What do you think when you look at me? A woman of faith? An expert? Maybe even a sister. Or oppressed, brainwashed, a terrorist. Or just an airport security line delay. That one’s actually true.
If some of your perceptions were negative, I don’t really blame you. That’s just how the media has been portraying people who look like me. One study found that 80 percent of news coverage about Islam and Muslims is negative. And studies show that Americans say that most don’t know a Muslim. I guess people don’t talk to their Uber drivers.
Well, for those of you who have never met a Muslim, it’s great to meet you. Let me tell you who I am. I’m a mom, a coffee lover — double espresso, cream on the side. I’m an introvert. I’m a wannabe fitness fanatic. And I’m a practicing, spiritual Muslim. But not like Lady Gaga says, because baby, I wasn’t born this way. It was a choice.
When I was 17, I decided to come out. No, not as a gay person like some of my friends, but as a Muslim, and decided to start wearing the hijab, my head covering. My feminist friends were aghast: “Why are you oppressing yourself?” The funny thing was, it was actually at that time a feminist declaration of independence from the pressure I felt as a 17-year-old, to conform to a perfect and unattainable standard of beauty. I didn’t just passively accept the faith of my parents. I wrestled with the Quran. I read and reflected and questioned and doubted and, ultimately, believed. My relationship with God — it was not love at first sight. It was a trust and a slow surrender that deepened with every reading of the Quran. Its rhythmic beauty sometimes moves me to tears. I see myself in it. I feel that God knows me. Have you ever felt like someone sees you, completely understands you and yet loves you anyway? That’s how it feels.
And so later, I got married, and like all good Egyptians, started my career as an engineer.
I later had a child, after getting married, and I was living essentially the Egyptian-American dream.
And then that terrible morning of September, 2001. I think a lot of you probably remember exactly where you were that morning. I was sitting in my kitchen finishing breakfast, and I look up on the screen and see the words “Breaking News.” There was smoke, airplanes flying into buildings, people jumping out of buildings. What was this? An accident? A malfunction? My shock quickly turned to outrage. Who would do this? And I switch the channel and I hear,
… Muslim terrorist …,” “… in the name of Islam …,” “… Middle-Eastern descent …,” “… jihad …,” “… we should bomb Mecca.” Oh my God.
Not only had my country been attacked, but in a flash, somebody else’s actions had turned me from a citizen to a suspect.
That same day, we had to drive across Middle America to move to a new city to start grad school. And I remember sitting in the passenger seat as we drove in silence, crouched as low as I could go in my seat, for the first time in my life, afraid for anyone to know I was a Muslim.
We moved into our apartment that night in a new town in what felt like a completely different world. And then I was hearing and seeing and reading warnings from national Muslim organizations saying things like, “Be alert,” “Be aware,” “Stay in well-lit areas,” “Don’t congregate.”
I stayed inside all week. And then it was Friday that same week, the day that Muslims congregate for worship. And again the warnings were, “Don’t go that first Friday, it could be a target.” And I was watching the news, wall-to-wall coverage. Emotions were so raw, understandably, and I was also hearing about attacks on Muslims, or people who were perceived to be Muslim, being pulled out and beaten in the street. Mosques were actually firebombed. And I thought, we should just stay home.
And yet, something didn’t feel right. Because those people who attacked our country attacked our country. I get it that people were angry at the terrorists. Guess what? So was I. And so to have to explain yourself all the time isn’t easy. I don’t mind questions. I love questions. It’s the accusations that are tough.
Today we hear people actually saying things like, “There’s a problem in this country, and it’s called Muslims. When are we going to get rid of them?” So, some people want to ban Muslims and close down mosques. They talk about my community kind of like we’re a tumor in the body of America. And the only question is, are we malignant or benign? You know, a malignant tumor you extract altogether, and a benign tumor you just keep under surveillance.
The choices don’t make sense, because it’s the wrong question. Muslims, like all other Americans, aren’t a tumor in the body of America, we’re a vital organ.
Muslims are inventors and teachers, first responders and Olympic athletes.
Now, is closing down mosques going to make America safer? It might free up some parking spots, but it will not end terrorism. Going to a mosque regularly is actually linked to having more tolerant views of people of other faiths and greater civic engagement. And as one police chief in the Washington, DC area recently told me, people don’t actually get radicalized at mosques. They get radicalized in their basement or bedroom, in front of a computer. And what you find about the radicalization process is it starts online, but the first thing that happens is the person gets cut off from their community, from even their family, so that the extremist group can brainwash them into believing that they, the terrorists, are the true Muslims, and everyone else who abhors their behavior and ideology are sellouts or apostates. So if we want to prevent radicalization, we have to keep people going to the mosque.
