcast, the poor, the oppressed. What do we need from others? Every child learns it from very early on—treat others as you would like to be treated. That includes standing up for others when they are knocked down. That includes standing with them to ask for their rights, even when their beliefs or lifestyle differ from what you would choose for yourself.

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Thank you to the Hassans for this vulnerable glimpse into their lives and hearts! I hope it doesn't need to be said, but any negative or hypercritical comments (either here or FB) will be immediately deleted.  There is a time and place for civil discourse, but this is not it.  This is simply an invitation to listen to your neighbor.  Thanks for understanding and respecting that!

Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

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