I was a Muslim American kid of the seventies with a writing bent that delighted my third grade Chicago Public School teacher, Miss Hale. A teen of the eighties who penned sappy poetry and wrote for my high school yearbook, people asked, “What do you want to study in college?” That was a no-brainer. Journalism. My father, the Balkan Muslim renegade who once read his anti-communist poetry on Radio Free Europe said he could picture me as the anchor on the local nightly news. And I started to see it too. Though really- I saw myself as the reporter on the scene.
There were hardly any Muslim kids at school. If islamophobia today means Muslim Americans are generally looked at like we have two heads, in the olden days people looked through us; we weren’t there. Our presence vacillated between the orientalism portrait of Moslems portrayed on television and in movies- and our actual, ghost-like existence in a white, Christian man’s world as if we were pulled into our own lives via séance.
Admittedly, I would whisper when asked my religion. “You’re what? Moslem? No. But you’re white. Are you gonna kill me?”
The late Jack Shaheen was one of the few activists fighting islamophobia and Arabophobia in those days, as Arab and Muslim were, and still are inexplicably connected when in reality only 20% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims are Arab. In his prolific book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People” (2014), Shaheen shined a light on the patterns of Arab and Muslim stereotypes that “rob an entire people of their humanity” by “image makers” that persist today on the silver screen and on television.
“Disney’s “Aladdin” was seen by millions of children worldwide. It was hailed as one of Disney’s finest accomplishments. But the film recycled every old, degrading stereotype from Hollywood’s silent, black and white past. [CLIP, “ALADDIN”] Singing: Oh, I come from a land, from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam; where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but, hey, it’s home.” Jack Shaheen
I drooled over the broadcasters on ABC, NBC, and CBS as they covered the U.S. boycott of the Olympics; Richard Prior’s freebasing fire mishap; Sadam Husein in Eye-Raq (Iraq); and, the hostage situation in Eye-Ran (Iran.) The Moozlems in Eye Ran had taken Americans hostage.
“It’s Eearrak! Earrrrrrauk!” My father yelled at the television. “Damn sons of bitches.”
I planned to attend Columbia College in Chicago to study journalism. I watched coverage about Eye Rack on television, and the words collided with my world view. My stubborn, teenaged, Muslim world view.
“I could never say that as a reporter!” I recall telling my father (Tata) after listening to the nightly news anchor throw my religion under the bus again. “I can’t toe the line, Tata! I can’t tell lies for my job!”
I remember watching horrified as the news anchor interviewed a man who was supposed to represent Muslim Americans. They willfully tripped over his 8-syllable name and let him have the floor to spew his absurdities. Whoever was in charge of selecting the ultimate example of a Moozlem to put on television to prove their points that we were all nuts, did their job fantastically.
There was no place for a young, opinionated, Muslim American journalist in the eighties. I could pull off an internship or landing a reporting job with my Euro blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin. But when it came time to read copy in front of a camera about Muslim terrorists and Islamists, and jihadists and those one-dimensional non-people that were just plain evil, there was no way. I had no choice but to give up my dream. I worked in Human Resources and finished my liberal arts degree at DePaul University. I sold HR technology to companies around Chicagoland giving software product demos. At least I was making a living talking in front of a screen. 20 years later and sometimes Muslims published articles.
“Did you see the email Amir sent around?” my brother asked me, excitedly.
“Yeah! Yeah, I did! Can’t believe a Muslim wrote that article. SO cool.” I sang.
My love of journalism never left me; and, I started blogging in 2014. I gave a TEDx Talk about islamophobia and speaking for myself as a Muslim woman. Keith Ellison became the first Muslim Congressman. Some Muslim journalists could be seen in major newspapers. These younglings publishing their copy in their hijabs and their Muslim names just OUT THERE like that had no idea how easy they had it, even if they represented only 5 percent of the news staff. Heck, we had our own magazines and publications now. Mainstream media be damned.
I’m happy to live in a time now, though underrepresented, you can be Muslim— even visibly Muslim— and feel a bit more like part of the fabric of American life. We’ve graduated from the ghost-like, boilerplate beings that were figments of people’s imaginations- to living and breathing humans that people say hi to in the elevator. Even if a swath of the population hates us thanks to the multi-million-dollar Islamophobia industry, I can submit my thoughts to American publications and be published. In 2020, an opinionated, fifty-something Muslim American woman can be published.