In a year of reporting on Muslims across this country, I walked away knowing that there is no one story to tell, there are many stories. And yet so often, Muslims are spoken of as a monolith rather than the diverse mosaic of practice, culture, tradition, race, gender and sexualities that they are.
But members of a new generation of American Muslims are intent on telling their own stories — in their own words and on their own terms. Muslims still make up just about 1 percent of the country's population, but the faith is growing and is one of the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in the country.
The young Muslims I met say they are tired of being put in a box labeled either villain or victim. So they're breaking it open. From the very religious to the Ramadan Muslims to the nonreligious, they're turning the stereotypes on their heads as they enter fashion, politics, academia, Hollywood, broadcasting and smoky comedy clubs.
Usama Canon, an American preacher and teacher, has described Islam, quoting a great scholar, as "a pure, clear water that takes the color of whatever riverbed it flows over." He said he hopes Muslims in America "can kind of color that bedrock in a beautiful way and can contribute to what is the American project in a way that when that water flows over it, it has a uniquely American and a distinctly American color and flavor but is authentic to itself as a faith tradition."
So we asked American Muslims to tell us how they are crafting their own stories — through art, music, activism or just their daily lives — and whether anything has changed in this political climate. We received nearly 200 responses, including people defining their own narratives in quiet ways, like a woman who wears a pin identifying herself as a Muslim, and louder ones — like the musician blending Middle Eastern tunes with jazz, rock and funk.
"I tell my story how I want"
"After 9/11, I was adamant to prove that I was just like everybody else. I called my hijab a scarf when it was so much more than that. When asked, I insisted that I wasn't hot in my hijab (even though it was 102 degrees out and everybody was hot) in a desperate attempt to show them that I wasn't oppressed. But now, in this current political climate, I refuse to let societal predisposition control me. The fear and intimidation I used to feel now strengthens me. It puts an extra skip in my step, and honest to God, I even started walking a little taller. I tell my story how I want, when I want. And ain't that just the American way?"
— Huda Fahmy, 33, Houston. She illustrates a Web comic called Yes, I'm Hot In This, riffing off a constant question — "aren't you hot?" — she gets when people see her religious head covering.
"Growing up, I thought I needed to tell my story by explaining to people why I was fasting in middle and high school during Ramadan, or feeling obliged to do a presentation on Eid in second grade when everyone else was asked to do a presentation on how their families celebrate Christmas. But that has changed. To me, telling my story as a Muslim American has become much less about highlighting what is different about being a Muslim American citizen and more about emphasizing actions that show that Muslims are part of the fabric of America's identity."
— Amr Kotb, 31, Washington, D.C. Kotb says he no longer goes out of his way to "tell people what it means to be a Muslim anymore."
Blended musical identity
Courtesy Mustafa Stefan Dillon
Courtesy Mustafa Stefan Dillon
"I personally define my identity through my various music projects. As an oudist [the oud is a Middle Eastern lutelike instrument] and guitarist, I bring elements of free jazz, rock, funk and Middle Eastern elements. It's culturally diverse and, in that sense, a very American music, someone once told me. I'm a Mexican American and came to Islam through music, but I also have a cultural connection via Lebanese half cousins. But I'm a product of American culture too, so Led Zeppelin and Miles Davis is as much a part of what I hear as is flamenco and Middle Eastern music."
— Mustafa Stefan Dill, 54, Albuquerque, N.M.
"I'm making films about the Muslim experience, particularly as a Muslim woman of color ... Since I don't wear hijab, I now wear a pin on my coat that says 'Unapologetically Muslim.' It's not much, but it's one way I define myself in the public eye."
— Sherouk Omara, 25, Atlanta
"I write spoken word poetry, I dress in gender-nonconforming clothes, I smile and stare at strangers, and I share my faith, culture and personal story when I can ... Being unapologetically everything. Unapologetically Muslim, brown, trans, queer, nerdy, activist, and thorough about it. So people can know that if I'm all of their worst fears, then they truly have nothing to worry about."
— Ameer Khan, 22, St. Louis
"Document those voices"
"As a photographer, I tell my own story by sharing the story of other Muslims and the struggles many of them face. I've documented student-athletes, Syrian refugees, security guards, all trying to understand and share their unique struggles as Muslim Americans. Their issues are my issues and their stories resonate deeply within me and I feel that it is my responsibility to document those voices that are not heard."
— Ahsan Ansari, 21, Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I'm not sitting idle"
"I quit my job as a corporate litigator to launch The Peace Project — a nonprofit conceived on the idea that there must be a better way to respond to hate groups ... my family migrated to the United States from Pakistan just a year after the Pakistani government passed a law mandating death to members of my community, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, only for our faith. ... As I see the exponential growth in hate groups in America, I'm not sitting idle ... I'm experiencing déjà vu from my birth country."
— Qasim Rashid, 35, Washington, D.C.
"I'm following the news but not too closely, because I think we can internalize the narratives written about us. Because I'm a small-business owner, I feel fortunate not to have to deal with superiors who do not respect my choices. I practice a sort of deliberate casualness about my Islam. My son attends Spanish immersion and Islamic day cares. I do not hide that I'm fasting in Ramadan but don't make much ado of it either. I want being Muslim American, at least among my friends out here, to be a variation of normal."
— Fatima Elkabti, 29, Tyler, Texas, a self-described "hijabi optometrist in the Bible Belt"
"Usually you hear 'I feel attacked' or scared or 'we should do something about Trump,' but it feels like I'm on a whole other planet. Here's why: I'm a Muslim but also a conservative on America's political spectrum. So in the Muslim community here, I'm ridiculed for my political beliefs, and outside the Muslim community, I probably won't be widely accepted by the non-Muslim conservatives and I won't be accepted by the liberals for my political beliefs. It's a pretty tight squeeze ... sometimes I'm not sure if there's anyone else in this category."
— Faris Mashaleh, 17, Ballwin, Mo. Mashaleh says he makes sure to always be himself politically.
"I tell many different stories"
"How do I tell my story to people who don't know me? How do I tell my story to my children, who I am not raising Muslim? How do I tell my story to religious Muslims who sometimes question my right to calling myself a Muslim because I'm clearly not observant? How do I tell my story in D.C. versus in rural Virginia, where my husband's family is from? I tell many different stories and I hope that they all create a picture that helps people understand that there is diversity within Islam and that a Muslim American is not a frightening thing."
— Myriam Fizazi-Hawkins, Arlington, Va.
NPR's Leila Fadel traveled across the country to meet young Muslims expressing themselves in new ways. You can see more from her Muslims in America series here and in the May issue of the National Geographic.