Being Muslim in America


Sitting atop an open suitcase, Sarah scanned her dorm room for a lightweight jacket to take home for winter break. Pacing around in her yellow tie-dye maxi dress, she lit a candle. A purple and white sari, sprinkled with silver embellishments, adorned one wall. It belonged to Sarah’s paternal grandmother, her “dadi.”

Sarah is a senior at Duke University, where she is studying neuroscience and education. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, she is the daughter of immigrants. Her parents came to the United States from India.

It had been about a month since Donald Trump won the presidential election, after a campaign full of divisive rhetoric. Being Muslim and American would be particularly difficult under a Trump administration, but for Sarah it had never been easy.

Growing up, she felt different from the other kids. Her elementary school was predominantly Christian and white. After 9/11, her friends’ parents wouldn’t let their children hang out with her. So, in fourth grade, “Saw-rah” switched schools and reinvented herself as “Say-rah,” a Christian.

She soon ran into trouble. When people asked about her denomination, she was baffled. Thanks to Google, though, she soon found her calling and became a Baptist Christian. Sarah wanted to be more like the children around her. She already looked different enough. Her parents, fearful of backlash, had also advised their young daughter to keep a low profile.

Sarah is an Ismaili Muslim, a minority sect within Shiite Islam. Like her, the Ismaili community also started hiding their faith after 9/11. They removed prayer beads from their cars and wore Western clothes to communal prayers. They also removed a sign that said “Jamaat Khaana,” the name for their place of worship, and instead disguised their collective space as an office building.


When she came to Duke, “Say-rah” became “Saw-rah,” the Ismaili Muslim, again. She started to overcompensate for neglecting this part of her identity during high school. Before telling people anything about herself, she would first say she was Muslim.

The people Sarah associates with at Duke are more accepting of her faith than her high school community. “The amount of love I’ve received at this school for being Muslim and living that identity is more than the amount of hate I’ve received but I think the hate still exists in a more prominent way, I just don’t see it,” she said.

Kiah Glenn, advisor to Duke’s Muslim Students Association and the student development coordinator at Duke’s Center for Muslim Life, said Sarah’s experience is not uncommon.

Muslim families, in the aftermath of 9/11, tried to disguise their children’s identities because of safety concerns. “It’s easier to be seen either as Muslim or just your ethnicity, so you just carry the baggage of one rather than both,” Kiah said as she adjusted her multicolored, patterned headscarf.

She has seen students become more open about their Muslim identity in their time at Duke. “College is a space where most people tend to embrace the wholeness of who they are,” Kiah explained as she twisted an orange ribbon between her fingers.


But Sarah didn’t always feel accepted at Duke. Two years ago, three Muslim students were gunned down in neighboring Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, on Duke’s campus, Sarah scrolled through Yik Yak, an app where users leave anonymous posts that other nearby users can read. She recalled reading something along the lines of “my only regret about the Chapel Hill shootings is that I wasn’t the one holding the gun.”

About a month before the shootings, Duke had, within a span of three days, made and reversed the decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer from the chapel tower. “They essentially picked fraternity donors over equal rights for Muslims and all religious groups,” Sarah said. Although several university officials cited security concerns, it remains unclear if jeopardized funding was the only reason behind the reversal.

Sarah is frustrated with what she perceives as the university’s hypocrisy. They want a diverse campus but not too diverse. They don’t want the Muslim student body to take up too much space. Muslim students can pray in in the Center for Muslim Life, which is not on either of the main campuses, or in the basement of the Chapel. “When its Blue Devil Days, we can be on the quad so that people can look at us,” Sarah said.


Sarah did “feel the Bern,” but when Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, Sarah didn’t think twice about supporting Clinton. Struggling to find words to describe the Republican primaries, she jumped from “disgusting” to “stupid” and back again.

Like many millennials, she didn’t expect Donald Trump to win the primary, let alone the presidential election. “People who voted for him, what do you even expect from his presidency? How can you know? Besides just hate,” Sarah said.

Her mom, dad and brother grinned at us from a silver picture frame. Sarah was studying abroad in Morocco when Trump called for a “Muslim ban”. Her mother called her in tears, crying that he wouldn’t let her daughter back into the country. Sarah tried to calm her down, reminding her she was a U.S. citizen and Trump wasn’t even President. “My mom was very scared,” she remembered. Her family even considered moving back to India, where the Muslim minority is facing its own challenge: rising Hindu nationalism.

Adjusting her golden septum ring as she spoke, Sarah launched into a critique of Trump. By instilling such high levels of fear in already marginalized populations, he had silenced them even further. She feared for her loved ones, especially those who are more visibly “other” than her. Her friend who takes the hijab. Her brother whose skin is darker than her own.

Sarah stayed in bed the day after the election. “I remember that day being like, I’m not going to leave my apartment because then it’s going to be real and I’m going to exist in this world and breathe this air and it will literally be real,” she recalled. Hearing her stomach growl at 8:30 p.m., she finally ventured outside.

She went to the Center for Muslim Life, where many of her peers mourned in silence. Some expressed their anger, screaming and shouting. America had let them down, yes, but so had their own community. Why didn’t more American Muslims exercise their voting rights?


Fast-forward to January. Just a few days after his inauguration, Trump signed an executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim countries and banning refugees for at least 120 days.

Sarah sat cross-legged on her bed, clinging to her stuffed penguin. She was angry at Trump voters, who often claimed he wasn’t really going to implement all his campaign slogans. Well, he implemented this one.

Most of Sarah’s family members are not U.S. citizens; they are green card holders. One of them was told that all revisions are being pushed back another six months because of the executive order.

Sarah has seen her community under attack before. She fears they will react submissively once again. There are so many questions in her head: Does the Muslim community know how to fight back? What can they even do? “Just erase our Muslimness. Honestly, that’s how I’ve seen people handle it. Be even more under the radar, don’t ever call yourself Muslim in public, shave your beard, take off your hijab,” she thinks out loud.

But there have been positive developments. Protestors gathered at airports around the country to stand in solidarity with Muslims. Sarah went to a protest rally on campus too. She excitedly remembered students speaking up, delivering passionate speeches and being unapologetically Muslim. Later, a federal district judge ruled against the travel ban and the decision was upheld by a federal appeals panel.

Sarah is hopeful that there will be more collaborations across communities in the future. She wants to be a part of an intersectional resistance. “I want more Muslims to be standing with Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I want more Muslims to be standing up for gay rights. I want more Muslims to be at the forefront of these things because these same people are supporting us and have been for so long… It’s just our turn to not silence ourselves.”

Sighing, she got up to blow out the bright orange candle. It was time to get to work.

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