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Area Muslim teens deal with ever-present intolerance

Islamophobia is defined as “an unfounded hostility toward and irrational fear of Muslims.” In the past decade, especially with the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, Islamophobia has become more prevalent than ever. Simply turn on the news, read an article, or even scroll through Twitter and there it is.

Some of the main aspects of Islamophobia are the generalizations that all terrorists are Muslims and that all Muslims are terrorists. These generalizations are based on the actions of certain terrorist groups, such as ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Qaida, even though quantitative analyses show that less than 10 percent of all terrorist attacks in the United States are carried out by Muslims.

Islamophobia runs deeper than many think; it can be seen by Muslim teenagers in everyday life.

“I don’t find myself defending my religion, but more defending myself,” said Eisa Hashmi, a junior at Williamsville East High School.

“(Other kids) might just be like, ‘Oh, you are a terrorist because you’re brown and you’re a Muslim,’” he said.

Eisa explained that this is a recurring joke that some seem to think is amusing or smart. As someone on the receiving end of the comment, he affirms that is simply an easy, unintelligent joke that has serious consequences.

“You might not be hurting me, but every time you say that, you’re setting people – Muslims and whoever else – back. It’s up to us to crawl back out of it, and it’s really difficult and it’s really tough,” he said.

Islamophobia is incredibly widespread, with Muslims being more likely to experience racial or religious discrimination than Americans of any other major religious group, according to Gallup.

Given the pervasiveness of Islamophobia, Muslim teenagers may even face Islamophobia with strangers.

Intisara Brittan-Karshud, a junior at Nichols School, said, “When I wear a hijab, like after I come back from the mosque, the number of people that stare at me … it’s almost like there’s something wrong with me.”

Militant Islamic groups are undeniably a threat to global security, but it doesn’t help to claim that all Muslims are the same as the Muslims in these groups. Grouping all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world – about 23 percent of the world’s population – together with terrorist groups is completely illogical.

“I go to school, I live with my family … I have friends, I go out,” said Ambereen Muqtadir, a junior at Williamsville East High School. “We’re just like everybody else.”

To Muslim teenagers, it seems absurd that anyone would even think they could be a terrorist.

“I’m 16 years old. I have other things to worry about … terrorism is the last thing on my mind right now. I’m applying to college soon,” Intisara responded. “The way that I view God has nothing to do with me having a bomb.”

One of the ideas that Islamophobia has stemmed from is that Islam is a violent religion. It is important to note that no religion is inherently peaceful or violent. Any religion can be construed as violent. Across the world, there are Christian terrorists, Jewish terrorists and Buddhist terrorists, making it evident that terrorism and violence have no religion.

“I think it’s based on what you bring to it. I grew up thinking that Islam only promotes peace,” said Habib Rahman, a freshman at the University at Buffalo. “This is my religion, this is what I grew up learning. All my life I’ve been taught to be peaceful.”

While Islamic terrorism has increased since 2010, Muslims also are the main victims of terrorism worldwide, according to the National Counterterrorism Center. Muslims also are the number one victims of ISIS, given that thousands of Muslims have been killed by the terrorist group in the Middle East. In fact, the victims of the ISIS attack in Beirut in November were almost exclusively Muslim.

Many Muslim American leaders also have publicly condemned the actions of ISIS.

“They’re a small group of Muslims from one region,” Eisa said. “And because of their actions, because the world is focused on their actions, they are hurting so many more Muslims than they’re actually benefiting, or that they think they’re benefiting.”

The 2015 American Values Survey found that approximately 56 percent of Americans believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. An estimated 3.3 million Muslims live in America, and they identify as American in the same way other Americans of other religious groups do. Yet, Islamophobia propagates the idea that they un-American.

Intisara said, “I appreciate my heritage, but I am American when it comes down to it.”

A large part of the problem with Islamophobia is ignorance about Islam and terrorism. The truth is that many people aren’t fully informed about Islamic terrorism. This ignorance can even go as far as people not knowing the difference between an Arab and a Muslim, and falsely assuming that both are interchangeable with the word terrorist.

“When you claim that ISIS is representative of an entire region of the world, that’s where you lose me. It’s stupid. It’s not well informed at all,” said Eisa.

Without trying to get informed or asking questions, it is easy for people to fall into the trap of ignorance and bigotry.

“If anyone ever asks any questions, I would happily explain it,” Habib said, “but no one just asks questions.”

It doesn’t help that the people trying to become the leader of the United States are feeding on Americans’ ignorance. Islamophobia is being legitimized by some presidential candidates.

Donald Trump, for example, said that all Muslim Americans should be registered in a database, and he called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Marco Rubio compared the entire Muslim faith to Nazism. Ben Carson said that he did not think a Muslim would be fit to be president. Anti-Muslim sentiment has actually helped some campaigns.

According to Habib, “A presidential election shouldn’t be based on bigotry or anything like that. It should just be based on your views on politics and how you treat people and democracy and your party’s views.”

The media doesn’t help combat ignorance and Islamophobia, either. It propagates the misconception that all terrorists are Muslim. When there is a terror attack by a Muslim, the media is quick to call it Islamic terrorism.

Yet, when there is a terror attack by a member of any other religious group, the religion of the attacker is hardly publicized. The actions of Robert Dear, the man who opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last year, were based on his radical Christian views, but the term Christian terrorism was hardly thrown around. In a New York Times article, he was described as a “gentle loner who occasionally unleashed violent acts towards neighbors and women he knew.”

By practically sympathizing with white terrorists and attacking the religion of Muslim terrorists, the media is fueling Islamophobia. The media makes it easier for people to develop the misconception that all terrorists are Muslims, which can lead into the misconception that all Muslims are terrorists.

With this problem in the media, it is up to Muslims themselves to overcome the ignorance that leads to Islamophobia. There needs to be more conversation about Islam.

“We have to be more open about it, we have to start talking to more people about it, we have to start portraying ourselves,” according to Ambereen. “All we have to do is just start talking about who we really are and what we actually believe in.”

And this conversation has never been more important. With 48 percent of Muslim Americans reporting that they have experienced racial or religious discrimination according to Gallup, it can be scary to think how Islamophobia may change Muslim Americans’ perspective of their own religion.

“I’m almost embarrassed by it,” Intisara said. “People kind of react a certain way, like ‘oh, you’re Muslim.’ ”

This could be especially harmful to Muslim American children, who are being raised in a world where Islamophobia is so pervasive.

“I have three younger siblings and I worry about what people would say to them,” Ambereen said. “I don’t want them second-guessing what they believe in because of what other people could potentially tell them.”

The bottom line is that Islamophobia isn’t even a matter of being politically correct, or overly political correct, as some might argue. It’s a matter of being a nice person, of not discriminating against all members of the second-largest religion in the world. It’s a matter of realizing that barbaric terrorist groups don’t represent 1.5 billion people. It’s a matter of understanding that Muslims are not simply their religion; they are complex human beings who cannot be painted with a single, tainted brush.

“I want to be accepted for who I am,” Eisa explained. “I don’t want people to focus on one aspect of my life.”

Sarina Divan is a junior at Williamsville East High School.