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Muslim Parents and 'the Talk' in the Wake of the Chapel Hill Murders

For a lot of American Muslims, conversations with their kids about the perils of interacting with police or security officers came up in the wake of 9/11—and have resurfaced after the murders in Chapel Hill.

by Beenish Ahmed
Feb 14 2015, 3:00pm

Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

After three Muslim relatives were murdered in their apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Tuesday, Muslims across America had no choice but to take notice.

The police have so far maintained the trio was targeted because of "an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking." But on Thursday, the FBI launched an inquiry into whether the shooting might constitute a hate crime, and Suzanne Barakat has told CNN's Anderson Cooper that she believes the death of her brother Deah Barakat, his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan stemmed from a dislike that Craig Stephen Hicks, the man charged with the killings, had for the victims' appearances. Given that the young women who were killed wore headscarves, it's not surprising that the shooting has America's Muslims rethinking just how overt they should be about their faith.

The killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 led to a lot of black parents publicly discussing "the talk" they give their children to protect them from potential violence at the hands of law enforcement officers. "It's about survival," one black father told ABC News while describing how he told his sons to keep their hands in sight and address officers as "sir" if they're ever pulled over or arrested.

For a lot of American Muslims, a similar conversation on avoiding engaging with police or security officers came up in the wake of 9/11 and has resurfaced after the murders in Chapel Hill.

Many parents, even those who are religious themselves, discourage their kids from praying in public or wearing headscarves—things that would "out" them as Muslims, and, they fear, invite prejudice or violence. They certainly have reason to do so: Just under half of all American Muslims polled by Gallup in 2010 said that they have experienced discrimination based on their faith—the highest percentage among any faith group surveyed.

Nigah Mughal is a 24-year-old law student and Arlington, Virgina, resident who says she's worn a hijab since the summer of 2001, but the day after the Chapel Hill shootings was the first time she consciously decided to hide her headscarf under a hood.

"Even after 9/11, I did not make the conscious decision to hide my hijab, but [on Wednesday], I did," Mughal wrote in an email. "That scares me; my decision scares me. Have things become so bad that I am trying to hide myself?"

But Mughal does, on occasion, hide parts of her identity. She usually speaks an English-Sindhi mixture with her family, but when in line at the airport or on board a flight, she deliberately chooses to only speak in English.

After the shootings, Mughal said her parents called her from Arizona to implore her to avoid public transportation, to get home early, and to refuse to open her front door for anyone.

Some Muslims I spoke to for this article described getting some form of that advice from their parents this week, but many more said discussions about avoiding conflict and concealing their religious beliefs were recurring ones in their families. Fourteen of 21 Muslims who responded to an informal survey I sent out to various Muslim listservs had been given a talk on personal safety by their parents and issued some version to their own children.

"I personally have been physically attacked while praying in public," Mohammad Jehad Ahmad, a student at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, told me.

"My parents had 'the talk' with me after 9/11," he added. "Since then, my mother begs me to 'lay low' and not pray in public. My mother is especially afraid for me, being a male in my 20s. She wants me to be proud of my religion, but to be careful because she's afraid for my life."

"The world is not made for us, so don't do anything to upset the world," 20-year-old New York City resident Nancy Uddin's father said to her.

Many respondents described similar attacks that seemed to target their beliefs and ethnic heritage. These ranged from people shouting racial slurs like 'sand nigger' to waving guns and decrying Sharia law to politely asking Muslim Americans—many of whom were born in America—why they can't just go back to their own country. One respondent even described a very similar "parking dispute" to the one that allegedly took place in Chapel Hill that has been going on for two years her family's home in Santa Clara, California. It's left them feeling isolated and living in fear.

But as respondents reflected on religious or racially motivated attacks, they dismissed them as expected parts of their lives. One young woman concluded a list describing instances of hate speech, racial slurs, and veiled threats by writing, "But nothing dramatic has ever happened to me." This comment was reflected in many more accounts. Many Muslims have, like her, written off incidents that didn't leave physical scars as commonplace—or at least nothing worth getting riled up about.

"The world is not made for us, so don't do anything to upset the world," 20-year-old New York City resident Nancy Uddin's father said to her.

"My parents priority is ensuring my safety, so yes in some forms they give me 'the talk' every day," she added. "They hide behind American flags and nationalism, suppressing their Muslim identities and tell me to mask my rage sometimes."

"When I started wearing hijab, my dad actually told me and really begged me not to because he was afraid people would treat me differently and that I would not get the opportunities I deserved because it would hold me back," said Hirra Amin, a 31-year-old New York City lawyer.

