The tagline for the Muslim Girl website is “Muslim Women Talk Back.” We all need to start listening.
With the torrent of essays, data analysis, tweet storms and long reads since the presidential election, the national psyche is clearly on the couch. It’d be nice to write something without the prism of Trump clouding one’s eyes, but since he passed 270 electoral votes there’s been a narrative question in our media: who is listened to and who is ignored?
If you are a coastal liberal, the story of the election postmortem says you’re out of touch with what true Americans – a tired euphemism for White rural voters of mid to lower income – want. After eight years of a black president and other uncomfortable social changes, these folks wanted to “make America great again.” We are told to accept this collective voice and the jingoism and racism included in the package for no additional charge as the cost of losing. Thankfully more thoughtful and important voices still perform the courageous act of being heard.
Being that this is award season, may I offer Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, author of the memoir Muslim Girl, for your consideration? Hers is what used to be mythologized as an American story. The daughter of a Jordanian immigrant and a Palestinian refugee, Amani was a dedicated student living an innocuous childhood in suburban New Jersey. Her life was indistinguishable from any other first generation American child living under similar circumstances. The attacks of 9/11 occurred when she was nine years old and changed everything for her. Her name and brown skin marked her as other. She and her family faced the kind of racism and scorn back then that would have blown up Twitter and Facebook today. Resiliently, she internalized the invective, using it to drive her while painfully aware of the psychological wounds rending her.
At only 110 pages long, Muslim Girl does not lack for earnestness and intensity. The slim volume and the embossed hot pink title on the cover defy expectations. This is no frivolous read. “A Coming of Age” is the subtitle and Amani certainly tells her story from childhood to womanhood, but there is more to unpack here. She also provides a scathing analysis of the last sixteen years of U.S. foreign policy, a critique of the media in its portrayal of people of color, especially Muslims, and a story of her religious awakening during a dramatic move to Jordan.
Muslim Girl is also the story of the early days of social media. Muslimgirl.com grew out of a community on Livejournal, which was created as a safe space for Muslim women to share tips and stories about navigating the world. It was seeded in the optimism of the early web where people could connect, help and support each other. Eventually, bigots and trolls were drawn to a place where people cared for one another, leading to stronger vetting practices and gender segregation. Entrepreneurial and driven, Amani created Muslimgirl.com to better serve the needs of her community.
This book is an attempt to demystify a people and their religion. Islam is practiced by over a billion people meaning there are roughly a billion forms of Islam. Like the Bible, the Koran is interpreted differently by the different scholars who study it. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims are able to read their holy text and discard the medieval for the moral teachings therein. The term “it goes without saying” would seem to apply here, but when a host of critics from Bill Maher to Bill O’Reilly continue to condemn an entire people for the actions of a violent minority all evidence to the contrary becomes necessary.
It should be more difficult to dehumanize brown bodies once we know their stories, but Americans have been at war in the Muslim world since 2001. Both declared and fought in the shadows, this war has no end and we are moved farther and farther away from the consequences of our actions. An entire generation will know nothing but war and it will clearly take a greater understanding and empathy to end this destructive addiction. We are insulated from the terror of drone strikes. We see the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian boy, and Omran Daqneesh, the dust covered boy from Aleppo, but the needle barely moves. The violence never lessens. The Americans we’re supposed to be listening to now voted for Muslim bans and anti-immigrant fervor. A peaceful world seems like a pipedream and the America that took in immigrants and refugees like Amani’s parents feels like an artifact of history.
Muslim Girl cannot save the world, but Amani’s story should help change it. The book is above all a celebration of intelligence. Amani is at her best when sharing her survivor’s insight. She is part of generation 9/11, torn up by Islamophobia but strong enough to fight for her place in the world. It is in all our interests that we hear stories like hers and digest their humanity. It is a slim book, a quick read. Use it as a primer into Islam and an insight into your neighbors who practice its teachings. The tagline for the Muslim Girl website is “Muslim Women Talk Back.” We all need to start listening.