Introduction: Extra AmericanO Liberty, white Goddess! is it well
To leave the gates unguarded?
—Thomas Bailey Aldrich, “Unguarded Gates” (1895)
On December 7, 2015, I sat on a rocker in my preschoolers’ shared room, scrolling through the news while waiting for them to fall asleep, under a blanket to dim the light from my screen. Three days before, my husband, Nadeem, had left our house in Yardley, Pennsylvania, for business meetings in London. Five days before, there had been a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, during which fourteen people were killed and twenty-two were injured. The shooters were a married Muslim couple, thought to have been politically radicalized by overseas organizations. It was the deadliest mass shooting since Sandy Hook Elementary School. The nation reeled and American Muslims took cover. In the post-9/11 politics of our country, an act of violence by any Muslim was broadly attributed to us all, and to Islam itself. We were expected to, and many of us did, respond by publicly condemning the attacks, seeing no way to reject collective culpability and still convey our horror at what had happened. We had no way of saying “We are not them
—we should not be held accountable for their actions.” Over the preceding fourteen years, the social space to assert this basic principle of human rights had all but disappeared for American Muslims.
The most we could hope for was to reduce the inevitable collective punishment, to minimize retaliation against Muslims and every person who might be mistaken for Muslim in our communities. In the days that followed the attack, a pig’s head was lobbed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque just north of Girard Street in Philadelphia. I knew that mosque; my friends were community leaders there. I’d helped cover the exterior of the old factory building in which it was housed with a gorgeous geographic mural. My part had been to carve the ninetynine names for God into ceramic tile that wrapped around the building just above eye level.
During the same period, a store owner in New York was beaten and hospitalized, a Somali restaurant torched in North Dakota, and several other mosques were vandalized or sent threatening messages. Employees at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee received death threats, several Muslim passengers were pulled off of flights, and Muslim organizations reported a broad escalation in threats and attacks across the country.
In suburban America, we opened our front doors more carefully, forgoing cultural or religious attire. More of us stopped going to the mosque. We kept our children home from school and said an extra prayer when we finally calmed our nerves enough to send them back. We kept our heads down at work and we volunteered at and donated to Muslim civil rights organizations, thinking that any day now it could be us at their doorstep. We tried to tighten the circles of our lives, make ourselves a little less exposed to the whims of the people around us. We still had to live, had to travel for and get along at work and school, had to shop and drive and be in public spaces. We pushed our worry aside and played with the kids. But we were terribly aware that in the American mind we had collapsed further into a monolith, each of us individually culpable for the misdeeds of any Muslim. There was little escape from our sense of precarity because we were all subject to the same limitation: We have no control over one another. Muslims don’t have a pope, or even a regulated clergy. And we are an incredibly diverse group of people from various parts of the world, speaking a variety of languages, adhering in different degrees to diverse cultural practices. The one thing we have in common is a personal declaration of faith, and even that is absent for those who consider themselves culturally Muslim, or Muslim by ancestry.
Eleven months earlier, on February 10, 2015, three Muslim students were shot, execution-style, by a neighbor who knocked on the door of their Chapel Hill, North Carolina, apartment. The apartment was actually home to two of them, Yusor and Deah, a strikingly beautiful, recently married couple who had grown up in North Carolina. Deah, who was twenty-three, had begun dentistry school; Yusor, who was twenty-one, was about to enter the same program; and Razan, Yusor’s nineteen-year-old sister, was studying architecture and environmental design. All three were deeply engaged in their families, their schools, and their community, outstanding students who spent their time off preparing meals for local homeless people and planning a dental relief trip abroad for Syrian refugees. These three represented all of what I, as a Muslim, a mother, and a secondgeneration immigrant, hoped for my children: a vibrant dedication to meaningful pursuit, guided by a deep sense of social and environmental responsibility.
The three, and other neighbors in the complex, had been confronted by the angry and armed White neighbor named Craig Hicks several times before. Both Razan and her sister chose to wear hijab, scarves over their hair, as part of their daily faith practice. Hicks had approached Yusor and her mother on the day she moved in, telling them that he didn’t like the way they looked.
Razan was visiting her sister and brother-in-law for dinner on the evening they were killed. The police immediately framed the killings as the result of a parking dispute, accepting the story that the killer, Hicks, told without question. Muslim Americans immediately understood the murders as hate crimes, absorbing the way Yusor and Razan were shot in the head while pleading to be spared, the eight separate bullets used to kill Deah—with a final shot through the mouth, on Hicks’s way out—and Hicks’s own numerous and emphatic anti-religious statements. Deah’s sister, Suzanne Barakat, went to the media, asserting this for all of us in the weeks and months that followed, expressing how terrifying it had become to be identifiably Muslim in America.
And now the San Bernardino attack seemed to refuel an anti-Muslim rage that lived just beneath the surface of our neighborhoods, our police forces, our schools. Assaults against American Muslims were higher in 2015 than they had ever been—even higher than they had been in 2001 just after the 9/11 attacks; in 2016 they would climb higher still. In advance of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump signaled that he would support a registry for Muslims, an echo from the post-9/11 period that triggered another complex layer of collective trauma.
In the years that followed 9/11, many of us drank in the narrative that the men held at Guantanamo were there because they were guilty of something horrific, that therefore our own innocence would protect us. But those of us who took a sustained look learned that most of the 779 men (and boys as young as thirteen) at Guantanamo were held without charge or trial, and after living through hell were summarily released. We had seen photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, released in 2004. We’d seen the stress positions men had been held in, the unspeakable brutality and degradation they’d sustained. We feared the same thing was happening at Guantanamo (and we would ultimately find we’d been right in December 2019 when Abu Zubaydah, a man who had been misidentified as an al-Qaeda leader, held and tortured for four years at Guantanamo, drew images of his own torture). We learned that the vast majority of men and boys held at Guantanamo, 86 percent, were brought in without any intelligence by local people in Afghanistan or Pakistan in return for lavish bounties from the U.S. military, advertised on leaflets dropped from the air. Guantanamo had stretched our imaginations of what collective punishment against Muslims might look like, and how one could find oneself to be a target simply by being Muslim in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had the intended effect. American Muslims had grown to understand that our Muslimness would now be taken as compelling evidence of badness, even criminality or terrorism.
Under my blanket, my laptop pinged with a message from Cynthia, an old college friend living in Wisconsin. “How can I help?” she wanted to know. By then Trump was the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination and had called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.” The message was clear that Muslims were the problem—not a lack of gun control, not extremism, not a society without proper mental health access.
My children, three and five years old, lay just across the room, their breath soft and even. My daughter had struggled over the previous two years with an undiagnosed illness featuring a myriad of symptoms that seemed unrelated. She was exhausted and furious, with unpredictable sensory issues and extreme food restrictions. She stopped growing and she developed urinary incontinence that followed no discernible pattern. Though she was once a toddler who could recite whole picture books from memory and took piano lessons from her beloved teacher, Mr. Pete, she had lost all interest in reading, writing, and music. We’d been struggling to make sense of her regression, and no one seemed to be able to help. We felt that each day we were losing her incrementally to an unnamable, invisible abyss. I had taken her to more than a dozen different doctors, switched pediatricians twice, sought help from five specialists at the top children’s hospital in the region, and called every doctor in my extended social network, to no avail.
Copyright © 2022 by Sofia Ali-Khan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.