On Being Misidentified: A Message to the Next Generation

As a 90s kid looking back now, my formative years took place during a period of rising Islamophobia. For much of my youth, I internalized negative messages about Islam.

I wanted to run as far away as possible from being publicly identified as “Muslim.”

Hijab on the commute back from Reviving the Islamic Spirit? Not happening.

Praying while at a picnic in a public park? Uh, nope. What if people see me?

Standing up for myself when people say I am a Muslim girl who belongs in the kitchen? It’s just best to stay silent.
Let’s fast forward from my youth to over a week ago, when a Pickering high school was the horrific scene of a mass stabbing. Hours after the incident occurred the virtual life of the accused 14-year-old went viral, conveying an array of complex mental health issues. As a 4th year Equity Studies student at the University of Toronto, I understood the complexity of such issues. So, when I was contacted by The Globe and Mail to be interviewed, I gleefully accepted as it was an opportunity to address our education system’s failure to address mental health adequately. To my dismay, less than 48 hours later I was subject to violent accusations by The Gateway Pundit, an American right-wing deliverer of news. “Canadian Muslim Girl Goes on Mass Stabbing Spree – 8 Injured,” the title read. Confused and emotionally distraught, I saw a linked The Globe and Mail article which was grammatically constructed in a manner that led to misinterpretations of my Muslim-sounding name by right-wing extremists.

Regrettably for The Gateway Pundit, this stabbing did not occur by “Zahra Vaid,” a 21-year-old Muslim, but a 14-year-old whose name cannot be released, legally. Essentially, the accused could not have been me unless I was able to get my hands on a time-machine — and let’s be real, if I could, I think I’d go back to a more interesting time in history. Despite both articles being corrected without an apology or a public acknowledgement of error, I contended that issues have a time and place, and this incident should not have been the time and place for Islamophobia.

However, in the span of a few days I was falsely accused of a crime I did not commit because my name sounds Muslim,three Black men, two of which were Muslim, were shot dead in Indiana yet ignored by mainstream media, and a 17-year-old Kenyan Muslim was shot by Salt Lake City police in a riot-style attack which involved over 100 police officers. In efforts to construct the Muslim or black man as always-criminal and never-victim, the murder of three Muslim boys and torture of another went completely ignored. For how could public moral be swayed in favour of the Muslim, Black man, or Black Muslim? Islamophobia has ensured being incendiary against Muslims makes “better” news even when entirely falsified, where the outcome is complexified for our Black community who are also subject to structural racism due to a white supremacist legacy.

Our people are dying across ability, age, race, and sexuality. The notion that you are innocent until proven guilty does not apply, for if you are Muslim, and particularly Muslim and Black, you are already deemed a criminal. Am I supposed to somehow believe that in the face of death and violence against innocent people, an apology is enough? Maybe yesterday I would have remained silent, but today do not expect that.

Siblings, parents, teachers and communities — there is an urgent need to foster spaces of open dialogue to ensure our youth feel safe. By replacing silence with receptiveness, we will foster a generation confident in and empowered by their identity as Muslims and beyond.

My message is specifically to you fourteen-fifteen-sixteen-seventeen-eighteen-year-olds, because it is your mind and voice that can change how those wrongfully vilified are interpreted by everyday people, our leaders, and the media. You are the rulers of the online realm, the future of critical thinking, and the power to change has been contained within you. When people target you for being Muslim, or attack any aspect of your identity, do not tremble with fear. Know that you have the ability to speak out by being unapologetically yourself, and I say this because I wish so badly someone gave me such advice when I spent my Grade 10 year eating lunch in the washroom.

As a reminder, Abu Huraira narrated that the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) said, “Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.” Perhaps there is an element of this strangeness we may never be able to fight, but we have powerful lessons of the past to guide us through — lessons that took heed when I first encountered the article(s) misconstruing me.

Whether it is how Assia (R.A) fought against those in positions of power for what she believed in, how Yunus (A.S) was placed in an “impossible” circumstance and found a way out, how Bilal (R.A) reminds us that we cannot continue to fail our Black Muslim family, or how insightful Muslim women such as Linda Sarsour are representing Islam in the gender egalitarian way it was meant to be, we have lessons around us of resilience. It is up to us to embrace these lessons of the past, so that we may cultivate a youth confident in standing up against the forces which seek to silence them.

 

-For the young ones who have not yet seen their worth and must know, Allah only places upon us that which we can bear.

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ISNA Canada is an Islamic organization committed to the mission and movement of Islam: nurturing a way of life in the light of the guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah for establishing a vibrant presence of Muslims in Canada. ISNA exists as a platform for all Muslims who share its mission and are dedicated to serving the needs of Muslims and Muslim communities.

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