As a 12-year-old, I vividly remember the horrific images of the twin towers being struck down. Little did I know that what unfolded on the television screen of my 7th grade history class on September 11th, 2001would greatly influence my life. Having grown up with classmates in ethnically diverse Cupertino, Ca. as a Muslim, I felt privileged to not have to deal with much discrimination.
But that changed when my family moved down to Southern California for me to start my freshman year at Saugus High School. There, the population was not diverse. Besides the color of my skin, I was also different because I was the only practicing Muslim in my graduating class. I was now a stranger from every angle. For the first time, I could feel my peers whispering “terrorist” behind my back. However, I realized that this was not because they actually thought I was one or had doubts about me. Instead it was because the only thing they knew about Islam – besides me – was what they had seen or heard about in the media or through their parents, whose views were also influenced by the media. By calling me a terrorist, my peers demonstrated that they were perhaps a bit ignorant, but in large part, uninformed. Nonetheless, in time the students of Saugus High School got to know me. They came to see that at least I was an exception to what they had seen in the media.
Those few students of Saugus High School displayed their hatred towards me due to being uninformed, but what about the millions of other Americans, who, according to Pew polls, do not personally know a Muslim? As Muslims, if we don’t speak for ourselves, then others will continue to do all the speaking for us. Like the students of Saugus High, millions will have an incorrect impression of Islam – a religion that espouses life, not death, and declares, “Saving one life is akin to saving all of humanity” (Koran 5:33).
Therefore, fears of Islam need to be dispelled through grassroots efforts. One such effort is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA’s nationwide “Muslims for Life” (www.muslimsforlife.org) campaign. As part of this campaign, youth like myself are arranging blood drives to honor the lives of the nearly 3,000 killed on 9/11 by collecting 10,000 bags of blood on September 11th, 2011. Instead of taking people’s lives, we want to show that Islam teaches us to honor the sanctity of human life.
While I was passing out fliers for the blood drives last week, I met many people who were grateful for receiving the message. A lady insisted on simply shaking my hand in appreciation. A man became emotional and wanted to hug because the memory of 9/11 reminded him that his mother was just two blocks away from the twin towers and that she could have been a victim. Another man, for the first time, started to believe that Islam taught peace, not violence. The message to me became clear: this campaign was having an effect.
Now, with 500,000 fliers to be distributed within the next few weeks, and over 200 blood drives already arranged nationwide, the campaign will only help to dispel fears about Islam and to save thousands of lives.
I was pleased to hear President Obama’s statement regarding Muslim-Americans at the White House Ramadan dinner, “there’s no them and us—it’s just us.” But to millions of Americans, the students of Saugus High School and many other schools like it, the actions of so-called Muslims in headlines speak louder than presidential statements.
Many of these people will grow up without coming to know a Muslim. It is likely they will pass on their fears of Islam and of Muslims down to their children. I am hopeful they see what the Muslims for Life campaign is all about. Today, as much as on September 11th, 2001 in my 7th grade historyclass, the terrorists under the banner of Islam do not speak for me.
This article was first published in the Contra Costa Times and SCV Signal.
Saad Karamat is an award-winning member of Muslim Writers Guild of America. He is founder and former student instructor for Legal Studies 198 at UC Berkeley (“Jesus, Muhammad, and the Modern State”).