At a time of rising anti-Muslim rhetoric and discrimination, communities nationwide are coming together to push back. This is the sixth in a blog series titled “Faith Under Fire,” which is meant to highlight this fight for equality and religious freedom.
In 2012, my family and I moved from a bigger city in the Midwest to a much smaller college town in the South — population 17,000. While the move was inconvenient to my social life (no more Fun Day-Mondays with the girls), I chalked it up as one more adventure in my life. With that, we packed up the minivan and made our trek down South.
The first year was hard. While my husband enjoyed his new position at the university, I was having a difficult time finding work in my field — civil rights. I took up cooking and working out, trying to keep up with these very elegant Southern moms who always looked well-manicured. I even joined the PTA. At my first meeting, I was approached by someone who appeared to be the head lady of the group.
“What church do you go to?” she asked, smiling from ear to ear.
“Church? Oh. Uh. I don’t. I’m Muslim.”
“I see. Well, you have a personal invitation by me to join us at our congregation.”
She smiled again. I smiled back.
“I’d love the opportunity for interfaith dialogue. Thank you.”
“Oh. No. I…I’m sorry. Listen, I’ve been meaning to talk to the principal. I better catch him before he leaves.”
And then there was that other time…
A year later, after purchasing our new home, there was a knock at the door. It was an early Monday morning and I was still in my pajamas drinking my coffee. Two women stood there. One appeared to be in her mid-50s. The other, much older, stood behind her. I kept my eye on the older one. She looked like trouble.
“Hello. Welcome to our city. We see you just moved into town.”
Where was this lady getting her information? The Patriot Act?
“…I wanted to invite you to our church. Have you found Christ in your heart?”
The older woman behind her kept smiling. Every once in a while she’d sway back and forth, as if she was dancing to her own tune, while twiddling her fingers in what appeared to be a maniacal way. A bit too excited for my taste. And then, spirit fingers spoke up.
“You’d like our church. I sit in the back. We have a good ole time there. We could sit together and have our own little party.”
Her hair was colored a dark brown with the dye overlapping a bit on her forehead. She had bright red lipstick that was smeared over her lip-line.
“Thank you, ladies. I appreciate the invitation. I’m Muslim, though, so I’ll be searching for a mosque to attend with my children.”
Spirit fingers yelled out, “What she say? Muslin?”
“No. That’s a fabric. I said Muslim, the religion. I’m MUSLIM, with an M.”
My three young boys came to the door to see what was going on. The ladies smiled, and I introduced them.
“These are my boys, Ali, Omar, and Mohamed.”
“Wow. Those are different names.”
“Yes, we picked them out of the terrorist watch list. You know, to make it easier for everyone.” I laughed. They didn’t. “I’m joking, ladies. It’s a joke.”
Later that evening I told the story to my husband and daughter.
“That’s not funny. This is a small town. People here are nice. You don’t need to make things a joking matter. Just say ‘no thank you’ and let them be on their way.” My husband was concerned that I was antagonizing the natives.
A sign on a Tennessee roadway
I received a mailer recently. No knock on the door this time, but it was certainly another invitation. However, not one to save my soul. There was no party in the back row. It was a recruitment flyer for the KKK. The KKK! I mean, you hear about them in far-removed towns, but…Oh. Wait. I am living in a far-removed town now.
“I’m concerned,” I told my husband. “Maybe we should have thought about giving our kids more American sounding names. How do you hide a Mohamed from a group of hateful people?”
“You’re being irrational. No one is looking for you, unless you continue to make jokes about being on the terrorist watch list to everyone you see at Walmart.”
The truth is, I was almost relieved to know that the KKK in town was making its presence visible. I was getting way too comfortable with the polite “bless your heart” tolerance of it all. There was no way that everyone was always this friendly. It’s a lot easier to confirm your paranoia when you have hard evidence. Undercover xenophobia and anti-Muslim animosity is a lot more concerning when masked by smiling faces.
That people are fearful of the unknown is not new for Muslims in America. As a young child I remember exactly where I was and how I felt the first time I was exposed to ugly rhetoric, and how it scared me.
In 1980, I was in the third grade. There were 53 Americans being held hostage in Iran at the time. On a very warm day in California, our school decided to show support for the hostages by planting trees and tying yellow ribbons around them, to show that we hadn’t forgotten the hostages. During the assembly there were two teachers standing behind me. While the principal played the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” the two teachers spoke.
“These Arabs in the Middle East are trying to destroy the world. They’re all evil.”
