This op-ed story was produced during the Fall 2020 Youth Voice Workshop.
On Instagram recently, a stranger direct-messaged me with a series of emojis that included airplanes, bombs and schools.
On TikTok, someone commented on my post, “Show your waves, or show me what’s in the backpack.”
This past year, I have been bombarded with hateful messages and comments from strangers. They circle around misconceptions and false statements – or just plain disrespect – about my hijab and my religion, Islam.
The most common hate I have received is around Islamic extremist terrorism. But the reality is many Muslims – including myself – disassociate from those horrible people and detest their inhumane actions.
I believe misconceptions portrayed in some media articles have greatly affected the public’s perspective, mostly those who are unfamiliar with my religion. In fact, 53% of U.S. adults “think coverage of Islam and Muslims by American news organizations is generally unfair,” according to the Pew Research Center.
My biggest apprehension being a Muslim in the U.S. is not necessarily the negative stereotypes, but how these detrimental perceptions can so easily turn into violence. Anti-Muslim hate crimes were at an all-time high in 2016, the same year U.S. President Donald Trump was elected, according to FBI hate crime statistics from 2004 to 2018. Hate crimes against religions in total were at an all-time high in 2017 (1,564 total crimes), which was when the “Muslim ban” on travel was first introduced.
I think people who don’t know me have lashed out because they are afraid of Muslims in general. While some U.S. views of Muslims have become more positive in recent years, 41% of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence to its followers, according to the Pew Research Center. Half of U.S. adults say Islam is “not part of mainstream American society,” Pew says.
I don’t want my fellow Americans to be afraid of me. I’m just a 16-year-old college student trying to figure out what I want to major in and how to learn American Sign Language to communicate with my baby sister who has Down Syndrome. I’m trying to face the pandemic like every other person while desperately wanting to meet my friends safely. I’m at the point in my life where I’m trying to shape my future, and it’s not fair to me to deal with hateful comments and messages on top of that.
In her influential TedTalk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of a “single story”: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Be skeptical of the Islamic stereotypes you hear in the news, on social media and even from the President of the United States. Look at me as not only a Muslim, but also as an American teenager, a college student and a journalist.
My story will not be defined by hateful social media comments, the media or anyone else other than me.