A deaf Muslim atheist responds defiantly to the debate over the ‘Ground Zero mosque’
Last month, as debates raged over the proposal for an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the former World Trade Center, Tablet contributor Daniel Luban wrote an impassioned essay comparing Islamophobia to anti-Semitism. The hundreds of comments on the essay—and on the follow-up conversation between Luban and the conservative intellectual David Horowitz—showed an impressive depth of feeling in our readers, who defended and attacked the proposed community center and mosque in equal measure. A number of the voices stood out, sharing personal experiences of discrimination, anger, disillusionment, and concern. Sabina England’s was one of them.
These days, if anyone is called a Muslim, it’s a slur. Obama is a secret Muslim! You must be Muslim because you support Park51. You defend Muslims therefore you’re an apologist for extremist Islam. Terrorist!
Yeah? Well, I am a Muslim and I’m happy to shove it down your throat. I’m not a weak, oppressed woman who needs to be saved by the Western savior. I’m a Muslim and I didn’t commit the Sept. 11 hijackings and I won’t apologize for them. Muslims everywhere are under constant threat of being killed in the name of terrorism and civil war, while Americans are rarely attacked on U.S. soil. We are not terrorists or apologists. We’re normal, ordinary people who just want to be left alone and live our lives and have the freedom of religion to quietly practice (or reject) Islam.
We’re American, we’re Muslim, and we’re not leaving.
I did not always feel this way.
I first learned about the Holocaust from a deaf Jewish boy who screamed at me after I raised my arm like Hitler as an innocent joke. We were both in social studies class at my school for the deaf. We were 10 years old. On that day, just before lunch, the teacher informed us that we’d be learning about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know what that was. I leafed through the history textbook and saw a black-and-white photo of Adolf Hitler. There he was, standing in a balcony and raising his arm, while people in the crowd below raised their arms in the very same manner. I thought it was funny.
After lunch, we came back to class. I ran down the hallway and raised my arm, imitating Hitler while laughing gleefully. The Jewish boy, who was standing in the doorway, saw what I did, so I decided to show off. He was my first crush, an Orthodox Jewish boy who wore a yarmulke and prayed and wouldn’t talk to girls much. When he stared at me in my pose, I felt pleased because he was finally paying attention to me. His face turned pale. Using his voice and hands in American Sign Language, he screamed at me. What’s so funny? I didn’t understand why he was mad. I told him I saw it in a photo from the textbook. He yelled at me about how Hitler murdered millions of Jews. He continued, signing furiously about some of his family who perished in killing camps.
“But why?” I asked him. “Why did they kill your family? What did they do?”
“Nothing!” he yelled. “They died because they were Jewish.” I was still confused. Why would anyone kill others for their religion? He knew I didn’t mean any harm. He then whispered, “Don’t do that again.”
When I lived in Texas with my parents, I used to think I was Mexican, because other Mexicans looked just like me. I was baffled as to why my father didn’t wear snakeskin boots and cowboy hats like other Chicano men. I was also confused why deaf Mexican-American kids didn’t practice Hinduism or Islam like my family did. The deaf Jewish boy was the first Jew I met. He asked me if my family celebrated Christmas. I said no. “Neither do Jews,” he replied. It was the early 1990s, and I didn’t think much about my own identity.
My parents emigrated to England from India in the 1970s, and I was born in a working-class neighborhood in Leeds, but we constantly moved around England and the United States before my parents found a good deaf school with an excellent oral training program in the Midwestern United States. It was there that I met the deaf Jewish student. I also met another deaf Muslim kid for the first time in my life. But he was Egyptian, not South Asian. He was dark and brown, just like me. We had very different cultures, but we shared the same religion.
I considered myself more Indian than Muslim. I didn’t care about Islam, know who Muhammad was, or know what Arabs looked like. My parents were “fresh off the boat” immigrants. We socialized with Indians, both Hindu and Muslim. My mother used to wear sarees and a large red bindi on her forehead. We ate Indian food every day, and my parents spoke Urdu at home. Sometimes my parents were targeted in racist name-calling by white English people. You fucking paki. Sometimes at deaf schools in England and the United States, I felt ashamed for being Indian whenever classmates asked me if I was from India and why was India so poor. I saw India as something associated with filth, dirt, poverty, and inferiority. I hated dark-skinned Indians and wished I was white, like Princess Diana or Jemima Khan.
It was only at the deaf school in the United States when the deaf Egyptian Muslim boy, Omar, finally made me aware that we were different from other deaf kids. Deaf kids looked out for each other, because we were outcasts from society; I thought that was enough. But it wasn’t that simple. One day, a white deaf boy asked me what my family religion was. Muslim, I told him. “Isn’t Omar a Muslim, too?” he asked. I nodded.
The next day, Omar burst into the classroom and yelled at me. “Why did you tell everyone I’m a Muslim!” he roared at me in sign language. “That was supposed to be a secret.” When I asked him why, he told me Americans hated Muslims. His parents said Americans were at war in a Muslim country, and it was better if we shut our mouths and didn’t tell anyone we were Muslim. But why? What did we do? Nothing, he said.
When I turned 17, I had a religious awakening and began to wear the hijab. My father was fiercely against it. He argued I was already stigmatized as a deaf woman of color. He ordered me to take off the hijab, and I refused. Our relationship was strained. This was almost one year before Sept. 11.