“I’d like to see one of them try to come to our soil and take one of us hostage. What kind of religion do these people have? Barbarians!”
My stomach sank. Did they know I was Arab? Did they know I was Muslim? My eyes began to water and my knees began to shake. I was scared. I went home that afternoon and told my mom what happened. She took me to a local fabric store and we bought yellow fabric. When we got home we cut strips, lots of them, and took them outside and began tying them around trees.
“If teachers ask what you are, tell them American. They don’t like us. We are American, understand?”
My mother was an immigrant from Brazil married to a Palestinian Muslim. We weren’t Iranian, but it didn’t matter. The teachers didn’t know the difference. My mom was afraid that I would be punished for not being like them, that they would fail me. They did fail me. Not academically, but morally and emotionally. Educators that were supposed to uplift me made me feel like an outsider instead.
We continued to tie ribbons around trees that evening without saying a word to each other. None were needed. I understood perfectly as an eight year old that it was better to be with them than for them to think we were against them.
Turning fear into empowerment
Maysoon’s son Mohamed, aka Moody, takes a photo with her husban Ihsan, sons Omar and Ali, and their dog Scout in the background.
Eventually, I began to see and experience the world and its events differently. I found that diversity was something to be admired. What’s interesting is that I learned this not on my own, but through my children.
When my daughter was in the first grade, I received a phone call from the principal. She was in trouble for jumping over her desk in order to beat up a little boy who had just called her friend a “nigger.”
“Why is my daughter in trouble?”
“This is not the behavior we tolerate from our students, Mrs. Khatib. Violence is not the answer.”
“Is the little boy in trouble for using derogatory language?”
“We talked to him and he knows not to say that word anymore.”
I picked up my daughter and took her for ice cream. She needed to be rewarded.
My children also don’t hide their faith. When one of my twins was in the second grade, he attended speech therapy. I was able to watch through a two way mirror, listening in with headphones.
The therapist said, “Let’s use words that have the S sound in it.”
“Okay,” Omar said. “I’m a MuSSSSlim. Are you a Muslim? Muslims are good people. Muslims love to have fun and love people and love peace and love bikes and love toys and love Legos! If you love these things you are a MuSSSSlim, too!”
He smiled at her as her mouth hung open.
“I know,” she said. “Let’s use words that have the T-H sound in them.”
“Great! THe Muslims are coming to town. THey love THe people here.”
The therapist looked toward the two-way mirror, face flushed. She tried.
How could my boys, all of them under the age of 10 be so strong? When I was their age I was cutting up yellow ribbons trying to prove how American I was. Meanwhile, in 2016, when the fear odometer against Muslims is at its peak in the news, my kids are spreading the love of their faith to anyone who will stop and give them the time of day. They figured out something that took me over 30 years to learn: to use their platform wisely, to live by example, and to look at adversity in the eyes and kick some ass. (Figuratively, that is. Well, except for my daughter – she’s the Mike Tyson of the family.)
In the four years I’ve lived in my small town, we’ve always opened our doors to people. Every Sunday night we have a family dinner where we invite students (international and domestic), professors, neighbors, and friends to enjoy some Middle Eastern cooking. We talk about everything, laugh about nothing in particular, and make sure that everyone is happy before leaving to their own homes.
As Muslims, I feared change from big city to small town would be difficult for the kids. Turns out it’s grown on us. Our children appear to like the fact that their names are different. They love their small town where people wave at you as you drive by, and everyone knows each other.
We’ve used this chapter in our life to empower our children, to educate them on world affairs, and to explain to them that while life is not perfect, it is definitely an adventure.
At the same time, we tell our kids that they don’t necessarily have to be poster children and spokespeople of Muslims in America. They just need to be young, and they should leave the politics and dealing with fearmongers to the big kids. The goal is to make your child feel safe and secure. Sometimes, just telling them they’re okay is all they need.
Ultimately, I want to make sure that when my children look back on our small town, they remember us opening our doors to people of all faiths and beliefs. In fact, I’ll even open my doors to those recruiters of the KKK. Maybe I’ll feed them a little hummus and tabouli, and let them see that diversity is the spice of life – bless their hearts.
Maysoon Khatib is an adjunct professor teaching public speaking at Murray State University, and the managing editor of Muslimgirl.com. She spent 10 years working as a civil rights investigator for the State of Michigan Department of Civil Rights prior to moving to Western Kentucky with her husband and four children.
Read the previous posts in this series: