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Muslim College Essay

I Am Home: A Personal Essay on Being American Muslim These Days

One of my favorite feelings in the world is the moment that the customs officer looks at me after my return from international travel, smiles, and says, “Welcome home, ma’am.”

I’m not sure whether it’s the stress of flying, the pressure of living out of a single, poorly-packed suitcase, or the over-stimulation that comes with constantly moving around, but the comfort that overcomes me and the reminder that I am — in fact — home, is priceless.

And so, the last few days, weeks, and months have been frustrating, angering, depressing, and shocking. I have received BCC’ed emails from family friends asking whether my loved ones and I are “safe.” I have heard friends talking about wearing beanies to replace their everyday hijabs to avoid attracting attention while travelling. I have thought twice about responding to Arabic emails from my client while sitting at a crowded airport lounge. A college friend of mine has been pulled off of a plane, had her passport confiscated, and made to miss her international flight simply for being Muslim — and Black. And for the first time in my adult life, a man came up to me on the side of the road and asked “when the last time my father beat me” had been.

Friends and family who know me were not at all surprised to learn that I walked up to the inebriated gentleman, looked him straight in the eye, and reacted with a colorful response probably not appropriate for publication. I am not a victim and I never have been. I have never changed my behavior out of fear. I have never apologized for who I am. And I, just like millions of Americans feel remarkably unsafe when I hear about terrorists — be they Christian, Muslim, Atheist, or whatever else — shoot innocent movie-goers, bomb Planned Parenthood clinics, or incite violence online while using religious text.

While I have absolutely no problem condemning violence and terrorism and reiterating (for the nth time) that the acts of a few do not represent the beliefs of a majority — as I do when I condemn gun violence, police brutality, and domestic abuse, I do so because I am a human and not because I am a Muslim. In fact, as a Muslim, the hurt is greater and the suffering is doubled, not only because I feel unsafe in my own home, but also because a radicalized few are attempting to hijack my reading of my religion, standardize their extreme interpretations, and speak on my behalf and on behalf of millions of others.

Over the past few days, many in the Muslim community have come together to demonstrate against Da’esh, partake in community service projects at local hospitals, and open the doors of their mosques to those with questions. They have been at candlelight vigils, they have attended neighborhood meetings, and they have lost loved ones. They have wondered what they can do to become better civically-engaged citizens and many have asked how they can deliver the message that they too — just like millions of Americans — are frustrated, scared, and angered.

To be fully frank, I have mixed feelings about these questions and brainstorming sessions. On the one hand, I am ecstatic to see the Muslim community engaged in local organizing. But on the other, I am left wondering why we have to do so in the first place.

I look to my family and I see a computer executive who has excelled in his field and personified the American Dream at its finest. I see a community volunteer who spends hours dedicating her life to teaching children. I see products of the American public schooling system: an international human rights lawyer who serves her country in the nation’s capital, a start-up entrepreneur, a high school student who has traveled to Nicaragua to build schools and work with impoverished children.

I remember family quizzes to prepare our parents for their citizenship exams (although they knew most of the answers already). I recall receiving emails from my mother demanding that I vote and that being in the midst of mid-term exams would be no excuse. I have vivid — albeit dreaded — memories of preparing tax returns with my father.

But my family is no exception — rather, they are the rule. Everywhere around the United States, American Muslims are lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, plumbers, real estate agents. They are executives, volunteers, and community organizers. They are award-winning rap artists, legendary musicians, and remarkable comedians.

And so, when American Muslims ask me what the best thing they can do for America at a time when front-running presidential candidates want to impose religious-based identification systems and when local mosques get splattered with feces, I urge them to continue doing what they’re doing. Extremists seek to alienate, divide, and terrorize communities. They aim to drive wedges between those who happily coexist and capitalize upon doubts among those with insecurities. And so, the most powerful response that the American Muslim community can have is to continue being who they are — proudly embracing their hyphenated identities, excelling in their fields and professions, nurturing their families and friends, and rising above the alienation to remain engaged.

Because like the customs officer has told me tens of times before, I am home. And I refuse to allow anyone — be they a neighbor down the street, a Fox News television anchor, or a radicalized teenager — make me feel otherwise.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, goes the adage.

And how do you get to Stanford University? Well, for Ziad Ahmed, a high school senior in New Jersey, gaining acceptance to the university meant writing an unusual answer to this question on his application form: “What matters to you, and why?”

Ahmed’s answer was this: “#BlackLivesMatter,” which he wrote 100 times without additional comment. After he announced his admission to the school by posting a screenshot of his answer on Twitter, the news began going viral.

“I was actually stunned when I opened the update and saw that I was admitted,” Ahmed wrote in an email to Mic, the millennials-centric media company. “I didn’t think I would get admitted to Stanford at all, but it’s quite refreshing to see that they view my unapologetic activism as an asset rather than a liability.”

A senior at Princeton Day School in Princeton, N.J., Ahmed — whose Twitter handle is @ziadtheactivist — said the #BlackLivesMatter movement is inherently important to him because he is Muslim: “To me, to be Muslim is to be a BLM ally,” he said, noting that “one-fourth to one-third of the Muslim community in America are black… and to separate justice for Muslims from justices for the black community is to erase the realities of the plurality of our community.”

The Bangladeshi-American teen has already been recognized for his activism. In 2015, he was among MTV’s Top 9 Teens Changing the World, while, in 2016, he was named one of Business Insider’s Top 15 “young prodigies” making the world a better place. Now 18, Ahmed also has given a Tedx Talk in Panama about the impact of stereotypes. And he is the founder of Redefy, an organization committed to fighting bias and stereotypes.

His Twitter announcement set off the usual social-media explosion of congratulatory comments and denunciations. Some respondents asked to know his grade point average and SAT scores. Presumably, they’re quite good; Ahmed also was admitted to Yale University and Princeton University, Mic reported, though it didn’t give any details about his application essays for those schools.

Other online commentators said Ahmed should have written a formal essay, addressing the “why” part of the application question.

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His response to Mic was this: “The insistence on an explanation is inherently dehumanizing. Black lives have been explicitly and implicitly told they don’t matter for centuries, and as a society — it is our responsibility to scream that black lives matter because it is not to say that all lives do not matter, but it is to say that black lives have been attacked for so long, and that we must empower through language, perspective, and action.”

The National Review responded with an essay, calling Ahmed a “lazy activist” and a “lazy question-answerer” for not explaining his position: “Think about it: Could you imagine if Ahmed someday approaches a thesis the same way that he approached that application question?” asked reporter Katherine Timpf. What if he turned in a “one-sentence paper, believing that his point of view was so clearly correct that it was somehow above him to explain?”

If Ahmed wants to change the opinions of those who don’t agree with him, Timpf argued, it is incumbent upon him to build a detailed argument.

Reached for comment, a Stanford spokesman said, “We do not discuss student applications.”

Whatever his approach, Ahmed keeps meeting movers and shakers.

In 2015, while attending an Iftar dinner at the White House — an annual reception during the month of Ramadan — he got to chat with President Obama. Ahmed told MTV that he and the president discussed “counter-terrorism and Palestine and Israel. And we talked about education; girls’ education. It was just the most enlightening and intellectual and informative conversation I could ever be part of. It reminded me of what I’d said before: Teens don’t realize we need to be in this conversation, injustice is our fight too.”

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