Now, some will still argue Islam is a violent religion. After all, a group like ISIS bases its brutality on the Quran. Now, as a Muslim, as a mother, as a human being, I think we need to do everything we can to stop a group like ISIS. But we would be giving in to their narrative if we cast them as representatives of a faith of 1.6 billion people.
ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.
Both groups claim to base their ideology on their holy book. But when you look at them, they’re not motivated by what they read in their holy book. It’s their brutality that makes them read these things into the scripture.
Recently, a prominent imam told me a story that really took me aback. He said that a girl came to him because she was thinking of going to join ISIS. And I was really surprised and asked him, had she been in contact with a radical religious leader? And he said the problem was quite the opposite, that every cleric that she had talked to had shut her down and said that her rage, her sense of injustice in the world, was just going to get her in trouble. And so with nowhere to channel and make sense of this anger, she was a prime target to be exploited by extremists promising her a solution. What this imam did was to connect her back to God and to her community. He didn’t shame her for her rage — instead, he gave her constructive ways to make real change in the world. What she learned at that mosque prevented her from going to join ISIS.
I’ve told you a little bit about how Islamophobia affects me and my family. But how does it impact ordinary Americans? How does it impact everyone else? How does consuming fear 24 hours a day affect the health of our democracy, the health of our free thought?
Well, one study — actually, several studies in neuroscience — show that when we’re afraid, at least three things happen. We become more accepting of authoritarianism, conformity and prejudice. One study showed that when subjects were exposed to news stories that were negative about Muslims, they became more accepting of military attacks on Muslim countries and policies that curtail the rights of American Muslims.
Now, this isn’t just academic. When you look at when anti-Muslim sentiment spiked between 2001 and 2013, it happened three times, but it wasn’t around terrorist attacks. It was in the run up to the Iraq War and during two election cycles. So Islamophobia isn’t just the natural response to Muslim terrorism as I would have expected. It can actually be a tool of public manipulation, eroding the very foundation of a free society, which is rational and well-informed citizens. Muslims are like canaries in the coal mine. We might be the first to feel it, but the toxic air of fear is harming us all.
And assigning collective guilt isn’t just about having to explain yourself all the time. Deah and his wife Yusor were a young married couple living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where they both went to school. Deah was an athlete. He was in dental school, talented, promising … And his sister would tell me that he was the sweetest, most generous human being she knew. She was visiting him there and he showed her his resume, and she was amazed. She said, “When did my baby brother become such an accomplished young man?” Just a few weeks after Suzanne’s visit to her brother and his new wife, their neighbor, Craig Stephen Hicks, murdered them, as well as Yusor’s sister, Razan, who was visiting for the afternoon, in their apartment, execution style, after posting anti-Muslim statements on his Facebook page. He shot Deah eight times. So bigotry isn’t just immoral, it can even be lethal.
So, back to my story. What happened after 9/11? Did we go to the mosque or did we play it safe and stay home? Well, we talked it over, and it might seem like a small decision, but to us, it was about what kind of America we wanted to leave for our kids: one that would control us by fear or one where we were practicing our religion freely. So we decided to go to the mosque. And we put my son in his car seat, buckled him in, and we drove silently, intensely, to the mosque. I took him out, I took off my shoes, I walked into the prayer hall and what I saw made me stop. The place was completely full. And then the imam made an announcement, thanking and welcoming our guests, because half the congregation were Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, people of faith and no faith, who had come not to attack us, but to stand in solidarity with us.
I just break down at this time. These people were there because they chose courage and compassion over panic and prejudice.
What will you choose? What will you choose at this time of fear and bigotry? Will you play it safe? Or will you join those who say we are better than that?
Thank you so much.
Helen Walters: So Dalia, you seem to have struck a chord. But I wonder, what would you say to those who might argue that you’re giving a TED Talk, you’re clearly a deep thinker, you work at a fancy think tank, you’re an exception, you’re not the rule. What would you say to those people?
Dalia Mogahed: I would say, don’t let this stage distract you, I’m completely ordinary. I’m not an exception. My story is not unusual. I am as ordinary as they come. When you look at Muslims around the world — and I’ve done this, I’ve done the largest study ever done on Muslims around the world — people want ordinary things. They want prosperity for their family, they want jobs and they want to live in peace. So I am not in any way an exception. When you meet people who seem like an exception to the rule, oftentimes it’s that the rule is broken, not that they’re an exception to it.
HW: Thank you so much. Dalia Mogahed.