By: Diba Ataie
“Where are you from?” I was repeatedly questioned, while traveling. My response was always challenged; an insinuation that I was lying. The person I was interacting with was usually unsatisfied with my answer and this led me to feel irritated. Once I expressed my frustration the empathy grew and others were able to relate to me.
This question, which we often face, requires more detailed attention as our US identity grows more complex daily. Our Muslim identity is challenged by the media which often hijacks the narrative of our collective community. Thus, we are once again faced with the eternal paradox in psychology, accept all our parts, only then can we truly change.
The first step is reunification with ourselves – we cannot accept that which we do not know. This journey of self-discovery goes far beyond our phenotypic and geographic legacy; it requires a much deeper cross-analysis. We need to appreciate our complexity in order to serve ourselves holistically and to fully appreciate our humanity.
We must also recognize the danger of external labels that are imposed on Muslims because these labels are destroying our ability to connect with one another. Our perspectives of others are socially constructed and only represent pieces of a puzzle that are needed to create the full image of our identity. This impacts how we see others. Every being on this planet is unique in that they have their own soul, mind, and heart.
These days most of us have to defend our identity at some point. For most, it is not enough that I identify as Muslim-American, but I must prove my allegiance to each end of the hyphen; I am torn between both in a painful tug-of war. Being both Muslim and American seems to be a contradiction to some, but I am a physical manifestation of it. We must all be aware of our underlying perceptions which impact how we see others.
The misrepresentation is, in part, due to the fact that most people only have access to a singular image of Muslims. We must challenge this singular view of Muslims as being dangerous because we are also in danger. This impacts non-Muslims too because they are mistaken as Muslims and stigmatized. In the work I do with youth, I lead them through an activity which asks them to fill in the blanks…”Just because I am Muslim…Does not mean I am…” The counter narratives that emerge allow us to move past binaries and also serve to humanize and represent us in a respectful manner.
How each person identifies is up to only them. In this claim is a freedom that empowers us. It is through learning about all parts of ourselves that we can work towards greater understanding and a more expansive perspective. Who knows next time someone asks us about identity we might challenge their existing ideas by inviting them to hear our own story. Every Muslim has a unique narrative and special relationship with Islam. We may even grow more curious and come to recognize the inherent value of every being.