Nadia Awwad considers herself a Southerner. As a covered Muslim woman, sometimes this identity is at odds with the reality of being who she is, living in Alabama. Strange looks follow Awwad when she is in public, she said. Not everyday, but often enough.
Awwad said all she can do is smile back and try to alleviate some of the anxiety behind the prolonged stares.
Awwad was born in Jordan and moved to the United States when she was one year old. Her family has lived in the same house for 26 years. Now 27, Awwad characterized her childhood as more “traditional than religious.”
“Typically for Arab women, we are taught how to please and to accommodate our guests. You don’t like them, it doesn’t matter, you welcome them with open arms. And you respect your elders no matter what,” Awwad said, drawing comparisons from her traditional Arab upbringing to the old idiom of Southern hospitality.
After having her first child, Awwad made the decision to wear a hijab. She was in her 20s and the decision did not come lightly. She said that overseas the choice would not be as difficult because most everyone is covered. But here, in Alabama, the transition can be hard, especially since the Paris and San Bernardino attacks that stoked the flames of a long smoldering fear toward Islam in the U.S. and abroad.
These fears can sometimes manifest into violent incidents directed toward Muslims and even people who are mistaken as such. It’s something that is always on Awwad’s mind. Something as routine as going to the store for milk can lead to someone harassing her based solely on her appearance. Thus far there hasn’t been a situation where she has felt overtly threatened, she said, although sometimes people yell things like “ISIS,” in the mall or other places.
Awwad considers herself fortunate in that regard.
At about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Weld’s office manager, Mannal Mekdad, who is a covered Muslim woman, was walking to her car in the parking lot of the Riverchase Galleria. She passed a couple that was giving her weird looks as she approached her car.
“As I was walking past, this bigger, older white man just spit at my feet. I didn’t really react to him and just kept walking,” Mekdad said. “I guess that upset him because he mumbled something and did it again. He was following me at that point and a little [spit] got on my toe. At this point I just wanted to get to my car so I didn’t even say anything to the guy.”
After getting inside her car, Mekdad said the man then stood behind the car for a moment. “I don’t know if he was getting my license plate number or what, but he just turned and walked away,” Mekdad said, adding that she did not call the police.
Such incidents are not isolated to Alabama.
On Dec. 12, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a clerk at a Bottlenecks Food and Drink was held at gunpoint and eventually shot through the cheek after the assailant reportedly said, “I shot people like you overseas in the Middle East,” according to a Washington Post report.
The clerk, however, was not Muslim. He was a Sikh from India. Still, the assailant labeled him a “terrorist.”
On Dec. 16 a man was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in a foiled Ku Klux Klan plot to use a “death ray” to remotely emit radiation at a mosque and nearby school in Albany, New York. This device was intended to be used on Muslims. Eric Freight, 55, plead guilty to aiding terrorists and helping to modify an industrial-grade radiation device as reported by The Guardian.
“The sentence today highlights both the dangers we face when hatred and bigotry beget domestic terrorism and violent extremism, and our commitment to holding those who commit such crimes accountable,” Richard S. Hartunian, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York told The Guardian. “No American — of any background — should have to live in fear of this kind of attack.”
And yet, that fear is real among Muslims living in the U.S.
Awwad said that when she first turned on her TV to see the horrifying images coming out of San Bernardino Dec. 2, her heart immediately sank. “When we saw that a covered woman was involved with this attack we knew this was different. I think every Muslim woman cried when we saw that because, of course, it is heartbreaking to see, but we knew things were about to change for us,” Awwad recalled. “We knew that women might be a target for more hate now and we were going to have to be careful.”
“A certain level of uneasiness follows us”
Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, to Syrian immigrants, Bayan Karassi and her family moved to Birmingham shortly afterward. When she was in fifth grade they moved back to be with family in Syria.
In 2010 Karassi and her family were living in Aleppo, Syria, when protests began to break out in what would be the bloodiest civil war in the country’s long history. Karassi still has family there, but when demonstrations against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime began to rise up, Karassi was with her parents spending the summer in Alabama.
“My aunt called my dad and told him it wouldn’t be safe to bring the kids back now,” Karassi said. “So we just stayed. We moved back without really moving. All my stuff was over there. So it was hard having to readjust all of a sudden.”
Even though she is the daughter of Syrian immigrants and spent formative years in Aleppo she sometimes tells people she is from Lebanon or Jordan nowadays. “I just want to avoid those looks I get when I mention I am from Syria,” she said. “It’s just easier this way now.”
