By Yasmine Mohammed
At the age of six, I bolted out the front doors of my elementary school and ran to give my first-grade teacher a goodbye hug. As I skipped towards my mother, my bubbly mood was snatched away by her stern voice and admonishing stare.
“Did you just hug your teacher?” my mother asked.
“Yah, I love Mrs. Roth!”
“You do not hug non-Muslims! That is disgusting,” she said.
She then marched me over to the principal’s office to demand that Mrs. Roth never touch her child again. I sat in the chair listening to them, confused and embarrassed. I didn’t understand what I did wrong.
The next day, as all the children filed out of class, some would wrap their arms around Mrs. Roth’s middle, but her arms remained at her sides. The children asked why she wasn’t hugging them back, but she didn’t expose me. She just told them that she couldn’t anymore. It was a new rule. I hung my head and avoided her gaze as I sheepishly walked out of the classroom. Such a positive, loving, comforting aspect of my day was not only snatched from me, but from all the children in the class — and from my teacher.
That was the first time that I learned that I was an ‘other’. That I was a Muslim, that I lived among non-Muslims and that I could never get too comfortable around the non-believers. Unlike my Egyptian-born mother, I was born in Canada. I didn’t accept that ‘non-believers’ were evil and deserved Allah’s wrath. I didn’t want to strike off their heads or their fingertips, as Allah commands.
‘Non-believers’ were nice to me. They were my friends. My teachers weren’t Muslim, but they were kind and loving. What I was being taught at home contradicted the reality I was witnessing.
But my mother and her husband (she was his second concurrent wife) were far-right, conservative Muslims. They forced me to abide by their beliefs. Fearing both the wrath of my mother and the wrath of Allah, I did as I was told.
When I was 19, I had to wear a niqab (burka) and was forced into an arranged marriage. He was an Egyptian man who entered Canada from Afghanistan using a fake Saudi Arabian passport. Pre-9/11, those red flags weren’t enough for authorities to keep him out. He was even offered refugee status.
Years later, after I had had given birth to a daughter, I was contacted by the Canadian CIA (CSIS) and I learned that my husband, Essam Marzouk, was an Al Qaeda operative serving as Osama bin Laden’s point of contact. Soon after, I escaped from him, my family, and eventually left the religion into which I was born.
I ran away from the religious far-right world in which I was raised, and I made my way left towards values that I embraced like gender equality, free speech and LGBT rights.
All these values felt correct to me. They fit with me. I finally felt comfortable. I no longer had a constant internal struggle between left and right brewing inside of me.
Now, try to imagine the shock, betrayal and sadness I feel seeing fellow liberals celebrating right-wing, conservative aspects of Islam. On February 1, I was so upset over World Hijab Day that I spent the day in bed with a migraine. Hijab Day? Would it make sense to have Wings Day to celebrate the garment that women in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ are forced to wear? Is there a Mormon underwear day? What about a chastity belt day? I risked my life, and my daughter’s life, to escape from the darkness into the light — only to find the light celebrating and fetishising darkness.
When you celebrate the hijab by plastering it all over catwalks, and the Women’s March, Playboy, Elle, Vogue and Nike, you are celebrating a symbol of a far-right ideology, whether you know it or not. Muslims come from hundreds of different countries with hundreds of different cultures and hundreds of different traditional clothing styles.
The hijab is not worn by non-Muslim Egyptians, Iraqis, Indonesians, Pakistanis or Somalis. It is worn by conservative Muslims from those countries. If I want to celebrate Italians, I will not make a Pope Hat Day or a Nun’s Habit Day. These are religious symbols. The hijab confuses Americans. They seem to think that it is a ‘cultural’ clothing — no. It is religious. As religious as a kippah or an Amish bonnet.
Americans also seem to have trouble distinguishing Muslims as people from Islam as a religion. For liberals, celebrating and honouring people is to be applauded, celebrating and honouring religions is not. We do not celebrate and honour conservative Christianity or Orthodox Judaism. Why do we celebrate fundamentalist Islam?
When Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour drew criticism earlier this year for supporting Sharia, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders jumped to her support. Sharia, a barbaric and socially right-wing conservative set of laws, was defended by the most progressive political leader in the United States. That moment illustrated the absolute absurdity of this confusion.
Sanders supporting Sarsour made as much sense as him jumping to support disgraced Christian personality Josh Duggar or devout Mormon Mitt Romney. But it’s indicative of a broader problem among my fellow liberals. Their hearts may be in the right place, but their brains are not. ‘Intersectionalism’ has caused their brains to misfire. Many reflexively defend conservative theocrats like Sarsour because she has brown skin and a scarf on her head. But a person’s values cannot be identified by their skin color.
As a Sharia supporter who has expressed her to desire to inflict violence on women she disagrees with, Sarsour is much more right-wing than either Duggar or Romney. The left is engaging in the kind of bigotry it is supposed to oppose – judging people based on the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.
Liberal Americans come in every hue of skin and from every religious background. But we must choose our allies based on their ideas and not their identities. If liberals want to include Muslims, by all means, please do, but first ensure that those Muslims are actually liberals. Sarsour is not. She represents the minority of devout hijab-wearing conservative Muslim women in America.
How can a person who claims to be a liberal also support Sharia? Islamic law demands death for gays and lesbians, for people who leave Islam, forbids women from traveling without a male guardian’s permission. You want to know what life is like under Sharia? Look to Saudi Arabia and Iran, two of the most illiberal counties imaginable.
In the left’s zeal to support minorities, it inadvertently supports conservative religious values, but only those of one faith. Our alliances should be rooted in shared goals and values for society.
Too often, left-wing Americans make their decisions based on just doing the opposite of the right-wing. Right wing loves Christianity? We oppose it! Right wing hates Islam? We love it! This shallow reactive behaviour lacks any critical thought. As George Orwell said: “The truth becomes untruth if uttered by your enemy.” As opposed to just reacting, all Americans should take a step back and think about each situation critically. Sometimes the lunacy is glaring.
Can we imagine a liberal march that uses Mormon underwear as an icon? Or a nun’s habit? Of course not. But the Women’s March made a point of using the hijab as one of its images. That’s an example of glaring lunacy.
Walking from the religious right to the political left, I gave up the idea of judging people based on their identities. I was shocked to find that attitude thriving just as strongly on the American left as on the Islamic right. As much as I love liberal values, risking my life to live by them, I cannot abide by the identity politics that has possessed my fellow liberals.
Today, I fight back tears of joy as I watch my six-year-old daughter run to hug her teacher in the mornings. I escaped from the hate on the right and I will never join the hate on the left. My daughter will never hear words of hate from me, and she will never utter words of hate to her children. The cycle of hate ends here.
She endured decades of physical and mental torture. She was forced into a marriage with a member of Al Qaeda, after he was bailed out of prison by Osama bin Laden himself. She wore a niqab, and lived in a home/prison with paper covering all the windows. Yet, somehow, with nothing but a high school diploma and a baby in tow, she got out.