In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful
Muslimah Writers Alliance Director, Aishah Schwartz, addresses post-9/11 Islamophobic climate of misunderstanding and labeling actions of Muslims as 'suspicious' and 'weird' fueling rise in unwarranted investigative procedures
WASHINGTON, D.C. (MWA) March 8, 2010 – American citizen and Director of Muslimah Writers Alliance (MWA), Aishah Schwartz, has often been asked, "Why do you live abroad?" One response to this question can be attributed to the fact that she has always lived near water; thus, living in proximity of the crystal clear, blue and green marbled shore of Egypt's Red Sea holds a natural appeal. But one of the primary reasons Ms. Schwartz has lived in Egypt since 2007, stems from how her life was transformed after becoming Muslim nearly eight years ago in April of 2002.
Embracing a New Identity
As a Caucasian American, Ms. Schwartz spent the first 41-years of her life as a member of the 'majority'. When she decided to embrace Islam as her religion and became Muslim, Ms. Schwartz suddenly found herself not only a new Muslim, but entering previously unchartered territory as a member of a ultra-minority; Caucasian, American, professional, female, Muslim-wearing-a-head-scarf, working in the litigation department of an internationally renowned downtown Washington, D.C. law firm. That was a lot to digest, even for her, let alone her friends, family and co-workers!
Testing the Waters of Corporate Diversity
However, Ms. Schwartz describes herself as greatly blessed in her transition, particularly where it related to work, as it happened that her employer had been recognized for its corporate diversity policy.
After adapting from working in the small town law firms of South Carolina to life in the 'big city', a year-and-a-half into her new post, and just three months after becoming Muslim, Ms. Schwartz decided to adopt wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf, coupled with a change in wardrobe meticulously chosen to fully cover her body, while maintaining a level corporate professionalism.
It was with a natural degree of apprehension and mixed confidence that she entered the law firm that monumental 'first' day sporting a newfound sense of 'style'.
Gazing at her reflection in the mirrored walls of an office elevator, Ms. Schwartz wrote in a November 2005 blog post, "My cheeks were flushed and my heart was racing as I contemplated what would happen once the doors opened and I stepped out."
To her great relief, the law firm's reputation for corporate diversity turned out to be well-earned. Her friends and colleagues embraced her life-change with warmth and acceptance—and scores of questions!
That is not to say, however, that Ms. Schwartz never experienced any of the post-9/11 Islamophobic backlash widely politicized in mainstream media, and more recently brought to light in the case of seven Muslim men detained in Henderson, Nevada; their 'offense'? Stopping to answer the call to prayer in a shopping center parking lot—an act deemed by onlookers as 'weird' and 'suspicious'.
An instance that Ms. Schwartz recalls having personally affected her occurred while crossing a busy downtown D.C. street one afternoon. A passerby, observing the conservativeness of her outfit and the scarf covering her head, paused to glare in irrefutable disdain, asking, "Where'd you get that costume?"
Another instance, occurring one morning as she commuted to work, transpired as the bus Ms. Schwartz was riding approached her stop. Standing, in the aisle of the bus as she anticipated stepping off, a man sitting opposite another proclaimed, "They're everywhere...whaddya gonna do?"
But one of the most disappointing reactions affecting Ms. Schwartz occurred in the Spring of 2007. On re-entering the United States through New York after a trip to Morocco, the U.S. immigration and customs officer, on returning her entry-stamped passport offered, instead of the compulsory "welcome home", a disapproving glance and sarcastically stated, "good luck".
Toward a Better Understanding
Ms. Schwartz's experiences, in addition to those of the seven 'threatening' men praying in a Nevada parking lot, and the more recently reported instance of a Muslim woman attempting to board a Manchester, UK flight to Islamabad and was denied a boarding pass because she refused to go through the airport's x-ray vision full body scanner, are just a few examples of what the American Muslim community—and Muslims worldwide— are facing in this, the post-9/11, war on terror, media-spun climate of Islamophobia.
"When I dress to go outside, I am just like everyone else. I am not a foreigner, I am simply Muslim, just like the majority of people around me; respecting the teachings of her religion in dressing conservatively—and yes, when necessary—seeking a place to pray when outside," Ms. Schwartz stated.
What the majority of Americans from other faith traditions do not understand is that within the Muslim community, it is not perceived as unusual for a Muslim to stop what he or she is doing at the time of prayer—which occurs at five specified times each day—in order to fulfill the requirement to pray on time.
Yes! It is also true that Muslims are allowed to make a specific prayer before the time of the next prayer, however, it is generally recommended to not delay a specified prayer after its designated time. For this reason, it is not, within the Muslim community, unusual to observe a single person, small group of men, or even a family traveling by car—stopping wherever they happen to be at the time—whether it is in an office, or even beside a car parked on the side of a roadway or in a public parking lot; to offer their religiously mandated prayer.
However, a problem faced by American Muslims and Muslims living in or traveling through the United States, is that, to those who are unfamiliar with how a Muslim offers their prayers, the movements are perceived as 'suspicious', 'weird', or a 'cause for concern' to those who simply do not understand, or have never seen Muslims praying.
A praying Muslim is not committing an act of 'misconduct' or participating in an activity meriting detainment, arrest, questioning, suspicion, interrogation, or investigation.
They are simply praying.
Reflections and Hope for the Future
After spending the majority of her life never once traveling outside her own country, Ms. Schwartz describes herself as grateful for having had the opportunity, throughout the past seven years, to experience and learn more about the religious and cultural practices of others—outside of her previous 'comfort zone' as a former Christian raised in the Baptist tradition.
Ms. Schwartz stated, "I have lived in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; visited Morocco, Pakistan, Jordan and more recently, Gaza. Each journey an eye-opening experience I will cherish as long as I live. But among the images having the greatest impact on my heart—causing me to pause in order to photograph them—were those moments when I happened to silently observe another Muslim stopping in the middle of whatever they were doing at the time; in order to pray."
"The seven men praying in a Nevada shopping center parking lot is a photo opportunity I am sorry to have missed, as it exemplifies the kind of dedication to faith that I ask in my own prayers will one day be viewed as just as ordinary for Muslims in the United States, as it is for Muslims around the world."
Continuing Ms. Schwartz added, "It is more critical now than ever, that we continue to strive toward a greater understanding of one another's respective faith traditions."
Moral of the Story
Any Muslim living in the United States or elsewhere, who is merely exercising his or her right to practice their religion of choice, need not be perceived as committing a 'threatening act', just because they stopped to pray.
Established in 2006, MWA is an internationally-based collaboration of Muslim women writers working together to counter negative and inaccurate perceptions regarding members of the Muslim community and the Islamic faith.
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