Now 19, Karassi studies healthcare management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. There, she doesn’t feel at all like an outsider, she said. She doesn’t get any weird looks. She isn’t treated any differently from anyone else, but the second she leaves campus she knows people might stare.
Driving is the worst, she said. “You accidentally cut someone off in traffic like everyone does, and they just look at me like I did it on purpose because I’m dressed this way.”
With roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, Karassi said it would be impossible to believe that they are all bad people, despite a current political climate that might lead some to that conclusion. She said that almost every Muslim she knows has been accosted or heckled at some point in Alabama. “I had a guy say I needed to go back to my country and I politely told him I was American,” she said.
“I might go out of town next month, and I am legitimately scared about being stopped and questioned or pulled off the plane,” she said. “I know a lot of people who that has happened to. I’m even thinking of dressing differently so I’m not so intimidating to people.”
As a covered woman, the thought of being misconstrued as a terrorist is equal parts ridiculous and horrifying for Karassi. “It’s always in the back of my mind when I’m going somewhere now,” she said. “I don’t really travel outside Birmingham that often. I don’t really want to put myself in a situation where there might be an issue.”
But the thought of having to limit herself based on what people might say or think of her bothers Karassi.
Awwad explained that being a Muslim woman creates a situation different from that faced by Muslim men. “People take one look at you and think they got you all figured out. But with the men, they could pass as Italian, Latin, whatever. In a lot of ways it’s harder for women,” Awwad said. “It’s easy to just brush off the stares and say to yourself that it doesn’t matter. But sometimes it really hurts because I’ve been here a long time, and I consider myself to be American and I have a right to be here.”
Awwad said that once when she was trying to apply for a job, a woman who worked for the company told her that if the hiring manager saw her before the interview she probably wouldn’t get called back. “She told me that once they hear me speak they would be able to tell that I’m not a bad person,” Awwad said. “I couldn’t believe that.”
On another occasion, when she was traveling with her husband and two children, Awwad was randomly selected at the airport for a full-body scan. “The kind that you can see under people’s clothes,” Awwad said. Her husband objected. He was detained for an hour and questioned.
Eventually they were released and she did not have to submit to the full-body scanners. They didn’t miss their flight because they had anticipated a holdup at the airport. Awwad explained that when Muslims travel they have to allot extra time for these inconveniences.
Awwad’s cousin in Cullman had a run-in with the KKK after they repeatedly left flyers on her doorstep. That’s one of many such encounters she knows about.
She related a story of cooking dinner for relatives who were visiting from overseas. Awwad refers to them as FOBs (fresh off the boat). “I wanted to cook them this big Southern meal; barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes, collard greens, all of that good stuff. But I suck at making sweets so I told them to stop and pick some up at Wal-Mart.”
When her relatives showed up to her house, Awwad said, they were traumatized.
“I’m listening to them describe the situation, and I can’t help but feel like they were being too sensitive. I kept thinking maybe they were making themselves a target to look at because they kept looking around nervously. I’ve been to that Wal-Mart plenty of times — day and night — and I’ve never had a problem. But I think it’s because I make a point to smile at everyone.”
Farming a little differently in Alabama
If you blink you might miss the entrance to Randle Farms just outside of Auburn, Alabama. The unassuming gate opens up into several hundred acres of land that the Randles have been working for 40 years.
Like Awwad, Franklin Randle makes a point to smile at everyone. He is the eldest son of Frank Randle, who started the farm 40 years ago. Recently the Randle farm was featured in The Economist because of their business, which supplies lambs to Muslims throughout the Southeast. While they do not process and sell their own halal meats, customers are welcomed to use their private facility to slaughter the animal themselves in a way that is in line with Islamic traditions.
Because of the sandy soil on the property, the Randles made the decision to farm sheep instead of cattle even though “not too many Anglo-Americans eat lamb,” he said. Historically sheep can turn marginal land into profitable product, Randle explained. Cattle would tear up the land too much to be able to sustain a herd.
They never planned on being a hub for Muslims seeking halal food options in the South. “We just kind of fell into selling the lambs to Muslims. It’s not what we set out to do,” Randle explained while sitting on a bench overlooking his muscadine grape vineyard.
Randle explained how it happened. One day his father got a phone call from a Saudi prince who was looking for a whole lamb. “Typically the people we get out here come from affluence,” Franklin explained. A car pulled up sometime later and some men grabbed the lamb and loaded it into the car and gave him some money. That, Franklin said, was their first transaction with the Muslim community.
