What It Means To Be

Muslim In America

The diversity of Muslims in the United States is vast, and so is the breadth of the Muslim American experience. The following animated videos depict the experiences of nine Muslim Americans from across the country who differ in heritage, age, gender and occupation. Relaying short anecdotes representative of their everyday lives, these Muslim Americans demonstrate both the adversities and blessings of Muslim American life.

By Emily Kassie

April 6, 2015

Yasir Qadhi

National Cleric, Professor

Age: 40 | Born in: Houston, Texas | Lives in: Memphis, Tennessee

Animation by Tara Gupta
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“As a traveling Muslim cleric, I try to schedule my flights around prayer times or try to pray in a hidden nook or abandoned hallway. Because I want to avoid the stares and because some of my own friends have been pulled aside for that. But that’s not always possible, and to horribly rephrase John Wayne, ‘A Muslim’s gotta pray when a Muslim’s gotta pray.’ Once in a super busy airport I walked up to a security officer and asked him point-blank, ‘Uh, sir, can I pray in that corner?’ To which he gave me this bewildered stare and said, ‘Sir, this is America, you don’t need my permission to pray anywhere.’ If only all Americans thought like him.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“Finding the appropriate balance between committing to your faith and trying to make sense of the negative rhetoric and stereotypes from segments of our own American society. There’s good and there’s bad. America has always been a welcome and tolerant country for immigrants. Currently there are people arguing for our civil rights, and we’re also seeing those who want to smear our entire faith and say that Islam is an inherently violent religion. These are exciting times to be an American Muslim, that’s for sure. There’s never a dull moment.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“It’s easy to be bigoted when you’re ignorant, so the easiest way is education. This isn’t so much a battle of what it means to be a Muslim in America. It’s a greater battle between broader America, of how tolerant and open-minded they will be about minorities, about American values, about recognizing how true they want to be to the American values of openness and freedom for all. This really isn’t that much about 2 percent of Americans. It’s actually for the 98 percent of Americans. They define what Americans are going to be. How tolerant are they going to be? How open are they going to be? We are Exhibit A, and they are the jury.”

Priscilla Martinez


Age: 40 | Born in: Texas | Lives in: Loudoun County, Virginia

Illustration by Dunja Pantic and animation by Joe Daoud
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“It was Girl Scout Cookie season and my 6-year-old daughter and the rest of her Girl Scout troop were outside a grocery store selling cookies. A man from the same small town we lived in approached us and starting yelling at us. ‘You worship a false god! You were responsible for September 11th! You’re going to hell!’ My troop co-leader rushed to get the girls inside to safety while I stayed outside and kept the man distracted from the girls. The grocery store manager called the police, who were able to calm the situation down and send extra patrols out next time we had a cookie booth.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“To be in a position to make a positive difference in the world and hopefully bring about more understanding and peace and reconciliation between people of diverse cultures and faiths. It’s a time where all of us as humans are being forced to learn to live together, and the only way that we can is in peace.

“Being a fourth-generation American, I don’t see a juxtaposition between being a Muslim and being American. I’ve always been a little different — I’m also Mexican American. All my life I’ve only fit in 90 percent, so it’s just kind of a different 90 percent between am I American or am I Muslim.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“With relationships and with getting to know each other. It’s not just a platitude, although it actually is a verse from the Quran where he tells us he made us different so we can get to know each other. Taking that verse to heart and getting to know other people.

“Also by coming together on issues that are common to all of us. We’re all concerned with education and highways and taxes, where we can find our common ground and work toward a better world and better future for all of us. Your neighbors across the fence or the hair stylist — I think it’s about relationships. And it’s kind of hard to hate someone that you know personally.”

Hamdan Azhar

Writer & Facebook Data Scientist, Co-founder of the Muslim Writers Collective

Age: 28 | Born in: Brooklyn, New York | Lives in: Long Island, New York

Animation by Abigail Goh
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“So this was about two years ago. I was driving through the country; I was passing through Salt Lake City. I went to Temple Square, which is the headquarters of the Mormon Church, and I started taking pictures. I thought I was like a regular tourist, and I asked this woman, ‘Ma'am, I’m not a Mormon, is it OK if I just take some pictures?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘That’s fine as long as you don’t blow us up.’ And that was probably the first time in my life that I was speechless.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“Having a lot of weight on your shoulders; having a lot of responsibility. Having responsibility to your own community and responsibility to one's fellow Americans to not only convey the right impression of Islam, but also to shed a critical light on what our country is doing around the world and domestically. I think just like any community that’s under attack, people have different responses. Some people begin to hate the Muslim parts of themselves. They start to ask their parents, ‘Why do I look different from Tommy and Melissa? Why isn’t my hair blonde? Why do they go skiing in the Alps?’ The most fearful part of Islamophobia is to begin to hate that part of your identity and try to blend in at any cost. You can’t change what people see when people look at you, no matter how many degrees you have and what company you work for. I can shave my beard and wear a suit and tie and do every step in the book, but what’s the point of trying to blend in when people are going to judge you based on how you look?”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“Embody the Islamic teaching of social justice and compassion and charity. You have to be an exemplar; people are going to look at you and judge other Muslims based on that. I think we have to promote education and understanding. I think we need to encourage more human interactions. I also think it’s ignorant to say ‘Let’s combat Islamophobia’ without understanding the underlying culture of violence and fear in the War on Terror. That’s the context from which Islamophobia arises.”

Zaid Kurdieh

Organic Farm Owner, Norwich Meadows Farm

Age: 50 | Born in: California | Lives in: Norwich, New York

Animation by Alex Kalomeris
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“My wife and I have a stall at a New York City farmer’s market, and after 9/11 the community surrounding one of the markets that my wife took care of organized shifts to look after her. During one of these shifts one of our Jewish customers, a male, walked up to our stall and began to weep. And when we asked him why he was doing so, he said because he felt that Muslims were being mistreated.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“That I’m on my guard all the time because I know people are looking and they generally are going to associate any actions I do as a human being as representative of my religion. We’re all ambassadors of whatever we are. You’re an ambassador to your faith and ideology as you live your lives.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“I’m a farmer and I work with the public all the time. I go out and speak and I’m in the forefront. If you live in a ghetto or have a ghetto mentality then the rest of the people are gonna look at you funny. So one way is to be out there in your community so that they know that you are. When you see a Muslim, ask them. We get people that ask us all the time, ‘Why do you do this’ and ‘Why do you do that.’ If you politely ask, I have no problem answering. You gotta get it from the horse’s mouth.”

Sarrah Shahawy

Harvard Medical Student

Age: 24 | Born in: Los Angeles | Lives in: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Animation by Sarah Sun
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“One year, some of my Christian friends in medical school were curious and decided to join me in fasting for the month of Ramadan. They broke bread with us at sunset and later came to the mosque for our nightly prayers. On the same street as the mosque was their church, to which they invited me for Sunday mass. Sitting in the pews was a bit foreign to me, as sitting on the floor of the mosque must have been for them. But I felt at ease in the comfort of my friendships and in the image of Mary looking over us, remembering the words of the Quran: ‘O Mary! God has chosen you above the women of the worlds.’ It was a blessing to feel at home in both houses of worship because by learning from each others’ faiths we became stronger in our own.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“Being Muslim in America for me has always been something to be proud of. Although there have, of course, been times where, as a Muslim, we can feel as a community targeted or marginalized. But despite that, I’ve always been encouraged by Muslims and Muslim leaders and how they respond to those things and how they hold their country and fellow citizens accountable. My grandfather and his brother were instrumental in leading the Muslim community in southern California. They very much had a vision that Muslims in America should embrace their dual identities and that there was no contradiction between being Muslim and American. I’ve also been encouraged by those moments of vulnerabilities by other racial and ethnic groups who stood with us in those moments of need and moments of vulnerabilities. After the Chapel Hill shooting in North Carolina, in a moment of vulnerability, we have been made to feel marginalized, but have been inspired by the community and other communities who have stood in solidarity with us, and those moments made us proud to be Muslim in America.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“Change always starts from within. I check myself in my daily interactions with friends, family and medical students and patients that I am presenting the best character that Islam inspires me to have. A study circulated recently showed that Americans who know a Muslim are less likely to be Islamophobic. That resonates with me. It is one thing to talk about our ideals and principles as Muslims but I think it is important to live those ideals. People in positions of power and in the media — we are all kind of responsible for holding our politicians and journalists responsible for creating an atmosphere of love and understanding rather than fear. And I think the driving force of Islamophobia in this country is most likely fear.”

Kristin Szremski

Advocacy Journalist, Director of Media and Communications, American Muslims for Palestine

Age: 54 | Born in: Bay City, Michigan | Lives in: Washington, D.C.

Animation by Prashanti Aswani and Rhea Laroya
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“I grew up in a white, middle-class, Republican, Christian family in Michigan. I was your typical girl next door, the cheerleader, beauty queen, model. Then I eventually converted to Islam and put on a headscarf. I get asked a lot of interesting questions now like, ‘Are you like a nun? Where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? Don’t you get hot under there?’ You know, I understand the American middle-class experience, and now I understand what it means to belong to a minority group and I feel my role is to try to bridge the gap.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“I’m hesitating because it’s different now than it was before. I converted right before 9/11. We suffer because every time there is some incident, Islamophobia rises.

“With the rise of ISIS, the rhetoric in this country coming from elected officials and media are becoming so severe that we are becoming more vulnerable. We feel that when things that we have nothing to do with happen, we become targets. Right now to be Muslim in America is extremely difficult. The fact that I didn’t leave the religion proves how much I believe in it. My family is not Muslim.

“I really do have huge faith in my fellow Americans. We’re in a confusing time right now, and most Americans are not filled with bigotry and hatred towards us, and that belief keeps me going.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“Muslims needs to take a larger role in calling out the media when Islamophobia is happening. We have to start saying we’re not going to stand for this anymore. The media has to start looking at its role in how it’s perpetuating Islamophobia. We all get branded. I’m all for free speech, I’m a journalist. But free speech comes with responsibility. I would suggest that Americans need to start asking more questions. They need to talk to Muslims who are practicing the religion. Muslims need to reach out to our neighbors, but they have to reach out to us too.”

