Earlier this month, President Obama officially visited a mosque for the first time during his tenure. Specifically, he visited my childhood mosque, the Islamic Society of Baltimore. Tucked away on a quiet, tree-lined street, the collection of buildings served as the site of my family's yearly prayer outing on Eid, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. On Eid, I’d don a garishly colorful yet elegant shalwar kameez, eat the traditional sweet noodles called seviyan for breakfast, and eagerly await the end of prayers so that I could ricochet from house to house, collecting presents along the way.
Upon arriving at the ISB, the men and women would shuffle to their separate entrances, guided by their gender. Knowing that I would forget the exact cubby I had placed my shoes, my mom would hide them in a discreet corner rather than leave them in the vast pile that had already formed. As we knelt down on white sheets, I would peek from underneath my headscarf, making sure that I had followed the motions correctly and hoping to survey the motley crew; I was fascinated by women wearing unfamiliar African dashikis. On the car ride home, my mom would inevitably lament what she considered the subpar physical placement of women in the mosque, decrying the arrangement as unequal.
These memories are hard to grasp. As I got older, praying at the mosque on Eid no longer seemed to justify missing a day of school. Last summer, a phone call with my parents sufficed as an Eid celebration as I ate dinner alone in a dorm, having returned from a day's work before my roommates.
I don't pray five times a day. I don't fast during Ramadan. I don't wear a hijab. I definitely don't follow all the "rules" associated with being Muslim. When asked why I don't eat pork, I respond that it's out of habit from growing up in a Muslim family, because I honestly cannot claim this dietary restriction on religious grounds, given the aforementioned "don'ts." In this way, being Muslim does not significantly impact my quotidian routine, and I display no signs of my Muslim background that would be visible to others.
Calling myself a Muslim has always been complicated by the knowledge that I would not be considered one by many who adhere more strictly to Islam, who might see my behaviors as heretic. Still, I’ve been privileged to have a family that emphasizes faith and spirituality over “rules,” and so I have never had to truly worry about my religiosity being deemed insufficient.
That evening, the tears on my cheeks surprised me as I watched a video of President Obama deliver his address. He said, "If you’re ever wondering whether you fit in here, let me say it as clearly as I can, as President of the United States: You fit in here, right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too. You’re not Muslim or American. You’re Muslim and American."
How incongruous for someone like me, who did not think she was particularly conflicted about her identity, to blubber and weep solitarily in a Winthrop dorm room, viewing a speech through a screen a few weeks after the fact, simply because I was told that I belonged? That I fit in? That I have a home? While the feeling of wanting to belong might be universal, the complete gratitude that I felt simply for being recognized suggested that I had experienced a discord deeper than I had realized.
If Obama’s words struck such a chord with me, I can only imagine what they must have meant to those who have been targeted, victimized, dehumanized, or otherwise treated like second-class citizens for peacefully practicing their religion. Like all religions, Islam includes a spectrum of followers, and those who practice differently than I do don’t warrant the bigotry and intimidation cast their way. To worshippers in California whose mosque was intentionally set on fire, to the Somali restaurant owner in North Dakota, whose building was defaced with swastikas and the words “go home,” and to the doctor whose brother and sister-in-law were killed in an attack in North Carolina, this proclamation from the highest-elected American must have provided the ultimate validation of their identity. Obama’s words seemed to validate my identity, too.
The speech comes at a time when some presidential candidates seriously campaign on platforms banning all Muslim travel to this country, when many scapegoat Muslims for the perceived ills of America—blinkered rhetoric that equates the appalling, deplorable acts of terrorists with an entire religious group. Such rhetoric suggests fear more than it does anger. Unfortunately, though, a skilled demagogue can easily convert that fear into anger. When the vast majority of Americans cannot name a Muslim friend, fearing Muslims entails fearing the unknown.
My name carries an Islamic legacy, for Prophet Muhammad's mother was named Amna, and Hashmi comes from Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, the Prophet’s great-grandfather. I cannot disassociate from my Muslim background, nor do I want to. I’m grateful for the web of Pakistani, Muslim families whose common past engenders uncommon friendships in a newfound homeland. I’m grateful for my khalas, my parents’ friends who are granted the title of aunts and uncles despite not having any blood relation to us. I’m grateful for the moment when all the Eid presents are gathered next to the fireplace, and an aunt calls up a child one at a time to collect her haul. This collection of moments centered on love, humility, generosity, and tradition define being Muslim to me, perhaps more so than when I finished reading the 30 books of the Quran in Arabic or circled the Kaaba in a pilgrimage to Mecca.There are legitimate concerns over the growing radicalization of Islam, and I cannot pretend to know the solution either to extremism or to Islamophobia. But I’m Muslim because I say I am, and I’m right where I belong.