“Terrorist, Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, bomber, killer, Allahu Akbar (God is great), Muslims are terrorists, Muslims are bad.”
What was supposed to be a normal conversation between a father and his American born middle school son on a drive home turned into a story sharing session no parent ever wants to face.
Today, he was letting it all out. And the worst part, he was looking to me for a solution. After all, why wouldn’t his father, a Muslim American U.S. Marine Veteran (yes, I’m referring to myself — just in case you were wondering if Marines come in Muslim) and founder of MuslimMarine.org (known for fighting hate, bigotry and Islamophobia) not have a perfect solution.
I was speechless.
“Don’t worry about it… they just don’t know… be the better person,” I said. I changed the topic.
Angry, upset, frustrated, I was internalizing everything I had just heard. But I couldn’t show him. I had to keep my poker face on. After all, I had to be the example. But deep inside I knew my answer hadn’t cut it. And though I had changed the topic, my mind kept drifting back, repeating over and over again everything he had just shared with me. My son was struggling, he was in pain, and I wasn’t sure exactly how to help.
I tried to imagine the life of a 12 year-old child in today’s anti-Muslim America. I knew what I was seeing first-hand as an adult but I couldn’t imagine being in his helpless shoes. It’s a critical age where children not only begin to battle the onslaught of puberty but find themselves in discovery mode trying to figure out their unique place in society.
Then next day I asked him to write down everything he had ever been called.
I wanted to know: Had I missed something? Were there warning signs? Indeed there were but I hadn’t fully given it the due diligence nor the appropriate attention.
I began recalling other incidents. There was the one following President Trump’s election when a child approached my son and said “no offence but see you later man, I guess this is goodbye.”
And another one, when a child approached my son’s open classroom door and yelled “Allahu Akbar (God is great) you’re all going to die,” slammed the door shut and ran off down the hallway.
Everything was coming together. But just when I thought that was it, another incident came to mind.
I recalled the incident of a teacher (yes, teacher) asking my son if he knew how to speak English. That one definitely caught me by surprise. Even if I wasn’t there and didn’t have all the facts, I couldn’t understand why a teacher would ever ask a child such a question. Shouldn’t have to say this, but rest assured my son is fully fluent in English.
For Americans who are naïve to the facts or simply aren’t following, hate crimes against Muslims over the past few years have risen at a disturbing rate, and that’s just the reported ones. And what many may not know, is that Muslims make up about one percent of the U.S. population, yet they are one of the most ridiculed groups of people in our society. To me, that’s actually the definition of bullying.
Just this month a high school in Pennsylvania ran a training session with an ‘active shooter’ wearing a scarf almost identical to the ones worn in the Arab world. Coincidence? I think not, although they deny that was the intent.
And then there was an incident late last year in Massachusetts, when an elementary school Muslim girl had a note left in her cubby stating, “You are a terrorist.” And then when she came back to the class later, another note, “I will kill you.”
Regardless of what side of the political pendulum you lean on, Americans have to decide whether they want to help breed the next generation of racists and bullies, and then prepare to face the consequences and repercussions or, work to build a society principled upon pluralism, tolerance and inclusion.
Mansoor Shams is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, the founder of MuslimMarine.org and a leader in Veterans for American Ideals, a project of Human Rights First. Twitter @mansoortshams.