Shahed Amanullah

Entrepreneur; Senior State Department adviser under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, 2011-2013

Age: 47 | Born in: Hollywood, California | Lives in: Washington, D.C.

Animation by Eva Hill
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“It took awhile for me to get used to the changes that 9/11 brought, including taking a closer look at my wardrobe. One day in 2002, I ran off to the airport and didn’t pay attention to my T-shirt, which was a souvenir from a Muslim youth summer camp where I served as a counselor. After passing through the X-ray machine came the awkward questions: ‘What do you do at a Muslim youth camp?’ ‘Uh, summer camp stuff?’ ‘Like ... what?’ ‘Uh, archery and rock climbing?’ The back-and-forth continued until he realized Muslim kids spend their summers just like anyone else, and he let me pass.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“It means that I have an opportunity to contribute in some way to this experiment called America, drawing from a heritage I believe has benefits for everybody. I realize that given the popular perception of Muslims, that is a difficult thing to do. But I believe the American spirit of innovation and optimism allows me to take on that challenge.

“Every day I see some representation of me in the media. It’s a difficult thing to escape. I can’t hide from my Muslim identity because the media shows it to me every day. So I can either withdraw into my shell or I can respond to that conversation, and so it’s made me a tougher person, to be honest. It’s also forced me to interact with people so that they understand my reality.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“I think if people feel that their lives are enriched by my presence that’s the best way to fight it. If they feel that whether it’s because they have a Muslim friend or feel their life has been enhanced by a Muslim in some way that’s better than any PR campaign or public service message.

“I’m humbled that other communities have faced far worse than I have faced as a Muslim. And our community is blessed in so many ways so that gives me hope.”

Sana Muttalib

Lawyer; Co-president, Women’s Mosque

Age: 31 | Born in: Los Angeles | Lives in: Los Angeles

Animation by Xingpei Shen
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“A couple of years ago I was on my way to a convention on the topic of the role of Muslims in America. When I arrived at the convention hall a number of protesters had gathered with hateful signs, one of which said ‘America is for Americans; go home!’ As soon as I saw this particular sign my eyes welled up with tears. I had just started working for the government a couple months earlier, which was a childhood dream of mine. Meanwhile, a woman wearing a shirt that said ‘interfaith supporters’ came up to me and said, ‘You’re welcome here,’ and she then escorted me to the entrance.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“I think there’s always a certain level of bias initially when people meet you. Especially for me as a Muslim woman, they’ll be surprised. I am a professional and I work in an area that is high-paced and intense. I don’t think people usually envision a Muslim woman in that space. I think that the main challenge is having those conversations and getting people to a place where they stop seeing me just as a Muslim, but a fellow American and person of faith. Being Muslim and being American are compatible and go hand in hand. It’s easy to be Muslim in America because those identities gel so well. I can be fully American and fully Muslim.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“By spreading information and having difficult conversations. In my life I’ve had people say to me, ‘I don’t know any Muslims but I’ll remember you when I see the news.’ I hope that people realize that Muslim Americans are very patriotic and love America; we see it as our home. I’ve dedicated my life to government service because I believe in the values of this country. I hope that people know that there are many Muslim Americans that feel that way.”

Yasmine Yasmine

Wardrobe Stylist; Writer; CEO,

Age: “My mom told me never to tell!” | Born in: New York | Lives in: New York

Animation by Olivia Pecini
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“As a fashion expert and stylist, New York Fashion Week is critical. On my way to Lincoln Center I began to freeze, so I stopped to get something hot to drink. One patron began to stare at me and loudly state how terrorists are taking over America AND coffee lines and that ALL Muslims should be shipped back to their countries. I ignored him and hurried into the tents. As I settled in my front row seat, one fashionista noted how ‘tres chic’ I looked while gesturing at my head scarf. After the show I rushed backstage and one of the guards blocked my path, but another guard pointed to my scarf and was like, ‘Look at her hijab, don’t you recognize her? She always goes backstage. She is Muslim so they trust her, she’s not like the others who just want to look at naked models and steal clothes.’ In under an hour I was called a terrorist, tres chic and trusted, all because of the hijab on my head.”

Being Muslim in America means…

“That cab drivers are always really friendly to me. Sometimes I get a cab ride for free if I’m being dropped at a mosque. We pull over during the sunset during Ramadan. It means putting my outfits together took more time because it needed to match my hijabs as well. Going to stores like Bloomingdale’s and seeing a group of Jewish women and running and following them because you knew they were heading to the clothing that was appropriate for us.

“Being American is about inclusiveness. It’s a multilayered and varied experience. Everyone’s an immigrant in America except for the Native Americans. I never questioned my Americanness and I’m unapologetically Muslim.”

How do we fight Islamophobia?

“It’s about education. Hire people based on their merit. Refuse to turn America into a monolithic place that it was never intended to be. Practice the best of your religion. Treat your neighbors well. Make sure your children are educated and educate yourself. Smile at people and be open to people asking a question. Give charity.”