Like many Americans, I woke up on Sunday to a steady stream of horrifying news alerts on my phone. The mounting death toll at the nightclub shooting in Orlando broke my heart. I prayed for the victims and families. I railed against the gun laws that make it so easy for unhinged people to obtain the assault rifles that are often used in these massacres.
And then details of the shooter emerged: Omar Mateen, an Afghani-American Muslim. My heart sank. Not just because, as a Muslim, I knew his act of terrorism would unleash another backlash of hatred and fear against my community. And it wasn’t just because I was ashamed that, once again, a mentally unstable person had committed atrocities while pledging allegiance to an evil group that had hijacked my faith.
What hurt me the most was that Mateen targeted the LGBT community that helped me develop the strength to stand up for myself as an American Muslim in a society that increasingly hates me simply for being who I am.
That wasn’t an easy journey for me. The shadow of extremism and terrorism has always hung over me as an American Muslim. During my childhood in the 80s, taunts about hijacking airplanes and the Ayatollah followed me. In the nineties, school teachers used Islam as an example of an oppressive belief system that brutalized women, often showing images of women in hijab, followed by an inevitable clip from Sally Field’s staple Islam-is-bad film Not Without My Daughter. And then on September 11, 2001, I watched the buildings fall in front of me through the window of my Jersey City newsroom. As I ran out of our building, with tears rolling down my eyes, knowing that I had lost friends in the Twin Towers, a coworker I once considered a friend stopped me angrily and asked: “Why do you Muslims hate us? Why did you do this to us?”
I became silent and held on to that silence for years, even as Islamophobia mounted in the U.S. amid the war on terror. I justified my silence by telling myself people who insult my religion are just misguided and nothing could change their minds anyway. I assured myself that most people do not really believe the rhetoric. I also feared drawing attention to myself, in case I wound up on some sort of government list. It may sound either crazy or selfish, but for many Muslims it was a very real concern.
Eventually, I grew angry at the expectation that I had to come out and defend myself anyway. If they want to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, then they were free to go right ahead. If they feel better mocking aspects of my religion, they were welcome to do so because I wouldn’t dignify their comments with a response.
But as I justified my inaction, I found myself becoming increasingly vocal defending the LGBT community facing similar incidents of hate and ignorance. At this time, both Muslim and non-Muslim friends began to come out, and in their bravery and honesty, I saw strength of character. They were standing up for who they were, who God created them to be. I argued with those of my faith and other religious faiths that condemned them. I was working in the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country where homosexuality is a criminal offense, when my hometown of New York passed the gay marriage law. I cheered at my desk and sent out one of my few political updates on Facebook saying I was proud to be a New Yorker.
I guess I didn’t grasp the irony. My wake-up call came during a conversation with a close friend. He had become an impassioned atheist, who would regularly quote Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens to discredit something about Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. I largely ignored his backhanded taunts, believing that he had a right to his opinion. It never occurred to me that his belief system was Islamophobic.
And then the conversation turned to gay marriage. He compared gay marriage to legalizing marriage with his dog. Something broke inside of me. Anger and disgust flooded my soul. Every offensive comment and joke he had made about my religion came back to me, and I was appalled that I’d never called him out on his prejudice. I had made excuses for his disrespect, refusing to believe someone who claimed to care for me could believe such terrible things.
As I broke off all ties with this man, I realized I hadn’t said anything when he insulted my own faith because I had become so desensitized to such rhetoric about Islam, the religion of 1.6 billion. I was sending my own children out into the world to face Islamophobia when I hadn’t even done my part to stand up for them. In my silence, I was complicit. I was ashamed at that moment. And I vowed never to be silent again.
The LGBT community and the Muslim community have long ties and shared vulnerabilities. They are not mutually exclusive. My heart bleeds for my brothers and sisters that died in Orlando. And I am grieving for all who have been touched by such hatred.