Representing the Muslim American Experience
By Laila Alawa on May 1, 2014
Photo by Meera Mo
Growing up, I used to feel invisible. I had an addiction to reading like no other: I read through the entire children’s section of my town library when I was 10 years old, my parents used to stop me for a pat-down every evening because they wanted me to sleep, and I was usually in the midst of smuggling a book into my room. I read any and every book I found, devouring the twists and turns of fantasies like Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson (Macmillan, 2001) and tackling each mystery in the “Nancy Drew” and “Hardy Boys”books.
Yet even as a six-and-a-half-year-old consuming the “Boxcar Children” series, I knew I would never find myself in the books I read. That fact failed to deter me from the search to find someone like me, but every book I finished never gave me even a hint of a person who looked or believed like me.
It became a tired reality that I grew to cope with but one I vowed to change when I was 13 and unable to find a single story from Muslim American children in the diverse Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul anthology (Health Communications, 1997). A lack of Muslim American representation in school-level literature today remains a deplorable reality, silencing children identifying as Muslim American and “othering” them in relation to their classmates and friends. Ensuring a greater diversity and Muslim American representation in school library books will result in a deeper acceptance among children, as well as instill pride in identity for Muslim American children.
Why should the Muslim American community be represented? A 2010 study by the marketing firm Ogilvy Noor estimated Muslim Americans numbered at about eight million within the greater American population of 313.9 million, revealing a growing need for representation in mainstream culture and understanding. In addition, no single racial or ethnic identity applies to more than 30 percent of the Muslim American population, which fares comparably in socioeconomic status to the general American public.
As a result, we need a wide variety of literary material, as the niche of Arab literature serves to represent the experiences of only a minor percentage of the diverse community.
The Muslim American demographic is also younger than that of the greater American community, which means that many Muslim Americans are now in the midst of their education. Interestingly, 99 percent of the age group attending school are enrolled in mainstream public or private schools, compared to the one percent attending Islamic schools.
This all points to a real need for literature about Muslim Americans within school libraries, which goes beyond simply attaining a diversity quota. The Muslim American community has woven itself into the framework of the American population.
It’s also important to understand the difference between the uniquely diverse Muslim American community and the Muslim population worldwide. The experiences of the larger population do not represent that of the smaller subset, and vice versa. Given that a growing number of the U.S. Muslim population was born and raised with a unique cultural identity as Muslim Americans, this community has distinct characteristics and lifestyles. However, the stark reality is that there is a lack of diversity and representation of Muslim Americans in mainstream elementary and middle school literature stacks.
I grew up feeling alone, constantly having to explain my values, traditions, and religion. Given that only three in ten Americans surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution say that they speak with Muslims occasionally, the “othering” experience is one that many children growing up Muslim in America face, both within schools and outside them.
Books about Muslim Americans are blocked from library shelves by radical watchdog groups and parents concerned about their children understanding the experiences that other children undergo, perpetuating the problem of representation and comprehension of differences.
In addition, the often one-sided, negative portrayal of Muslims in the media creates a dichotomy in which Muslim Americans cannot consolidate their identity. Many school children grow up exposed only to extreme representations of being Muslim in America and don’t have the chance to humanize the experiences of their Muslim classmates.
On the other side of coin, Muslim American students grow up feeling othered—unable to find characters speaking to them in the media or literature. This leads them to feel as though their identity is incompatible with the greater American framework. Quite simply, if Muslim Americans are not seen in books, their peers in school do not see them for their unique identity, either.
How can we rectify the gaping hole in school libraries? Simply blaming the missing representation on a lack of books and stories is not enough. We must choose the higher road and actively promote the opportunity to be included. Beyond books, there are ample opportunities for educators to stock their libraries with documentaries and Web sources that provide a more multidimensional perspective of Muslim American experiences.
We have a responsibility to regard multi-faith and cultural representation as a natural occurrence in literature. In a world where misinformation and dehumanization of Muslim Americans takes place daily, the chance to build an understanding should not be disregarded. Let’s give libraries—and students—the chance to truly benefit from a rainbow of experiences.
Laila Alawa is a Muslim feminist, writer and cultural critic based in Washington, DC. She is the founder and president of Coming of Faith LLC, a social media associate at Unity Productions Foundation, associate editor for The Islamic Monthly, and columnist for The Huffington Post, MuslimGirl.net, PolicyMic, and The Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @lulainlife.