Susan Attar

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Former Coordinator, Hate Prevention, Muslim Public Affairs Council

Susan AttarWe are trying to do more work with youth in our own community, because problems related to identity are growing for young people in communities that are being targeted.

What happens when people perpetuate hate? Kids know what they’re facing, even if they can’t explain it. It leads to many questions about their identity.

MPAC represents a diverse Muslim community. In the wake of 9/11, our constituency includes Arabs, South Asians, and Iranians, especially people with children, although not exclusively. For young people the issue of what it means to be a Muslim is all muddled together with their ethnic identity and the fact that many people equate Arab with Muslim with terrorist.

What happens when people perpetuate hate?

What happens to kids when the staff in their schools say these things over and over? It leads to a lot of confusion about what a Muslim is.

For some kids, the attitude is, “everyone else hates us, so let’s stick together.” With this kind of reaction, my fear is that we will become isolated — a group that reacts to the experience of exclusion by excluding others.

Other kids deny their identity.  Sometimes they change their name. They see people from their community and look away, because they don’t want to see, they don’t want to know. It’s okay to being Arab or Muslim at home, but outside they don’t want to deal with other people’s reactions.

Many kids in our constituency don’t experience hate looks, verbal hatred, or overt harassment, or know someone else who has had those experience. It’s more the feeling of entering a place and knowing you’re not welcome. If you’d ever walked down the street with someone wearing a hijab, you’d know what I’m talking about.

Most of our work is with high-school-aged youth – some a little older, a little younger. It’s difficult for them to express their experience, but they still have to deal with the feelings. Some don’t express it, but they know they “don’t belong.”

The worst thing for kids is to hate themselves and hate others. Hate very seldom works in just one direction.

A small minority are completely okay – their attitude is, me and my friends are okay, we don’t mind being different. Often this is the more popular kids. In high school, where life is a battleground, they can protect themselves. But every kid needs a circle they’re comfortable with.

Boys especially hear comments all the time about Osama, terrorists, suicide bombing. It’s hard to get them to talk – especially around 14 or 15, boys don’t have permission to express their feelings. They make a joke out of it, try to laugh it off – but you can see it on their faces, you can see that they’re miserable. I’ll talk in very hip hop terms so they don’t reject what I’m saying.

 One kid said to me, “I’m Palestinian and everyone knows – so every time people say, ‘oh, you’re going to blow yourself up,’  I just tell them to shut up.” They’re asked constantly about their relationship to Saddam Hussein.

A girl wearing a scarf, a sophomore in high school, told me that another girl came up in the lunch line and started shouting in her face.

We don’t bring up the issue of the war. We don’t do these talks to promote an antiwar stance – but because we know our kids are being targeted by pro-war types. Actually, a majority of Muslims are shocked to hear that the antiwar movement is not completely Muslim.

The worst thing for kids is to hate themselves and hate others. Hate very seldom works in just one direction. So we try to get kids to talk about it …

I hope if some day we come out of this stigma, we can be there for others.

One girl in Laguna Hills who came to one of our workshops was from a very affluent family, I think of Syrian origin. She “looked white” – and like a very typical American. She came up to me and said, “I’m Syrian and people don’t know – they feel free to say whatever they want to in front of me.” She was in tears, full of hurt but trying to be strong. She told me, “I feel like I’m the only person on my campus who sees what’s happening.”

I did a survey – I asked 30 people, including three teachers, what language people speak in Iraq.  Only three people knew that the answer was “Arabic.” The answers I got included “camel tongue,”  Iraquinese, Iraqui, “towel head,” Farsi, and Persian.

I hope if some day we come out of this stigma, we can be there for others. We’ve never done that as a community…

African Americans are a majority of Muslims in the US. There are also a growing number of Latinos, and some whites. Their issues are not based so much on religion, but on race, and they always have been. Their major issue is what is happening with their community – immigration is less of an issue. For indigenous Muslim, most issues grow out of skin color – education, economics, gang violence, homelessness.

Islam is fundamentally about the fight for justice.

Immigrant Muslims feel like they are escaping something – even with earlier waves of immigration. My own father came here in the 1950s from Iraq. His orientation to this culture, and that of others like him, was to make it for themselves – to take some things and leave others; to do whatever you can to survive and succeed, and help the kids get ahead.

People like that perceive the immigrant community as  “stuck where they came from” – because what is happening in Pakistan or Palestine is their main concern.

My father came for higher education. He never intended not to return.

The immigrant community doesn’t speak up – the conditioning from their old society is carried over to their new society. Our aim is to find people from the immigrant community who want to make changes to make society better – from City Council to school boards to Congress. It’s very difficult to overcome that pessimism – the attitude is, why should we vote, because nothing will change? …

Islam is fundamentally about the fight for justice. In the real world you need to be included in society to move on that. As Muslims we have an obligation to do what is right. If we can improve this community which is our country, we can improve the world.