I’ve heard statistics claiming that 62% of Americans have never met a Muslim. This number is sad, but unsurprising. If the majority of Americans knew a Muslim personally, the misinformation about Islam that is spewed from the mouths of talking heads on cable would have a much harder time resting in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. Able to look back to their Muslim friend or colleague as a reference point, Americans might question what they hear on TV and might be more reluctant to pass along some of the hurtful chain emails I’ve seen.
But because a majority of Americans don’t have this alternative point of reference, stereotypes often go unchallenged and Islamophobia is easily perpetuated.
Luckily, during my freshman year at Georgetown, I met someone who now serves as my reference point for all matters Islam—my roommate and good friend, Wardah Athar. Since meeting her, my views about Islam have changed considerably, and when I now watch or read news that references Islam, I can think back to Wardah and ask myself, “Is what I’m hearing about Islam in this story consistent with what I know about Islam from Wardah?”
Still, I have my own engrained stereotypes about Islam, but my relationship with Wardah and other Muslim friends helps me to continue challenging them.
In order to provide reference points to the 62% of Americans who’ve never met a Muslim, a number of online campaigns are working to help ordinary Americans get to know Muslims, even if only on a virtual level. The blog “My Best Friend is Muslim” allows people to post anecdotes about their best friends who happen to be Muslim, and the Youtube campaign, “My Fellow American” encourages people to post videos about a Muslim-American who has shaped their life. The stories presented provide an alternate and much-needed view of the Muslims who are our classmates, colleagues, and neighbors.
I recently participated in both projects. My submission to “My Best Friend is Muslim” is below, and my video for “My Fellow American” is embedded below that.
My Best Friend is Muslim entry: “For the love of Finn”
When Wardah and I met during our freshman year of college, our first impressions of one another were quite interesting. We’d gathered in a dorm common room with some mutual friends to watch “The Notebook” on Friday, October 9th, 2009. Wardah was sitting on the couch, with a pink GAP hoodie pulled over her head. She seemed quiet, and offered the other girls and I some peanuts. She then handed me a canister labeled “Honey Roasted Almonds” that had pistachios inside, and I thought to myself, “Who is this girl?”
Wardah probably thought the same thing about me. I came in wearing a low-backed dress, planning on going to a party I didn’t really want to attend. Not knowing that I was trying to avoid the party, Wardah assumed I was a typical Jane Hoya party girl.
Despite the weird first impressions, Wardah is probably the fastest friend I’ve ever made. Throughout the rest of freshman year, we spent countless late nights watching “Happy Tree Friends,” trying to do the splits, skipping through our favorite movies to watch the romantic scenes, and grossing out over the fact that some women eat their placenta after giving birth.
But we also spent hours talking about deeper things, like God, family, dating, marriage, and motherhood. We could easily switch from the most silly of topics to the most serious ones, and that is what I valued (and continue to value) most about our friendship.
I think a lot of my friends and family from back home think I’m friends with Wardah simply because she’s Muslim. Knowing I came to Georgetown to study Islam and religion, they might assume that I’m just her friend so I can “study” her. But when I first met Wardah, when she had the pink hoodie pulled over her head, I had no idea she was a hijabi Muslim girl.
True, I have learned a lot about Islam from Wardah—more than I ever will in all of my time spent in the classroom. Had I not met Wardah, my understanding of the hijab, of Muslim prayer, and of the importance of family and community in Islam would be utterly skewed.
I have Wardah to thank (or hate?) for my addiction to “Glee” and my obsessive crush on the main hottie, Finn. But I also have to thank her for substantively shaping my life here at Georgetown. It’s because of her encouragement that I became a Muslim Students Association board member and it’s because of her questions and commitment to Islam that I came to re-embrace my Catholic faith. Because of her honesty and openness in our theological discussions, I’m working to create sustainable inter-religious dialogue on campus.
Currently, Wardah and I are roommates in the Muslim Interest Living Community at Georgetown. Living with your best friend is hard, and our friendship hasn’t always been easy. But I continue to think back to a note she wrote me for my nineteenth birthday, just a week after we met last year:
“Hello there! I can remember back to the day we first met all those…days ago. Haha we aren’t soulmates yet, but it’s been great getting to know you and hopefully we’ll see each other in the many years to come.”
After a year and a half of laughs, deep conversations, and way too much time spent watching babies laughing on Youtube, I think Wardah and I are pretty close to “soulmate” status. And I know, without a doubt, that we’ll be friends for years to come.
(What happens when Wardah takes over my computer: My Best Friend is Muslim AND SHE IS SO AWESOME AND I WISH I COULD BE JUST LIKE HER BECAUSE SHE IS ABSOLUTELY AWESOME AND IS THE AWESOMEST THING IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD!!!)
My video for the My Fellow American campaign: