Feature: Being Muslim from the eyes of the world within America

Zehra Çayıroğlu

What is it like to be Muslim in America? I’m not exactly sure where to start with answering this question, but I believe it’s best to start by answering what it’s like to be a Muslim in a country where Islam is the dominant religion, my homeland: Turkey.

I arrived to the States two years ago. I don’t have interesting stories like the Muslims who were born in the United States, but being a Muslim, I do have stories of my own to let the world know about Islam.
When I was seventeen years old, as a Muslim female, I made a big decision with my own will and intention to start wearing the hijab (headscarf). Although my family are practicing Muslims, they disagreed with my choice. This was because of the political situation in Turkey – if you were a woman who chose to wear the hijab, you would not be able to enter a university or become a government employee. Why the political environment was as such is a different story. As a seventeen-year-old, this was a situation that I was not able to comprehend. At the time, I didn’t know what politics meant, and that same year, I got my acceptance to political studies.
I was unable to enter the university campus with my hijab. I was told I was prohibited entrance into the university due to my hijab being a symbol of political Islam. Even when I had not yet fully comprehended the meaning of politics, I was faced with the term “political Islam.” The only reason that I was wearing my headscarf was to practice my beliefs. I had no intention of it being a symbol of political Islam (I didn’t even know what that was!), but I was told this in my own country. The security guards threatened me many times to end my educational life if they saw me wearing my hijab on campus grounds.

I could not allow them to stop me from becoming educated, so I took my headscarf off during my time on the campus. During my last year, the government made a decision to allow students to enter campuses with their choice of attire, which allowed me to wear my headscarf. But it did not end there. Government employees and university staff were still restricted wearing headscarves. My goal was to become a professor, but with these restrictions I was unable to accomplish this goal. My headscarf was a symbol of my religious identity, which I did not want to let go. I began to search different routes in order to achieve this goal. The only thing I could do was to continue in the direction that I was already headed in with the hopes of achieving my goal of becoming a professor. I wanted to continue my education in a different place, a place where I would not face discrimination because of who I am. Of course this place was the USA, because it was “the country of freedom” — a country where you could be whoever you wanted to be. Was this really true? Was this really the country where I would not be discriminated against for who I was? Was there such a country in the world?

10410406_10206020889734838_2610492005634743006_nThe year following my graduation from college, I received a government scholarship to get a degree in higher education in the USA. In return, after completing my doctorate I would go back and serve at a university in Turkey. So, my story in the USA began two years ago. My first year I attended Rice University in Houston, Texas for English as a Second Language Studies. Last year, I enrolled in my master’s program at Penn State University in the School of International Affairs. One of the most amazing moments during my first semester as a master’s student was a presentation I gave for my Culture and Globalization class. It was my first presentation at Penn State and about the law on hijab ban in France. I started my presentation by saying, “When I started my bachelor’s at seventeen years old, I was not allowed to enter my university campus with my hijab. I was always threatened of being expelled from the school if I had my hijab on on campus. I did not allow them to end my dream or my education process and today I am at Penn State University. This is my first presentation and it is about hijabs, it just feels great!”


Being a Muslim from the eyes of the world within America

The USA was the first foreign country that I have been to. It was my first open door to the entire world. This was because it incorporated bits from everywhere in the whole world. The diverse environment I encountered here in America gave me an opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds, listen to their stories, and learn about how they perceive me, and especially my identity as a Muslim. After the first year of my ESL courses in Houston, I asked myself this question: “How does the rest of the world perceive the Islamic world?” The answer to this question is misperception. Let me tell you the reasons why.

The media effect

The media plays a very important role in shaping people’s misconceptions due to the mere fact that media has a strong influence on people’s thoughts. Due to the strong effect the media has, individuals can easily label others and be biased towards or against those whom they do not know culturally.

Before I attended the university in Turkey, I myself felt prejudiced against the people of Afghanistan or Iraq. I think at that time I was not actually aware that I was from a Middle Eastern background as well. But I knew that the “Middle East” did not awaken good thoughts for me. During the tragic attack of 9/11, I was twelve years old, and the only thought I had running through my head was that those attackers could not have been good people. Of course! The name Osama bin Laden corresponded with the attack made even me believe that Arabs were terrorists. Even though bin Laden was not an Afghan, I was under the impression that Afghans were people like bin Laden. Being a young girl in her own world in the small town of Anatolia, this is how I perceived events. Later, I would understand that this was a part of the media effect and that the media was shaping my mind. A few years later, once having arrived in America, I understood better why people have prejudice against others because of their identities.

Think about the first image that pops into your mind when you hear about the world “Muslim,” or think about the profile of a Muslim woman. Most likely, when you hear the word Muslim, you associate it with Middle Eastern countries. Perhaps an image of an Arab with a gun in his hand saying “Allahu Akbar!” comes to mind. Now, think about a Muslim woman, and presumably you picture a woman who has a black scarf, a burka, who is shy and oppressed. This is often what the media shows us.