Due in part to all the cautionary advice from their parents, many Muslims agonize over their outward appearances. A few respondents described almost daily struggles over whether to don a headscarf, an abaya, a beard, or even a small necklace that reads "Allah." Even if their own religious beliefs and cultural traditions push them towards such attire, they fear how their appearances will be seen by others—and if such overt displays of their religion might cause them to be looked at askance, passed up for jobs, or even assaulted.

For men especially, the talk seems to revolve around interactions with security personnel or law enforcement.

"My parents' initial advice via the talk was to obey law enforcement, comply with their demands to 'randomly select for inspection/surveillance' my bags and/or person, and never run away in fear," said Farooq Zafar, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Elmhurst, New York.

Although interviewees say "the talk" imbued them with a pervasive sense of fear, others reported using the conversation to foster a sense of safety and pride.

One respondent suggested that she took the initiative to have "the talk" with her parents and brothers when she became a lawyer and learned more about her rights. She sat them down to explain to them what their legal protections were if their if their homes were ever searched or they were ever arrested.

"I feel our men (people of color and Muslims) are often targeted by law enforcement, so I made sure to be extra particular and specific when speaking with my brothers about all the ways that they could be targeted and how to protect themselves," Amin said.

If we accept as Muslim Americans that we are justified in 'living in fear,' we have let violence and hatred achieve its end, which was to destroy more than just the people it targeted, to destroy everything that connects us.

Although this was an anomalous experience among the respondents, Amina Foda, a graduate student who also lives in New York, said that "the talk" she got from her parents was actually rather optimistic.

"It was made clear to me that I was different from my peers because I was Muslim and Egyptian—and that difference is what is valuable and deserves to be treasured and protected," she told me. "I was raised to be proud of my minority identity but the disadvantages of what that minority experience were not discussed explicitly."

The line between pride and fear is one many fear having to draw for their children.

One respondent described hugging his infant close just thinking about having to give him the talk when he gets older. Respondents who didn't yet have children expressed sadness at the thought of having to discuss how to be safe while being Muslim with their children once they have them.

Still, some Muslims got by just fine without any special chat. Jameelah Shaheed, a Dallas-based education coordinator, is one of them.

"I wore hijab for 12 years and I grew up in rural Texas, but I never felt there was a place I couldn't go or that I was limited in any way," the 29-year-old told me. "My parents went through integration and the Black Power movement, so I think they are just two tough, almost fearless people. We weren't the type that didn't go to the masjid [mosque] after 9/11. Without saying it directly, it was clear that if we're in the right we have nothing to fear, come what may.

"I honestly just feel like [my parents were] the two people who bucked the system and wore their 'fros, then traded them for a hijab and a beard, never backed down and taught me the same," Shaheed added, before acknowledging that after the Chapel Hill shooting, she feels more unsettled than ever.

Asra Nomani, a journalist and professor at Georgetown University, said in a Facebook post replying to a query on the topic, "I didn't issue any warnings to my son, Shibli, 12, except to talk to him about how the most ordinary of situations—like parking—can become violent if we are dealing with someone who is unstable and angry."

She said that she prefers to reserve judgment about the motivations behind the Chapel Hill murders, and asked her son to do the same.

"I told him, too, that the rush to judgment of the murders as 'hate,' with the jury still out, reflects, to me, the hyper-reflexive nature of too many in our Muslim community to cry 'Islamophobia' and 'hate' when sometimes much more ordinary realities—like short fuses tragically ending in murder—are at play."

Nomani is not alone in expressing doubts that the three murders were motivated in any way by the victims' religious identities. Quite a few Muslim American respondents also wanted to sidestep feelings of fear because, in short, they don't think they should have to feel afraid in America—a country that explicitly protects freedom of religion.

"We easily accept as Americans that if we 'live in fear' we have 'let the terrorists win,' because they want us to be afraid," said Fareeda Ahmed, 30, a corporate strategist and brand consultant who lives in New York City. "By the same token, if we accept as Muslim Americans that we are justified in 'living in fear,' we have let violence and hatred achieve its end, which was to destroy more than just the people it targeted, to destroy everything that connects us."

Nigah Mughal, the Arlington-based law student, found her own way to push back at fear in her own life when she was accosted in a Washington, DC, subway station.

"A homeless man told me he was going to slice open my throat and stuff a pork sandwich down it. I ignored him and continued to walk. I called the DC shelter hotline. He was homeless, it was a cold day, and perhaps he just needed somewhere warm to be," she said.

Beenish Ahmed covers international affairs for ThinkProgress. She's a former Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee to Pakistan and a former Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter.