This piece was originally performed at 14 East’s live storytelling event on the theme of Transitions in May.
Just like most little girls, I was into princesses. I loved Ariel the most, and, of course I wanted to dress in my Ariel costume as often as possible. She was beautiful and smart and she kicked the pants off the evil octopus woman — all things I admired.
As a six-year-old, I hadn’t quite fully grasped my standing in the world yet, but I was definitely made aware of it when the other girls in my kindergarten class told me I couldn’t possibly be Ariel. I was too chubby. Too dark.
The house where I grew up is a pretty standard suburban home. When we moved in, there was awful shag carpeting on the floor and dark wood paneling on the wall, clear markers of the era in which it was built. It just so happened that this perfect home — where I got into stupid fights with my older sister, where I learned to play guitar, where I had my first kiss — was right down the block from the local Islamic center.
When I was young, the delineation between different types of “brown” people was completely lost on me. I never had any problems with the people from the Islamic Center — in fact, most years, they came by with a bundt cake to apologize for taking up the street parking during the month of Ramadan. I didn’t think they were any different from me. In Naperville, especially the part of Naperville where I grew up, brown people were few and far between. This scarcity of brown people, however, while making me more tolerant as a child, had the opposite effect on the people around me.
I didn’t grow up Muslim, but everyone else assumed I did. And that changed everything.
I grew up Hindu, and while I don’t consider myself to be particularly religious, it’s still a huge part of who I am. Shailu Uncle and Ritu Aunty always put on a huge Diwali party, which my family attended in our best, newest clothes. My mom would make pongal, a spicy, soft rice dish, for the harvest festival every year. My dad’s favorite stories are about playing holi when he was a kid in Calcutta.
The assumption that this intrinsic part of myself didn’t exist was exhausting. As a young person in a post-9/11 world, I constantly heard stories in the news about how politicians thought that Islam was intrinsically dangerous, especially for Americans. When kids wanted to be especially cruel, they would call me a terrorist.
Perhaps what was most influential in my path to becoming a young Islamophobe was my mother’s insistence that “those people” couldn’t get along with anyone. Or maybe it was my father, telling me that I could be friends with Muslim people, but I could never date or marry one.
Before I knew it, I was just like all those people I despised for lumping me in with Islam. I hated Muslim people too, and I didn’t even know why.
Bigotry grows slowly and has many factors that feed it. Like a cancerous tumor, you don’t realize that it’s tearing apart healthy cells until it’s too late. My Islamophobia grew before I could catch it. I didn’t understand that being Muslim wasn’t a bad thing in any way — I just knew that I hated being seen as something I wasn’t.
The Faceless Mob
Before continuing, I think it’s important to preface this story by saying that Islamophobia is a multifaceted and difficult concept to fully understand. Especially for someone like myself, who has grown up with a foot in Indian culture and the other in American, there are multiple factors that have gone into my ideas around Islamophobia. I’m going to try and give you the most influential pieces of history and culture that have shaped anti-Muslim sentiment in my world, but this is no way comprehensive.
Just because the issue is complex doesn’t excuse Islamophobia in the slightest — instead, that complexity just tangles the roots of the issue, making it difficult to stomp it out at the source.
Issues of Islamophobia in India have a long and sordid past, but one of the most recent and troubling displays of Islamophobia was during the riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002.
The riots started as the result of a group of thousands of Hindus destroying the Babri Masjid, a mosque in northern Gujarat, in the holy city of Ayodhya. Hindus claimed that the mosque was built during Mughal rule as a form of oppression against Hindus in India, who, at the time, were suffering under the Mughal regime.
From there, the riots grew, in all claiming about 2,000 lives, mostly Muslims and especially women and children. Even though the Supreme Court of India (SCI) ruled that the mosque should remain intact, party leadership in the Hindu nationalist Indian People’s Party (BJP) encouraged the mob of Hindu rioters. In the following months, over 20,000 homes and businesses and 360 places of worship were destroyed during the riots.
At the time, the state’s chief minister — equivalent to a governor in American politics — was Narendra Modi, who is currently the prime minister of India. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, he was heavily criticized for neglecting to offer his support to the Muslim population of Gujarat. Even after the mishandling of the riots in Gujarat, BJP party leadership didn’t dismiss Modi, and he was re-elected to his position at the end of 2002.
In the following years, investigations of the riots were moved out of Gujarat and prosecution was taken over by the SCI, resulting in hundreds of convictions. The most important information to come out of these investigations was the cellphone records confirming that the BJP tried to suppress the investigation, the knowledge that one of Modi’s top aides was involved in one of the bloodiest massacres during the riots and records of BJP politicians boasting about their roles in the riots. The U.S. ended up instituting a visa ban for Modi which did not get lifted until 2014, when he was candidate for prime minister.
Despite his role in the riots, the SCI ruled against prosecuting Modi on three different occasions.
Product of Partition
In order to fully understand Indian sentiment towards the Muslim population in India, it’s necessary to go all the way back to the turn of the 20th century when rumblings of revolution in British India first highlighted the divisions between Hindus and Muslims in the country.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, two groups focused on self-governance in India were formed: the Indian National Congress (INC), which remains a major political party to this day, and the All-India Muslim League. Divisions due to religious differences put the groups at odds with each other from the beginning, with the divisions only continuing to heighten over the years leading up to Partition.
By the time M.K. Gandhi became a major figure in the Indian revolutionary movement, his role as both a secular and religious leader for Hindus continued to ramp-up tension between Hindus and Muslims involved in the Indian revolution. While Britain originally gave a measure of self-governance to India by separating Muslim and Hindu electorates, the solution was ultimately seen as untenable.
Partition, the last resort, was the only solution left.
At the same time that the INC and the Muslim League decided that Partition was necessary, Britain decided to move up their departure from the subcontinent by a year. June, 1947, Viceroy Mountbatten proposed a rushed, incomplete and incoherent plan for partition that was set to take place over 2 months.
The ensuing chaos left majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan with a deep distrust, lasting to this day.
The history of Islamophobia in America has its roots much further back than just Donald Trump’s administration. There have been many waves of Muslim immigration into America with a notable group of immigrants coming in at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century from the Middle East.
Since then the undercurrent of Islamophobia has been a part of the mainstream media narrative, according to Scott Hibbard. Hibbard is a former foreign policy aide on Capitol Hill and current DePaul University political science professor, specializing in American foreign policy and religion and politics.
“[Muslims] were highly integrated and even a lot of the Arab population was highly integrated, but there was always a lingering demonization of the Arab/Muslim population in the media,” Hibbard said.
After 9/11, everything changed.
“9/11, all of a sudden, highlighted the difference of the Arab and Muslim populations in American society,” Hibbard said.
The Bush Administration originally silenced some of the outright Islamophobia adopted by far-right political activists. The big change, according to Hibbard, happened when Obama got elected.
“Part of the reason why it changed was because that far-right slice of the American political right was kind of let off the chain because they were no longer being constrained by the Bush Administration’s efforts to tamp down on Islamophobia,” Hibbard said. “The [GOP] leadership was no longer trying to do that, and there was a bit of a ramp-up in fear of the Other.”
This “fear of the Other” is something that comes up a lot in American politics when the GOP rouses the more reactionary members of the party base.
“This is a side of the question that people don’t really look at,” Hibbard said. “It’s the use of Islamophobic sentiments to mobilize that part of the base of the [GOP].”
Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim sentiment, used to call the reactionary part of the GOP to action, has been widely documented, starting with his 2011 insinuation that Obama was secretly Muslim.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump continued to spread his anti-Muslim beliefs, between comments at his rallies about the “problem” of Muslims and accusations on Twitter that the United Kingdom is trying to “disguise their massive Muslim problem. This all culminated in his December, 2015 call for a travel ban on all Muslims from entering the U.S.
After the election, Trump surrounded himself with anti-Muslim advisers, such as Sebastian Gorka, Michael Flynn, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, to name a few. He’s retweeted content linking U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to 9/11.
Gaining Political Consciousness
When I was a freshman in high school, my cousin started posting a lot of links on Facebook about Modi. I didn’t think much of it — in 2012, I was much more interested in the American presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I especially got a kick out of watching Joe Biden yelling over Paul Ryan during the vice presidential debate.
Once Obama was re-elected, I was elated to find out that the first politician I had ever tried to follow was going to be in office for another four years, giving me a chance to hone my political thought in the context of American government.
Over the next two years, my cousin’s love for Modi would grow, and I would continue to ignore it, even after Modi was elected. I was still deep in the idea that my family could do no wrong, that their views — largely problematic and exclusionary — were nothing to be worried about. I excused my grandparents’ Islamophobia. I excused my parents even more.
These were also the years that the amount of Islamophobia I faced in day-to-day life had ramped up. My only response to these people was “I’m not Muslim,” as if I was desperate to distance myself from everything I had learned was bad and wrong from my family, trying and failing to purge the self-loathing that had grown in my chest like a tumor. My family told me Muslims were bad and my peers told me I was the same as Muslims. I was conflicted. I hated Muslims for doing this to me, and they weren’t the ones to blame.
Other forms of oppression seemed obvious to me in these years. I quickly learned how black people still face an incredible amount of prejudice in this country and it was obvious that women were not treated the same way that men were. When I got to be a senior in high school, the plight of the working class in American society became even more apparent to me. The intersections between race, gender and class became a clear crossroads, all meeting in the middle.