11406973_10205952967316820_5380500933063314840_nLet me tell you a story about a confession that a Russian friend of mine made. During my first year in the language courses, we would have breaks between classes where I would get together with the other Muslim girls, and we would make jokes amongst ourselves and laugh. Yes, laughing out loud. One day, my friend approached me and confessed this: “You know what, I never thought that Muslim women could be like this. I always perceived Muslim women as withdrawn, shy, oppressed, and serious. But you girls are the exact opposite – you are smiling and laughing.” After emphasizing her comments, I said jokingly, “Yes, we have a talent of laughing as well – Muslim women can laugh, too!”

Another experience that I encountered during my English studies was with a Venezuelan sitting next to me. Since he knew I studied international relations, one day he approached me with some question about Latin America. After replying to his questions, I jokingly asked him a question and said “Well, it’s your turn now – I am going to ask you some question about the region I come from, the Middle East.”

He replied back, saying, “I have no idea about the region of terrorists.”

To me, this was very insulting. I was in a bit of shock and responded, “Okay, be careful then, you are sitting by a terrorist. . . . Since I am from the Middle East, do I really look like a terrorist from your point of view?”

Last year, while at a small Turkish restaurant, I was waiting for my order to be ready. There were a few guys there eating their meals who asked me whether I was an Arab or not. I stated that I was not and told them that I was Turkish. One of the guys was insistently trying show me that he knew some Arabic words. He said “Selam,” which means “Hello,” and “Allah-u Akbar” in a rough voice and his friend sitting next to him acted as if he was decapitating his friend. After that, they looked at one other and each let out a big laugh.

All of my experiences showed me that the media effect had a big influence on people’s perspectives.

Orientalism is alive

Orientalism basically refers to the way in which the East—in this case, meaning the Middle East and Muslim-dominated regions—is seen as exotic, uneducated, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Orientalism is still alive today and reproduced in various ways. It is reproduced in the media, on the news, in academic studies, in discourse on social media—everywhere! Many people have no experience with the culture of the “East,” and they perceive the culture in the ways that orientalist discourse reflects it. Unfortunately, the discourse of orientalism brings with it discrimination, ignorance, and prejudice against Muslims.

Some facts

There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. More than 60% of the global Muslim population is in Asia, and the country which has the largest Muslim population is Indonesia. Only 20% of the global Muslim population lives in the Middle East. Muslims are everywhere. In such a widespread geography in which they live, inevitably some traditional cultural practices are shown as if they are the outcome of the Muslim religion. However, no one can tell me that the cultural practices towards women in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, for example, are because of Islam. People should differentiate between what is cultural practice and what is religious practice before making judgments about such a large group of of people.

Similarly, extremists are everywhere, too. Aren’t there extremists who are Christian, or Buddhist, or Jewish? There are. But just because there are a handful extremists in one faith, is it fair to paint everyone who shares it with the same brush? Is it fair to assume that 1.5 billion Muslims are all extremists? How can I think the American imam who was giving a khutbah on Eid-al-Adha is a terrorist like a member of al-Qaeda? I can’t.

*   *   *

So, why did I start with my hijab story?

Because my hijab is a visual representation of my identity of Muslim. With it, people can easily understand that I am a Muslim, which causes them to have prejudices and makes them more prone to discriminate against me.

I will not argue that I am getting stopped at airports for further security scanning just because I am Muslim. But it always reminds me of the security guards on campus in Turkey who were threatening me – saying they would end my educational life back in my undergrad years – when the security guards at airports ask me whether they can touch my headscarf for security reasons here in the United States. I just smile at them.

By the way, I should note that the Turkish government lifted headscarf ban for all women (including for students and workers in civil service or government) with the aim of bolstering democratic standards in the country in 2013. Now, not only female university students, but also women who work in civil service or government can wear a headscarf.

What is the best thing to do?

One Turkish saying goes, “If you know, you will love!” To know about others is the best way to get rid of biases, prejudices, and discriminatory attitudes. This is what I was told continuously within the last two years by my non-Muslim friends: “I would have never thought Muslims could be like you.” Have a Muslim friend. Travel a Muslim-dominated country. Don’t believe everything that you read and see about Muslims in the media. In the process of making friends, there is an amazing power to eradicate biases towards others. Walk with them, eat at the same table, laugh together, listen their stories, and tell your own stories. You will see how much you have in common and how alike you actually are.

To sum it all up, discrimination and ignorance are everywhere. It is in the media, on flights when a Muslim women wants a cola, at schools in a science class when a student’s name is Ahmed, and it is at lecterns while a politician is giving a speech. It is all sad. I will never passively consent to all of these forms of prejudice. I am rebelling. But I have chosen a different way to rebel, such as pursuing my academic studies and writing to have my voice heard. I believe that a pen has more power than a bomb has.

Often on social media I see this comment: “Muslims, go back to your country!” And I say, I will go back to my own country. I will go back to teach how we can live in peace and harmony as one world. I will go back to promote understanding and tolerance, to speak out and say, “We are all one,” no matter what our skin color, race, culture, and religion are.

We are all one.

IMG0338jpg-3703592_p9Zehra Çayıroğlu is a second-year master’s student from Turkey at Penn State University’s School of International Affairs. She is a human rights activist interested in promoting tolerance and understanding across cultures and religions. 

A version of this featured article was originally published on CNN’s iReport as part of the assignment series I am a Muslim in America.

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