He leaned against the subway doors in a faded denim jacket, camo cargo 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 seen my friend and me, with our brown skin and black hair. Our Islamic faith and immigrant parents — could he somehow see that, too?
Was it me, or were his eyes darting up and down the crowded subway car? I yanked on my friend’s sleeve and raised my mouth to his ear.
“We have to get out of here,” I said.
I told him to hop off the train with me at the next stop and get back on, three cars up the platform.
Many of us have grown used to the suspicion. Amid a wave of frightful attacks carried out by extremist Muslims across America and Europe, everyday Muslims fear we’ll suffer reprisals for a violent ideology that we, too, find abhorrent.
It feels as though we’re being tested daily — like anyone who sees us on the street or in the store is deciding our ideology for us. Some have made the painful decision to forgo aspects of their faith in an attempt to ward off assaults. Others are afraid to leave their homes.
I have lived a life praying it wouldn’t come to this. I never wanted to believe that I am threatened because of who I am. But recent events have made me think that I really don’t belong in the land of my birth.
No one has articulated this paradox for me quite as well as the late scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, who called it the “peculiar sensation” of “double-consciousness.” It is “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, his seminal work on race in America. It’s a way “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
It’s an out-of-body sort of experience to be one of America’s intrinsic others. It means simultaneously seeing the world and seeing how the world sees you. As Du Bois put it, the experience of “twoness” means living as “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
The paradox is one that defines the American Muslim experience. I was born in this country, and yet I’ve been told on more than one occasion to go back where I came from.
So as my friend and I rumbled on the subway from Bushwick in Brooklyn toward Manhattan, I braced myself for the worst. I tried to tell myself that the man in the ski mask would never know that I was Muslim. But it had been less than a week since a South Asian Muslim couple had shot up a government building, killing 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in an act of Islamist terror. If the man on the subway was looking for Muslims to kill in retaliation, he wouldn’t care about how I practice my faith. The color of my skin and the fear in my eyes would surely be enough for him to decide my guilt.
During the long stretch under the East River, I felt trapped.
It’s for fear of becoming targets of revenge for crimes they did not commit that American Muslims take defensive measures. Women hide their headscarves under hats or hoodies. Men who used to pray in public now keep their faith to themselves. Downplaying your faith in a nation founded by people seeking freedom from religious persecution is as ironic as it is iconically American.
We might not be the first religious group to do that for the sake of safety in the United States, but like Jews and Catholics before us, we have good reason.
Not that long ago, a pig’s head was left outside a Philadelphia mosque, and bacon was wrapped around the doorknobs of one in Las Vegas. For three weeks in a row, members pulled into the Islamic Center of Tucson, Ariz., to find the parking lot littered with broken glass. Someone shot at a Muslim woman and ran her off the road after she left a mosque in Tampa, Fla.
When a bomb injured 31 people in Chelsea and another exploded in Elizabeth, N.J., last month, New York officials issued an alert to area cellphones. Modeled after an Amber alert, the dispatch was the first of its kind and called on New Yorkers to dial 911 if they saw the suspect. The alert caused widespread panic.
Since it provided only a name and didn’t offer a photo or even physical description of the suspected bomber, the alert all but gave people permission to act on their stereotypes. The release of a name like Ahmad Khan Rahimi, unmistakably Muslim and probably Middle Eastern, left many who might fit that description feeling anxious.
The New York Police Department received 400 calls to its “see something, say something” hotline — more than four times the typical number. That’s not always a good thing.
“I didn’t sign up for the NYC emergency alert system to be woken up by ‘join our paranoia about vaguely brown men,'” one Twitter user wrote, adding that it essentially transformed “a city of untrained millions into a witch hunt.”
All of this has come during a presidential campaign rife with inflammatory comments about Islam and immigration and accompanied by a staggering rise in hate speech, hate groups and hate crimes.
Were we about to be victims of a hate crime that day on the subway?
My double consciousness expanded to include my friend, a fellow mahogany Muslim, male and bearded. Unrelated to his faith as his facial hair might have been, it was enough to make him — to make us — targets. So, after my panicked insistence in shrill whispers, we made a break for it.
As we ran down the subway platform I could see the unnerving spectacle we created: two brown people racing through public transportation, dodging and ducking and shouting.
“This one?” my friend called out.
“No!” I shouted. “Three cars down!”
Cops from the NYPD Counterterrorism Unit roamed the subway station in groups, scanning, no doubt, for just the sort of suspicious behavior we were exhibiting. Running while brown. Skittish while Muslim.
I hardly let myself think about being injured in a bombing or killed in a shooting because I’m too busy bracing for the aftermath of such attacks. It’s a sentiment many Muslims share. There’s the attack and its shadow.
The version of Islam practiced by extremists bears little resemblance to my faith. Yet, when they do attack, I focus on fellow Muslims — hoping it wasn’t one of us, worrying about the backlash, concerned for my family, friends and community. It’s hard to have a place, as an American, in a collective grief, when, as a Muslim, you are seen always as suspect.
In the blurred panic of that race through the Union Square subway station, I stumbled upon even more unsteady terrain. I was afraid and simultaneously felt I had no right to be afraid.
I sprinted past the officers, worried that they’d see me as a terrorist. It occurred to me that they might be responding to a real threat — an active shooter; a bomb. That’s the reality that set in as my friend and I caught our breath in the relative safety of a different subway car, beyond the reach of the man in the ski mask. I felt something I never felt before: that I was seen as a suspect and could be a victim — all at once. Fear doubled.
The desire to make both parts of oneself cohere can do damage to your soul. That’s what Du Bois wrote: “This waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals has wrought sad havoc with the courage and faith and deeds.
This is my reality. As a Muslim and American, I feel like a hyphen in the middle of two identities — a bridge between two worlds that do not quite connect.
Beenish Ahmed is the founder and editor of THE ALIGNIST. She’s currently writing a novel.