And somehow, I never thought to critique my parents. I never thought to critique myself. Islamophobia wasn’t even a blip on my radar.
A Nice Day for a Hindu Wedding
I had no context for Indian politics. I hadn’t been exposed to enough viewpoints on Indian politics, and I wasn’t particularly interested anyway. I had fallen under the sway of pop-feminism — the Western world is terrible, and therefore, every country outside of “the West” was better. In my mind, there was no way that the same rise of nationalism elsewhere in the world had infiltrated the subcontinent.
When I went back to India for my cousin’s wedding in 2016 — still raw from the first election in which I could vote — I had only just started to gain a sense of Islamophobia, but it had always taken the back-burner to other issues.
I’ll say right now that I did not vote for Trump. I have nothing against people who did, because I know what fears motivated them. I know why his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric was appealing to so many people. In another life, perhaps they would have been appealing to me, too.
At my cousin’s wedding, her brother — the die-hard Modi supporter — spent the entire time trying to goad me into arguments. He made teasing comments about my clothes (for I dressed too American) and my accent (also too American).
Finally he hit the button that hurt me the most: “You voted for Trump, right?”
Still afraid of what the future in American politics might hold — especially for a queer woman of color like me — I couldn’t quite fathom anyone who had even a remotely similar background to mine considering supporting Trump. I laughed in his face. Then, I realized: he wasn’t kidding.
“No, Sahi,” he said. “You voted for Hillary? I would have voted for Trump.”
In the moment, the only thing I could think to do was walk away before I got too heated. My cousin — his younger sister — was getting married the next morning, after all. I got swept up in the wedding preparations and forgot about his comments.
It was on the drive from the airport that he decided to goad me again and this time I lost it. The moment he brought up the election I listed a full litany of reasons why I didn’t vote for Trump, how his rhetoric was abhorrent to me and why I couldn’t find it in myself to support someone like that.
Then my cousin said something simple that changed everything: “But he’s dealing with Muslims, like he should.”
If it wasn’t for my aunt’s intervention I’m sure I would have throttled him long before we reached the airport — the entire experience had left me unnerved. For the entire journey home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bigotry that had slapped me in the face on this trip to India.
Having an eye-opening experience directly before a full day of travel gave me a lot of time to think about what had happened. I kept trying to do all sorts of mental gymnastics to try and skirt around the facts.
At first, I considered my cousin to be nothing more than a cancerous branch of our family tree. Cut him off and everything would be fine. However, when I realized that my aunt’s comments on wanting her kids to marry members of our caste (an outdated system that I could write an entirely separate story about) carried the subtext of the same hatred for Muslims that my cousin outwardly displayed, I had to contend with the fact that the cancer had spread from this outlying branch.
With each cut I made to my family tree, each person I said I didn’t want to associate with because of their bigoted views, I made a realization that someone else had the same views.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my family tree was diseased with this bigotry, that it had taken hold in our souls and made a home there before we were even born. We were products of Partition. We had been programmed this way.
However, we aren’t robots. It wasn’t an excuse.
By the time I landed back in Chicago, the only person I had left to blame for bigotry was myself. I had to take on the largest, most malignant tumor in my family tree: the same one that had started growing when I was a kid, desperate not to be Muslim.
I wish I could say there was some cure-all for bigotry, some panacea that fixes the problematic, scared, hateful parts of yourself. With cancer, doctors never say that someone is cured. No — that cancer is always just in remission, lurking just below the surface and waiting for a chance to come back.
I love my family. They give me a way to connect with the roots I often feel myself losing track of, immersed in American culture. However, just because I love them doesn’t mean that I can excuse what they think and what they say. I want to be clear about this: Islamophobia is bigotry, and it is entirely unacceptable.
I had to make peace with the fact that all I could do was keep taking my chemotherapy, forcing myself to face what I had allowed to fester inside of me. Maybe this seems harsh for something that was almost entirely a product of my environment but I had to learn the hard way that I couldn’t let myself slide on these issues. I had to be for all brown people or I didn’t stand for any of them.
It’s a daily struggle of catching my thoughts before they leave my mouth, catching my thoughts before I even think them and reminding myself of the ugly history that lead to this behavior. It’s a constant fight, lest my thoughts fall back into those feelings of loathing and misplaced anger.
It’s not easy. It’s not quick. Sometimes, it will make you sick. Sometimes, you’ll have to kill off the cells you thought were healthy.
All I can say is that I’d much rather be in painful remission than stay comfortably bigoted.
Header photo by Jesus J. Montero, 14 East.