Fuad Faruque is a member of the 2018-19 MALA Young Leaders Fellowship. Fellows participate in monthly digital seminars, dinner discussions, and other MALA events. As part of the program, Fellows reflect on their multiple layers of identities – as daughters, sons, professionals, athletes, and so much more – and share those reflections into the MALA story collection. Personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change – challenging stereotypes, building bridges, and inspiring action. In a country as diverse and complex as the United States, the identities of Muslim Americans remain layered and contested. We all have stories to tell: stories that deserve to be collected, conserved, and celebrated. We are honored to share the stories of our Fellows here.
I am always a little bit stumped when I get questions about defining myself.
Whether the question was asked in a college introduction course, in a dorm hall by an RA, or as a general icebreaker, I would often struggle with trying to define myself. The trouble didn’t come from a lack of identity. Rather, the frustration came from trying to pick and choose which singular identity I could use to define myself. I consider myself a Muslim, American, Bangladeshi, goofy, curious, a Seawolf, a researcher, and politically active. There are a plethora of labels that I could use to identity myself and those are just a few that I could think of from the top of my head.
If I had to choose between the various labels of which I identity with, I would define myself as a Muslim-American who is interested in politics. I understand this smorgasbord definition could look quite contradictory to some people, especially with the partisan environment we live in now, but I am happy to share why and how I define myself this way.
My Muslim American identity came to me from a young age. My parents are both Muslims who immigrated to America. I was born in Queens and had a very cultural and religious upbringing. The religious practice would be best described as reformed/secular. We went to the Mosque on Fridays on occasion, and celebrated the major holidays, but our life was influenced more through Bangladeshi culture.
I, like many young American Muslims, grew up in a post-9/11 society. To me this meant that while I didn’t understand what bigotry or prejudice was, I quickly learned through the aid of the ignorance of others. There were students, and adults who, due to my name, judged me to be a foreigner. I was born and raised in America, but my ethnic and religious background would somehow disqualify me of my identity. In the 8th grade, I came to school dressed in a sherwani (Bangladeshis refer to it as a Panjabi) for a cultural presentation in my history class. There were students dressed in traditional clothing from Italy, Panama, El Salvador, and Poland. Other students were able to give a report on their assigned nation without issue, but that changed quite quickly when I went up to present. Almost immediately, a student name Anthony yelled, ‘he looks like Bin Laden.’
Before the teacher could react, he told me to ‘go back to your country.’
That wasn’t the first time I faced some sort of bigotry, but it was the first time it was so outward and direct. This incident is too unusual as it might be something that other Muslims or people of color can attest to, but it really did make me question who I was. Why did I practice the faith I practiced? Am I not an American? Could I ever be a ‘REAL’ American? That incident truly initiated an identity crisis. I would spend hours in the local library studying American history. I scour the internet for information about Bangladeshi Americans and if ‘my people’ had an impact on American culture. It took me a long time to realize it, but I was always an American, but not the conventional American people assume Americans to be.
I have read hundreds of stories where those who are discriminated against, take that experience and use it as fodder to reverse discriminate or stifle the rights of others. I do not agree with that in the slightest. While it is unfortunate that a young person would have the hate and ignorance in his heart to verbally hate me for expressing my culture, I do not think that silencing him would have done anything more than coddle me for an instance that may have occurred in the future. It might be wrong to say, but I am thankful for that experience because, at the end of the day it pushed me to learn more about myself and my cultural background. I was happy to not fall into the victim-hood mentality trance.
Growing up my identity has definitely evolved. I never considered myself to be politically active, but after I entered college, I saw that political engagement is an important way to effect change (especially on the local level). This involvement in civic activities became such a core part of my life, I had no other option than to have it become a part of my identity. Rather than place blame and reverse the hate I received by trying to censor the free speech and expression of others (which I might find offensive), I found it to be much better (and moral) to allow people to speak freely and have an open discussion.
All politics is local, and the most direct way to see change is to try to make your voice heard. With the way partisan politics is affecting quite literally every avenue of society, I think a healthy dialogue is necessary. I don’t see the bigotry I faced being minimized by anything other than an open dialogue. Having an open dialogue might give me insight to why they think the way they do, and how I can help dispel misinformation. Every discussion is also a learning experience. It’s like what Amina Amdeen and Joseph Weidknecht went over in the StoryCorps video where she, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, defended a Trump supporter wearing a MAGA hat. Joseph Weidknecht never had a personal interaction with a Muslim, and all he knew about Muslims were from the things he would see on the news.
Aside from the addition of the political label to my identity, I’d like to think the identities of being a Muslim and an American evolved over the years too. While I approach my faith in a more reform/secular way, I still celebrate it, while acknowledging it is certainly an important part of my identity.