During the early years, most of their clientele would be officers or soldiers who were stationed in Fort Benning or Maxwell Air Force Base. Now, they get a lot of people who come from Auburn University. It’s not something that they advertise. In fact, Randle said that most of his neighbors aren’t even aware that theirs is one of few farms in Alabama providing live animals for slaughter and a secure facility for Muslims to fulfill their religious and cultural obligation.
Randle said that his clientele, who come to the farm often, are his friends. He said that a lot of the fear and hatred exhibited towards the Muslim community stems from the fact that people are closed off and don’t take the time to get to know anyone who practices Islam.
“They’re funny, they love to laugh, they’re respectful, they’re gracious and I am proud to call the ones that I know friends,” Randle said.
Randle said that sometimes after their slaughter, some of the customers who come out to the farm will bring coffee and dates if it coincides with their religious obligations. Randle is happy to oblige. “We’ve had people come from Montgomery, Birmingham, Huntsville and Atlanta. It’s all word of mouth. Some of the people that come out here will tell their family members that when they need to make a slaughter they can come here and we’ll welcome them,” Randle said.
In a part of the country that has been historically entrenched in its “old ways,” the Randles are breaking ground on a new kind of Southern hospitality, one that doesn’t care if the neighbors think they are “consorting with the enemy” as he puts it. “We just want to treat people with kindness. It’s not about politics or any of that. It’s about treating your fellow man with the kindness and respect you would want.”
The political climate for Muslim Americans
Politically, the last few months have been an exercise in fortitude for American Muslims. Hot button issues like the Syrian refugee crisis and Islamic extremists have dominated the news cycle. Divisive language toward Islam has defined this year’s presidential campaign.
Karassi said it’s been particularly trying on her because she has family members who still live in Syria with whom she has not had contact in months. “All their phones are down and they don’t have Internet,” Karassi said. “Of course I worry about them. And then I hear things like presidential candidates wanting to bomb Syria indiscriminately. It’s just too much to handle sometimes.”
Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz recently spoke to a packed house while at a campaign stop in Trussville. Before the event, the line wrapped around the exterior of the Trussville Civic Center as supporters filed into the building. By all accounts, the crowd was overwhelmingly white.
Those in attendance got to hear firsthand what Cruz plans to do in order to combat radical Islam, a situation that Cruz has been outspoken against in recent months. The subject of religious extremism, particularly “radical Islam,” has not been confined to Cruz’s talking points alone; it has been at the forefront of the 2015 political discourse. Perhaps most notably, presidential candidate Donald Trump called for America to close its borders to all Muslims, prompting swift scorn from those on both sides of the political aisle.
Cruz, who is a self-proclaimed advocate for religious liberty, has not condemned Trump’s comments. He replied to a question about Trump’s statements during the Dec. 15 Republican presidential debate, saying, “I understand why Donald made that proposal. I introduced legislation in the Senate that I believe is more narrowly focused at the threat, which is radical Islamic terrorism. What my legislation would do is suspend all refugees for three years from countries where ISIS or al Qaeda control substantial territory.”
Beyond the legislative efforts Cruz mentioned, he has recently called for “carpet-bombing” campaigns in Syria that will “make the sand glow” to wipe out ISIS entirely. Like Trump, Cruz’s statements have drawn criticism from those who believe innocent lives would be lost in the process. He then backtracked by saying he was referring to targeted precision strikes.
Cruz reiterated his point during the debate, saying, “You would carpet-bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops. … You use air power directed — and you have embedded special forces to direction the air power. But the object isn’t to level a city. The object is to kill the ISIS terrorists.”
Cruz told supporters in Trussville that he will make sure that all armed service personnel will be able to exercise their constitutional right to bear arms, alluding to the July 16 shooting in Chattanooga at a military recruiting station where guns were not permitted.
“The next time a jihadist walks into a recruiting center, he’s going to encounter the business end of firearms wielded by a dozen Marines,” Cruz said to thunderous cheers from the crowd.
Like many other presidential hopefuls in this election cycle, Cruz is playing into the heightened fear exhibited toward Islam, and in many ways Cruz is even perpetuating it said Stephen Sheehi, author of the book, Islamophobia: The Ideological Campaign Against Muslims.
