One week ago, my friend Aasma Maqbool walked into a department store with her mother and her two youngest children and came out to find a disturbing surprise. A note was stuck under the windshield of her van. Written on pink kitten notepad paper with careful, cursive script, it read:
“You women need to start dressing like Americans if you want to live here. It is very disrespectful to us or go back home. We really don’t need you here.”
The note was signed, “USA Woman.”
The ironies of the note are many (even beyond the bizarre fact that such a nasty message was written on such quaint stationery). First of all, Aasma is an American. Born and raised in the United States, she is just as much a “USA woman” as the writer. To “go back home” would entail driving a few blocks from the store to her quiet subdivision. Far from being disrespectful to anyone, Aasma is a model citizen who contributes to her community and helps her neighbors, regardless of their religious beliefs. Finally, as Aasma wryly points out, “She told me to start ‘dressing like an American.’ The dress I was wearing was from Macy’s, and the scarf was from Old Navy. How much more American could my clothes be?!”
Of course Aasma knows that the woman’s hostility was not just about what she was wearing. “She mentioned my clothes, but if I had been wearing a habit, like a nun, would she have told me to ‘go back home’? ” poses Aasma.
The fact that she wore the scarf to cover her hair, instead of as a decorative accessory, is what inspired the woman’s ire. “For so many people the headscarf is a political statement,” muses Aasma. “I want people to know that I wear it simply to honor God. It is totally, simply, between me and God.”
“Her real problem with me is that I am a Muslim,” Aasma summarizes. “And she doesn’t think Muslims can be Americans.”
I need to disclose that I am not reporting this story as an unbiased journalist. Aasma is one of my dearest friends, and we have known each other for sixteen years. In addition to being my close friend and my sister in Islam, she is also my neighbor. This incident occurred in the city in Southern California where we both live, at a department store where I have shopped many times. So, the ugly words and the intolerance at their core affected me personally and deeply.
My first emotion was anger. “How could someone do something so obnoxious to such a beautiful human being?!” was my first, outraged thought. I fumed and raged for quite a while. I posted an angry rant on Facebook, saying, “Bigots like the person who wrote this note are the ones who should leave this country!”
Aasma was the one who calmed me down. She told me that she, too, felt frustration and anger when she first found the note. “I couldn’t believe,” she said, “that someone would be so full of hate that they would watch and wait until I had left my van and then leave an anonymous note.”
After some thought, Aasma decided that ignorance was probably the root of the problem. “She probably doesn’t know anything about Muslims,” she said. “I just wish she had spoken to me directly so I could have had a conversation with her and educated her about who I am and why I cover.”
With politicians’ and pundits’ increasingly blatant anti-Muslim statements, hate crimes against Muslims have escalated. According to an article by Corky Siemaszko written on December 20, 2015 for NBC News, “Hate crimes targeting Muslims, their mosques and businesses, have tripled this year and the bulk of the attacks have occurred in recent weeks, according to a tally by California State University San Bernardino college professor Brian Levin.”
When Donald Trump told Anderson Cooper in an interview on March 9, “I think Islam hates us,” he was deliberately fanning the flames of bigotry and distrust. He knows that playing into people’s darkest fears is his ticket to the nomination and so he has been demonizing different groups (mostly Muslims, but also Mexicans and other immigrants) since the outset of his campaign.
Not to be outdone by Trump, Ted Cruz jumped onto the crazy train. Shortly after the attacks in Brussels, Cruz recommend empowering law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods” in this country. Immediately, several leaders around the nation slammed Cruz’s proposal. Mayor Bill de Blasio minced no words, calling Cruz’s proposal “reprehensible,” “demagoguery,” “immoral,” and “counterproductive.”
Freed from the “burden “of being politically correct and inspired by openly Islamophobic politicians, bigots and racists like “USA Woman” are taking advantage of the current climate to express their true, ugly feelings. It is an extremely frightening and disheartening time to be a Muslim American.
On the other hand, there is usually a silver lining to even the darkest cloud. “USA Woman” probably had no idea that her hateful message would be posted on Facebook and shared among hundreds of people. She would probably be deeply disappointed to know that it actually stirred up a great deal of interfaith support and dialogue. When Aasma posted a picture of the note on Facebook, it was shared over 80 times. Dozens of her non-Muslim friends took up her cause and decried the un-American sentiments of the note.
One of Aasma’s lifelong friends, who happens to be Jewish, took to social media immediately and expertly lambasted the anonymous writer. She implored all her Facebook friends, “If you see someone who is a victim of this harassment. If you hear something like this, speak the hell up. Speak up as if it were your wife, sister, mother, daughter, husband, brother, son, best friend. SAY SOMETHING. Do not let the bigots and cretins among us have the last word.”
In addition, a few days after Aasma received the hateful message, several of her friends left a totally different kind of surprise on her van: dozens of love notes to demonstrate that she is a valued and beloved member of the community.
Aasma now believes the whole experience is proof that good will always conquer evil. Did “USA Woman” achieve her goal? Far from it! “If anything,” Aasma says, “I am even more determined than ever to make this country a place where Muslim women can be proud of who we are.”
To “USA Woman” and everyone out there who thinks like her, here is my message: you are fighting a losing battle, so give up your hateful crusade. Whatever vision of “America” you have conjured up in your head . . . undoubtedly a white, Christian, and homogeneous one . . . it is simply not a reality. And why would we want it to be? Religious freedom, diversity, respect and tolerance are what make this country great.
Educate yourself. Get out of your narrow box. Let go of your illogical fears. Talk to a Muslim woman. Approach her with an open mind and a smile. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised. Because the reality is, we Muslim women — however we are dressed — are strong, educated, passionate and positive members of this country. We ARE Americans. And we are here to stay.