Before the Twin Tower attacks, Muslims were suspected, but not as widely hated. Back then, I was the only deaf student in a hearing public high school. The hijab made me stand out even more. I wasn’t too popular, but in my senior year, every day during lunch, I sat with a group of Muslim American girls. One of them was Syrian with white skin. Another was Somali with black skin. Two were Pakistani, and I was the deaf Indian Muslim. One day, a group of white kids and one black teenager decided to throw chips, ketchup packs, and French fries at us. None of the girls spoke. I wanted to say something, but being deaf, I had no idea what the guys were saying. I wanted to cuss them out—but if they said something back to me, I wouldn’t know what they’d said. So, I kept silent as they threw food at us. Everyone in the cafeteria watched us being attacked with food, but no one spoke up for us.
In late August 2001, I started my first year at a small Catholic college. The day after Sept. 11, I felt sick and weird, like my beloved sweet uncle had been exposed as someone who lured children into his backyard, killed them, and ate their body parts. Muslims were being watched and scrutinized. My religion had been hijacked. Over 2,000 people died in the name of radical Islamic extremism. What the fuck?
I had an escort accompanying me to every class after my parents expressed concern that I would be physically targeted because I wore hijab. No one would speak to me. I was lonely. I didn’t make any new friends. I wasn’t sure if it was because of my hijab or my deafness. Even before I began wearing the hijab, I was always ignored and shunned by other hearing students who figured I was just dumb and mute. I was always an angry person. The stigmatization after Sept. 11 only made me hate people even more, yet I was also frantically lonely and alienated.
One day after classes were over, I sat in my car and cried for an hour. I was sick of the hijab, tired of being stigmatized for being Muslim and, on top of it, being deaf. Around the time, I didn’t like Jews or gay people, because white Christian students in my school would make anti-Semitic remarks which imprinted in my mind. I first learned about AIDS and homosexuality by a conservative Catholic mentor who told me that gay men were disgusting. Not knowing better, I viewed both Jews and gays as inferior people. Ironically, the only student in my college classes who would smile at me or speak with me was an Israeli Jewish student. He spoke of having Arab Palestinian friends, both Christian and Muslim. He sighed about how he wanted there to be peace. Unlike other hearing students, he was able to easily understand my deaf accent. I hated my deaf accent.
An old Jewish lady on the college campus invited me to a Yom Kippur dinner. She wanted me there so they could promote interfaith dialogue. I graciously accepted the invitation, but when I told my Muslim friends about it, they freaked out and warned me not to go. What if they want to humiliate you? they said. All Jews hate Muslims. They’ll set you up for something bad. I believed them. I didn’t show up.
A year later, I transferred to a state university, and I took off my hijab. Although my extremist beliefs were shedding away, I still clung to Islam, albeit a more moderate version. I no longer believed that women had to cover up for modesty. I felt that by wearing hijab, women were re-affirming the sexist attitude that women were sex objects. I also began following ideas of moderate Muslim thinkers who advocated peace, love, respect, and interfaith dialogue between all major religions. I didn’t want to be a Muslim bigot anymore. I wanted to be a good Muslim.
I had a Jewish professor at my new university, who would become one of my biggest influences. He encouraged me to write and read more. He was the one who taught me how wrong homophobia was. One day, he assigned us to read Stop Kiss, a contemporary American play about lesbianism. At the time, I was still homophobic. I became uncomfortable reading the play. In my critique essay, I wrote something like, “Why did these women become lesbians? Why can’t they be straight? Why can’t two women just be friends?” and my professor wrote back a harsh response in my essay about how people should be allowed to freely love who they want.
I also became friends with a Jewish punk who had a Mohawk and wore a studded vest with various sewn-on patches of punk bands such as Dead Kennedys and the Exploited. We became friends because we shared the same interest in punk rock. One day, I asked him what his beliefs were. He said he was an atheist. So, I asked him why he called himself Jewish if he didn’t believe in God. He explained Jewishness was an identity, not a faith. He called himself a Jewish atheist.
At that time, I didn’t understand. But today, it makes sense. I’m Indian Muslim, but when it comes to faith, I’m more agnostic. I reject Islam as an organized religion, and I don’t believe Islam, Judaism, or any other religions hold the ultimate truth. No one can prove Allah exists, but her existence cannot be disproven either. Regardless, I will always identify myself as Muslim.
I feel more hated today for being Muslim than I did almost 10 years ago. This recent wave of Islamophobia has nothing to do with religion or ideology, as some bigots claim. It’s pure racism, plain and simple. Muslims and non-Muslims have been lumped together in one group. Arab Christians, Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews, South Asians such as Hindus, Sikhs, and Indian Christians, along with Turks, Southeast Asians, Africans and African-Americans, and others who are brown or look “Arab,” have been targeted in racist incidents. I don’t have a problem with people attacking Islam as an ideology, but I’ll condemn them for their anti-Muslim racism.
I’m a humanist and feminist. I’ll always speak out against all forms of hatred against anyone for their race, religion, skin color, sexuality, disability, nationality, or ethnicity. I’ve called out Muslims, Hindus, and Christians on their anti-Semitic remarks, and I’ve criticized plenty of bigots for their homophobic remarks. When one group is the victim of hate, it affects other people.
Sabina England is a playwright, filmmaker, and mime artist.