Here is the full transcript of Global Voices’ editor Sahar Habib Ghazi’s TEDx Talk: The Muslims You Cannot See at TEDxStanford conference.
Sahar Habib Ghazi – Managing Editor at Global Voices
Allow me to take you back to a couple of months ago. I’m at the Women’s March in San Francisco with a neighbor and a dear friend.
I trust her with my four-year-old daughter; she trusts me with her children. She’s my rock. One minute we are chanting for women’s rights, the next we are shouting for trans rights. We are in a sea of umbrellas and people: some carrying the iconic image of a hijabi wrapped in an American flag; some chanting slogans against Islamophobia.
My friend looks at me and says, “You don’t have to deal with that stuff, right?”
“Why, because I’m not Muslim?” I have had this conversation before.
People I work with, or people who have known me for years, separate me, the Sahar they know, from the idea of “Muslim” built in their imagination. They de-Muslim me. There are 17 billion Muslims worldwide. We look different.
We practice different. We identify with being Muslim differently. But somehow we all get packed into the same Muslim box. This box is so well-constructed in our collective imaginations that when people like me don’t fit in it, we get de-Muslimed. I am not alone in this.
It even happened to the best-selling poet in America.
[ACT I: Being De-muslimed] What images come to your mind when you think of Rumi, poet of love? Peace? Love ? When Jalaluddin Rumi was my age, he was an orthodox Muslim preacher and scholar Islam, the Quran and Prophet Muhammad stayed central to his poetry until the day he died. But Rumi’s religion has been erased from Western imagination and most popular translations of his poetry. An erased history is a big part of the story of the 1.7 billion Muslims [ACT II: Belonging to the 1.7 billion].
Another is the reductive imagery of Muslims that has colonized Western books for centuries. This seductive imagery is defined by the dark men you should fear and the exotic women you need to save. The path-breaking Palestinian American scholar Edward Said first deconstructed this imagery in the 1970s.
But it stands tall today. Our politicians, my news industry, and Hollywood all continue to build on it. Take the 1998 film The Siege as an example. In it, Arab American men are actually rounded up in an internment camp in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Here’s Denzel Washington at the top, with the bad dangerous Muslims, and there he is below, with the good, patriotic Muslim FBI agent.
This film was released three years before the tragic events of 9/11. I’ve worked in the news industry for 13 years, and I’ve seen this kind of reductive powerful narrative dominate our newsfeeds. This narrative overshadows the fact that nine Muslim women have led their country in the last three decades, while the US couldn’t even elect its first real female presidential candidate in 2016. This narrative fails to recognize that French Muslim women, who can’t wear their hijab in public buildings, and Saudi Muslim women, forced to cover their bodies by their government, are two sides of the same coin. It’s one powerful group controlling the other.
This narrative diminishes Muslim leaders leading movements of change; it ignores the fact that the first Muslim prayers said on American soil were said by Africans brought here on slave ships; it erases the existence of Queer Muslims. This narrative has captured our collective imaginations so deeply and so inaccurately that Sikh men and children are often the target of anti-Muslim attacks and violence.
Because of the stories we tell and the way we tell them, Islamophobia today is more than fear of Islam, the religion, it is fear of the other. In the news industry, we tell more than stories based on facts or alternative facts, we also build narratives that help you make sense of the world. And my industry has epically failed at capturing the narrative of the 1.7 billion Muslims.
And we’ve failed them here, in the US, where seven million Muslims make up the most diverse religious group in America. One in three Muslim Americans are African Americans, and six out of 10 Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants who come from 77 different countries.
Four decades ago, my immigrant parents arrived in New York to live their American dream. My mother placed her first jewelry designs on 5th Avenue, and my father worked hard in the skyscrapers of New York – skyscrapers made possible by a Bangladeshi American Muslim structural engineer named Fazlur Rahman Khan.
Back when Khan was re-imagining the skylines of the world, my parents were unapologetically Muslim and American. But am I unapologetically Muslim and American now? Sometimes when people ask me why I don’t eat pork, instead of taking out my Muslim receipts or my pocket Quran, that all Muslims carry, I say, “Out of respect for Peppa Pig.” I was joking, we don’t all carry pocket Qurans. We don’t have to be Islamic theology experts to be “Muslim” or to almost always get selected for random security checks at the airport.
There are hundreds of islamic scholars, Muslim activists, and interfaith activists who are combating pervasive lies about Islam. These lies are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with dozens of financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who swept in and easily manipulated our already flawed image of what Muslims are, of what Islam is.
Because of the stories we tell and the way we tell them, Islamophobia is more than someone snatching a hijab off a woman or this horrifying map of attacks on mosques across the US. Islamophobia in its ugliest form attacks our sense of belonging, which is so vast, and varied, and intersectional that it cannot possibly fit in a box.
Let me explain: I was born Muslim, but being Muslim was born in my imagination when I was 4 years old, in a makeshift mosque in the basement of a Presbyterian Church in New York. When social scientists describe religious life, they refer to the three B’s: belief, behavior and belonging.
My Muslim belief may not always be visible, but it’s there. Perhaps my neighbor, my rock, my friend, would see that I’m Muslim if she could see through the 50 feet of concrete and air that separate our homes. She’d see the nighttime ritual with my daughter, cradled in the crook of my arm, me whispering the Arabic protection verses that seal the Quran, repeating them three times each. Asking for her to be protected from the evil that can be seen and the evil that cannot be seen. My Muslim belief may not always be visible, but my belonging is always in my shadow.