Years ago I was scanning the aisle of a plane to find my place when my eyes fell on a seat right next to a middle aged white man in army fatigues. It triggered something in me that had to do with what I thought he would think of me and what I think a lot of people in Muslim-majority lands feel when they see a military uniform. In a word: it is loaded. I stifled the thought and sat down, nodding towards him. Not much time passed before he broke the ice. Well, more like took a sledgehammer to it:
“Excuse me but, are you wearing that by choice?” he said, referencing my headscarf (hijab).
“Oh! OK, good,” he said, visibly relaxing at the response.
I could have gotten upset. I could have demanded a seat change. I could have gone back to Facebook and shared a story about a bigot on a plane. But I thought it was really interesting that he didn’t ask me why I wore a headscarf, nor did he persuade me not to. The overarching concern for him was whether I did so freely. I felt there was nothing more American than that. Sure it was probably prejudicial to assume that a scarf, in particular, is most likely worn by force. But I chose to remain open in my body language which caused him to talk to me more.
Eventually he asked me about myself and I shared with him that I am a convert to Islam and that in my community I often feel as if I function as a kind of ambassador between two civilizations: American and Islamic. Listening to my story (which sounds rather grandiose but probably echoes what most American Muslims feel tasked with), he said that he felt his task in Iraq is the same thing. His task was to be on the ground, interacting with Iraqis, and “winning hearts and minds” as the familiar phrase goes. He clearly believed in what he was doing, and he felt he was a bridgebuilder…like me. I am not sure if Iraqis experienced him as such: maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. But what I felt was more important was that he identified with me.
By the end of our conversation, he exclaimed excitedly, “You know, when I first met you I thought one thing. But now after talking to you, I feel like you’re the Muslim Joan of Arc!” (Talk about grandiose.) He seemed very happy to conclude this…as if he was relieved because he really didn’t want to have to harbor negative feelings about a Muslim. Let’s face it: resentment is a burden. The widespread post-9/11 PTSD of the American people is a burden. Much of what is called Islamophobia is, I believe, the result of collective traumatization that has gone untreated, and even been inflamed.
But I like to think that henceforth this same soldier might hear others making remarks about Muslim women and I see him in my mind’s eye sharing about “the Muslim Joan of Arc lady” he met on a plane.
As simple as these episodes are, it is profoundly important in a country where in 2010, 62% of Americans reported that they had never met a Muslim. Another quick example? My husband recently got rear-ended while driving his car. The man felt terrible and was ready to whip out his insurance card. My husband saw only a dent and told the guy not to worry about it. “But,” he said, “do me a favor. I am a Muslim. Next time you hear someone saying bad things about Muslims, remember me.”
If we can stomach just a bit of rudeness, and let some assumptions pass without immediate correction, I think we might be able to connect with others on a human level. I know that it is hard to swallow one’s hurt feelings. I don’t pretend this method will work with everyone. I don’t advocate this method if one is physically threatened or chronically harassed (report that). But if we can see the person, and not the microaggressive act, then maybe in turn they will begin to see us and even see themselves in us.