Sheehi doesn’t believe that the fear of Islam is anything new in the post-9/11 world. What is new is the degree in which politicians are willing to vilify Islam. “What is remarkable about this moment in time is that so many prominent politicians — or would-be politicians — are using it as a way to define themselves politically,” Sheehi said.
The rise of Islamophobia can be traced back to the decade before 9/11, after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Sheehi said. This fear only grew after the towers fell. “I think the Bush administration invoked Islamophobia a lot, but also at the same time [Bush] spoke out of two sides of his mouth and was careful to say that we shouldn’t demonize a religion. So, for the first decade of the millennium there was a very strong base within the Republican Party that were fairly flippant with their Islamophobic discourse.”
It is important to note, Sheehi continued, that Islamophobia is something that cuts across the political spectrum. When researching his book, which was right at the end of the Bush administration, Sheehi said that he didn’t want to approach the subject as a way to blame it all on Bush. “That would have been easy to show how they mobilized the nation around the War on Terror using Islamophobia. The entire Homeland Security plan is designed around Muslims and Muslim Americans,” Sheehi said.
During the course of writing the book, Sheehi noticed the Obama administration was continuing down the same path as his predecessor by allowing a series of institutionalized policies that are predicated on Muslims being potential terrorists. “I’m glad I waited,” Sheehi said, referring to his decision to wait and write the book after Obama’s first term. “Because you can really see the continuity of Islamophobia that cuts across American politics. It really is embedded in America’s culture and America’s racial history,”Sheehi said.
The impetus to write the book came from his curiosity surrounding this continuity. “It’s something that mobilizes both sides of the aisle to institutionalize policies directed towards Muslims,” Sheehi said.
Look no further than the National Defense Authorization Act that was signed into law by President Obama on Dec. 26, 2013. This law has provisions that grants federal authorities the right to detain American citizens under suspicion of terrorism and hold them indefinitely. “Essentially it’s an act that suspends habeas corpus,” Sheehi said. “And it is without a doubt directed at Muslims.”
Much more good than bad
Ashfaq Taufique doesn’t like to use the term “melting pot” as a way to describe America. Taufique believes that if you melt something it loses its identity and there is no distinguishing between what was thrown into the pot. “We’re more like a salad bowl. You can see and taste the carrots and cucumbers and each part has it’s own identity. So I like to think of it more like a salad,” Taufique said.
He admits he borrowed that phrase from a Jewish woman he was serving on a panel discussion with years ago.
As the president of the Birmingham Islamic Society, Taufique believes that too much focus has been put on the negativity surrounding Islam. “The overwhelming majority of comments and things we hear from the community is positive. The news always focuses on the negative, but there is so much positivity here to see too.”
Asked how he would describe the public’s view of Islam in Alabama, Taufique said there are two polarizing forces at play.
“I always use this example when I’m trying to describe what it’s like here in Alabama,” Taufique said. Several years ago, a local radio host (who Taufique declined to name) lost his son in an accident. Taufique took to the radio host’s webpage to offer his condolences on behalf of the Muslim community.
“I quoted a verse from the Quran — a verse that you could probably find in the Bible also — about patience and adversity,” Taufique said. “Immediately after my post a person said ‘How dare you quote the Quran when offering condolences to a Christian.’ That’s one side of it.
“The second happened about the same time. There were attacks in Lebanon and Palestine happening back in 2008 or 2009. A lady called our office and offered her support and condolences because it was rough on our community,” Taufique said.
Taufique related how an “evangelical” mother brought her son by the Hoover Crescent Islamic Center to show him that Muslims are not bad people and they aren’t to be hated. “And they brought us doughnuts,” Taufique said.
In 1975, when he was 25, Taufique moved to America where he worked as a mechanical engineer for about 20 years. He has since retired and loves that he is able to give back to his community. He refers to the center as the masjid. “I like that word more than mosque because the literal translation means laying prostrate with your forehead on the ground in worship,” Taufique said.
Despite his expressed optimism about the accepting attitudes of members of the community, he has a newly installed security door that requires a key code to enter. Taufique joked that if someone could make their way into the White House, the key code wouldn’t do much to stop an intruder. “We put that in so people could come in here and feel safe,” he said.
On the day Taufique became a citizen several years ago the judge said something that he will never forget. “He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want you to ever forget your cultural and religious background,’” Taufique recalled fondly. “He told me that is what makes America great and we can never lose that. I try and remember that every day. That is what makes America great and I think we should all try and remember that more.”