Ayah Kutmah ’16 was a little nervous as she stepped onto the stage at the Yum! Center, where she knew she would be speaking in front of more than 22,000 people. She didn’t realize it at the time, but her real audience was much, much bigger: a worldwide audience of millions, all part of the largest event in TV history.
Ayah was one of the speakers at Muhammad Ali’s memorial, where she provided the English translation of the passage from the Quran that opened the service. Ali’s memorial served as a reminder that the man being honored as a boxing legend, political activist, and philanthropist was also a devout Muslim.
For Ayah, it was a rare but wonderful moment. “It felt like one of the few times that our country has come together to celebrate a Muslim American man,” she said. “He truly embodied what a Muslim American is and what a Muslim anywhere should be. For once, we were celebrating a Muslim man as a role model.”
Both of Ayah’s parents are originally from Damascus, Syria, and she remembers going back to visit every summer since she was young, practicing her Arabic and getting to know the culture. All that came to an end in 2011 with the first uprisings against Syrian President Assad. She remembers sitting in her family’s living room, watching on TV as tanks surrounded the city of Homs, only a few hours away. She recalls that moment as the spark that fired her interest in international politics, but she hasn’t been back to Syria since. “It was way too dangerous after that.”
Over the last few years, Ayah has been active with a number of organizations that provide humanitarian aid to the millions of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war. She started Students for Syria in Louisville, which raised money to provide education for Syrian children. She’s also been active with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, helping Syrian refugee families learn English and acclimate to life in the United States. She’s now at the University of Michigan, where she plans to major in international relations.
The essay that follows is a very personal portrait of a young woman who’s proud of her identity, both as an American and as a Muslim. “I do get rude comments,” Ayah said, “but those comments have made me stronger. They’ve made me look at my own identity and realize what I want to do and who I want to be.”
An American Muslim
by Ayah Kutmah ’16
What does it mean to be an Arab-American hijabi Muslim? Most of the time it is the looks, the stares and hate you see crossing the street at the Paddock Shops. It is going shopping and having the sales associate ignore you or having a person cut in line and having no one else speak up. It is smiling at someone and being returned a frown, because what you wear on your head has suddenly become more important than what you hold in your heart. It is some stranger, or even friend, breaking it to you nicely that this country isn’t ready for a hijabi lawyer. It is being the only hijabi at a mock United Nations conference and having fellow delegates tell a crowd that what you are wearing is a form of oppression that should be banned like it is in France. It is being told on the Fourth of July that you can’t be patriotic if you are a Muslim.
It means that you may be called a ‘towel-head’ or a ‘terrorist.’ It means that every time you go to the airport, you are ‘randomly’ selected to pass through a metal detector and endure another humiliating pat down. It means being told to ‘Go back to your own country’ or that, ‘This is America honey, you can take that off now.’
The worst time—the moment every Muslim around the world dreads, hates, fears—is in the wake of a new terror attack. It is the moment when the suspects are announced to be Muslim. It is then that we begin begging for forgiveness, swearing up and down that we are regular people who only want to live in a country we love and eat McDonald’s and secretly watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians peacefully just like the rest of you, accompanied with the feelings of shame, sadness, and hurt. It is at these moments, following 9/11, or the Paris attacks in November, or the San Bernardino shootings, that we feel the worst. We want to grieve for those killed, for the hate that drove a handful of people to commit an atrocious act, but instead we are attacked by politicians, the media, and the public.
Instead of being able to properly grieve for our fellow Americans, we divide our time between begging for forgiveness, condemning the attacks, and defending ourselves. It is in the wake of these attacks that we experience the most hatred: the angry stares, the shoves, the calls for extra security of mosques, a ‘Muslim database’ and ‘Muslim IDs’ (not that I need one; my ID is pretty obvious), even a call for a ban on all Muslims coming to America. It is then that we experience the spitting and cursing, the hijab-pulling, and the condemnation of 1.5 billion people because of the actions of a few.
It is easy to live according to fear; to bow down your head, accept the inequality of this world, accept the discrimination, and just try to make it. I know friends who have decided to take off their hijabs because of harassment at their workplace. Honestly, I don’t blame them. I have thought about doing the same thing several times throughout my life. However, I always circle back to the reasons why I choose to wear the hijab—why I choose to follow my parents and be a Muslim. At the end of the day, it’s not easy. However, I refuse to acquiesce to fear. I refuse to let others tell me that I’m not a true American because of a religion I follow or a piece of cloth around my head. Instead of bowing down my head in defeat, I have decided to speak up. I am a proud Muslim American.
What many don’t realize is that being Muslim, or even a hijabi, does not stop me from doing anything. I still cried during the last Hunger Games movie. I still went Black Friday shopping and came back disappointed. I still wore an America scarf and helped with the family BBQ on the Fourth of July. I still blast Nicki Minaj with the windows down or cry to Adele’s ‘Hello.’
Being a hijabi doesn’t stop my friends and I from going out to a restaurant and a movie or going to a festival by the river. I enjoy a good ’ole slice of dutch apple pie as much as the next Southerner, but I have to admit I have never understood iced sweet tea.
Most of all, being a Muslim, even a hijabi, does not stop me from being a proud, politically conscious American. I have never thought of myself as not American, and I have always been the proudest when I am overseas, whether it is in Europe or the Middle East. It is at these moments, when I see the different governments, cultures, and societies, that I become the proudest American. I have never found a country quite like America, beautiful in its unwavering spirit and—most of all—its people. My people.
Yusor Abu-Salha, one of the victims of the Chapel Hill shooting, spoke to NPR months before she was murdered. She said, “Growing up in America has been such a blessing, and although in some ways I do stand out … Such as the hijab … there are still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is, you know, our culture. And here we’re all one.”
So, the next time you meet a stubborn, obnoxious, fashionable, and egotistical hijabi Muslim like me, don’t judge me by what I wear or what religion I adhere to. Instead, judge me for the beliefs I hold and the actions I take. Try to get to know a fellow Muslim. Education is the eradication of hate. And even if only one person today realizes this, then that is another step away from hate and towards peace.