Apr 18
2013

the invisible muslim.

I thought that leaving an email address up and inviting people to ask me questions would be an idea I would regret massively, but I’ve had some great email convos with people this week, so thanks for being in touch, guys. None of you are dicks! This is a question Ann sent me… and I thought I’d answer it publicly. I will try to answer questions publicly whenever I can, so if you have one… carina@carinamackenzie.com is where to get me.

“This may be a little personal, so obviously don’t answer if you don’t want to, but I think its so interesting your family is Egyptian. Is it harder for you in America with all the prejudice, especially since 9/11, or do you feel fairly unaffected by it? Just asking because I know you’re so political and involved in things.”

The short answer is no, it’s not harder for me. I mean, when it comes down to it, I’m white. No one ever looks at me and thinks I’m a terrorist, or thinks that there’s something wrong with my foundational belief system. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, and I certainly can’t speak to what it’s like to be judged and hated based on your race or religion. But yes, I’m deeply affected by it. It’s something that exists at the core of who I am and has influenced my personality and my ideology immeasurably.

There’s a much longer answer than that, though.

I went to Islamic school for a while as a kid, on Sundays. I hated waking up early, I didn’t have any friends in the classes, and I’ve never been a believer, so I wasn’t particularly psyched to go. I eventually stopped, because my mom doesn’t believe in pushing her religion on other people and that includes her kids. (She is excellent.)

I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am, now, that I went to those classes. Because I know, down to my bones, that Islam is not a religion that is about hate. Obviously, like most organized religion, it’s not the most inclusive institution. That’s a big part of why I’m not religious. But Islam as I know it, and as I was taught it, is not hateful or ugly.

I know that.

Most importantly, I knew that, twelve years ago. When I was fourteen years old and planes struck the Twin Towers, I knew that. My father was at the World Trade Center that day. He survived. (A lifelong boater, he commandeered a boat and got people off Manhattan Island. The story here.) The events of 9/11 affected him profoundly. My family changed, irrevocably, that day.

And I changed, too. Look, my town and my high school was hit hard by 9/11. I grew up in Greenwich, CT. We could see the smoke and dust from my back yard, for days. More than one kid in my high school lost a parent. We as a community were terrified. Our teachers were terrified. As an adult looking back on it, I can understand the anger that fear inspires, particularly when that fear is as perpetuated by the media as it was then. We all had bad information. We had scared people teaching us, and parenting us. I was lucky to have parents who, from day one, made it very clear what extremists and fundamentalists are. I knew, from day one, that the people who attacked us on 9/11 were not really Muslims. They in no way represented the religion of Islam.

But there were kids I went to high school with who didn’t have parents who taught them that. There were teachers who didn’t understand that. And they were scared. And they were angry. And sometimes they were mean.

When I think of my early teenage years I remember just… awkwardness. (I mean, I’m still kind of awkward, but I’m confident in my awkwardness now.) I was loud at all the wrong times, and quiet at all the wrong times. I was smart but I felt dumb, so I never stood up for anything. I certainly never stood up for myself. After 9/11, that changed. It kind of had to.

I think if I looked different, teachers would’ve been more thoughtful about what they said around me, but I’m blonde (um, sometimes) and blue-eyed. They didn’t know they had a Muslim kid in their classes when they were talking about the 9/11 issues. And at first, most of my friends didn’t know I was Muslim, though I quickly told them. Something stirred in me. I stood up in classes and told teachers they were wrong. I told kids who were much cooler than me that they were wrong. I was called a “sand-n*****” more than once. I had sand put in my gym locker the day after a particularly heated debate. (Seriously, some asshole BROUGHT SAND TO SCHOOL. Where did they get sand? WE WERE NOT OLD ENOUGH TO DRIVE YET.)

I remember, very vividly, sitting at a lunch table with the people I thought were my closest friends. One of them — a guy I’d been friends with since sixth grade — told me he thought I should have been on one of the planes. And everyone we were sitting with said nothing.

I dealt with a lot that year. I mean, I ended the school year with an entirely different circle of friends than I began it with, obviously. I had some bad anxiety stuff happening. At home, my dad was dealing with PTSD-related shit. By February my parents were splitting up. It was a terrible year.

But it was the year that I became the person I am. I can say, definitively, that the qualities I most appreciate in myself were developed that year. Because my mother is Muslim and because my dad was at Ground Zero, I was in a unique position. I learned the value of education, the value of tolerance, the value of empathy, and the value of speaking up for myself. I learned the value of speaking up for other people. 9/11 is why I am who I am.

The thing that sucks the most is that things haven’t really gotten better since 9/11. People haven’t learned much. I fly all the time, and I watch people get racially profiled ALL the time. The way that people say “Barack Obama is Muslim!” as if they’re saying “Barack Obama murders puppies!” is just mind-boggling. (And he’s not, by the way. Not Muslim, but if he were that wouldn’t disqualify him from the position. Also not a puppy-murderer.) When people were angry about the Islamic community center being built in the Financial District, it absolutely destroyed me.

I mean, it’s probably going to make me sound like an asshole, but since we’re being honest… on Monday, when the bombs went off in Boston, it didn’t take me very long to think to myself, I hope it was a white person. Isn’t that a terrible thing to think? But I thought it.

When people find out my family is Muslim sometimes their opinion of me changes. The real bitch is that people say a lot of terrible things about Muslims in front of me because they don’t know. Never in a million years do they think they’re talking about my mother, but… they are. They’re talking about my mother and my grandfather and those are the two absolute best people that I know. That cuts pretty deeply, sometimes.

And look, those kids who were awful 12 years ago? They were young, scared, and misinformed. The full-grown adult idiots I deal with now? They are not young, and their fear and misinformation is their own stupid fault. And it pisses me off. I spend a lot of time angry about it. Writing this, I’m angry. I just have to hope that I can figure out how to channel that anger into something worthwhile. That’s why I’m into politics, honestly.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t want to be a person who sits at a lunch table and says nothing.