ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Being Muslim and American can feel like having two competing identities, especially when politicians talk about Islamic terror and immigration. Well, commentator Beenish Ahmed has been thinking about this recently, and it brought to mind a close encounter she had on the subway in New York.
BEENISH AHMED: He leaned against the subway doors in a denim jacket, camouflage pants, combat boots and to top it off, a black ski mask. I wondered if he had a gun. I wondered if he was a white supremacist. I wondered if he had spotted my friend and me with our brown skin and black hair. Our Islamic faith and immigrant parents - could he somehow see that, too?
I whispered to my friend, we have to get out of here. I told him we should get off the train and get back on three cars down. He said I was being paranoid, but everyday Muslims worry about the backlash from attacks carried out by extremist Muslims.
We don't agree with their violent ideologies, but we guard against their consequences - tuck hijabs into hoodies, avoid praying in public. Downplaying your faith in a nation founded by people who sought freedom from religious persecution is as ironic as it is iconically American. We might not be the first religious group to worship quietly for the sake of safety, but like Jews and Catholics before us, we have good reason. A pig's head was left outside a mosque in Philadelphia. Someone shot at a Muslim woman and ran her off the road after she left a mosque in Tampa. I have lived a life praying it wouldn't come to this.
The late scholar W.E.B. Du Bois called what I am experiencing double consciousness. In his book "The Souls Of Black Folk," Du Bois talked about, quote, "the sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, seeing the world and seeing how the world sees you all at once." This defines the American-Muslim experience.
I was born in this country, and yet I've been told to go back to where I came from. On the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I try to tell myself that the man in the ski mask would never know my friend and I were Muslim, but it had been less than a week since a Muslim couple in San Bernardino, Calif., killed 14 people in an act of Islamist terror. Maybe the man in the ski mask wanted revenge. I didn't dare wait to find out.
We made a break for it. We might have looked unnerving, two brown people racing down the subway platform, dodging and ducking. Cops from the NYPD Counterterrorism Unit roam the station, no doubt looking for just this sort of suspicious behavior - running while brown, skittish while Muslim. I wondered if they were responding to a real threat, an active shooter, a bomb.
In the relative safety of a subway car, beyond the reach of the man in the ski mask, I realized something - I could be seen as a suspect of terrorism and become a victim of a vigilante all at once. I felt afraid and felt I had no right to feel afraid. Making peace between these two parts of myself is hard. That's what Du Bois thought, too. The seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, he wrote, has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds of 10,000 people. As a Muslim and American, I feel like a hyphen in the middle of two identities, a bridge between two worlds that don't quite connect.
SIEGEL: Writer and reporter Beenish Ahmed is a former NPR Kroc Fellow.
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