being muslim in america | seniors

Last year, I found out I was chosen to be part of the amazing Beauty Revived campaign "50 Beautiful Seniors." 50 photographers across the country got to choose a high school senior to photograph and feature their story in the magazine. I thought about this platform, and I really wanted to use it for greater purpose, to share something that not only was meaningful to my senior, but also meaningful to me. In high school, there are so many different issues you can face, and I think only a minority of them are discussed. 

Layla was nominated by one of my awesome senior models Stephanie, and as soon as I saw her story, I knew she would be a perfect fit. I, too, grew up American, with the religion of Islam in my life. My family wasn't extremely religious- we rarely went to mosque, but we still identified as Muslim. I looked like I was foreign, my name was Muslim, and after 9/11, things started changing around me. Like Layla, I act, dress, and also identify as American. People would say offensive things around me without realizing they were talking about me, too. Honestly, it was a time of fear, ignorance, and misunderstanding. People didn't know much about our religion except that it supposedly bred "terrorists."

My goal for this interview was to tell you that there are so many cultures in this world. Islam is just a religion- to be Muslim does not mean you are Arab. Just as in Christianity, there are people all over the world, Black, White, Middle Eastern, Asian, who are practicing this religion. They're bad people in every single religion, and the idea of a Muslim terrorist is just a generalization and stereotype. Our fear of "Middle Eastern" and "Arab" is just another form of racism that people are dealing with in our country.

I really hope you enjoy what Layla had to say. She's one of the most perfect people to demonstrate this point. She's very cultured; she visits Jordan (her country of origin on her father's side) all the time. She's in touch with her religion and her culture, yet she is extremely Americanized. She's born in America, she's grown up around all American friends, and she's a classic example of somebody that is just like you and me, but with a different background. Read the interview below.

Born and raised in America, Layla is part of the first generation that does not remember 9/11. Though the event itself is history, she constantly answers to the lingering effects. She reads the assumptions on social media, the campaigns to demolish mosques (peaceful places of worship) in America, and the overall consensus that Muslim=Middle Eastern=Terrorist.

The kids at her suburban Indianapolis school don’t know what to make of her culture. They are caught between a prevailing idea and the Americanized reality of this calm, beautiful young woman.

Get to know the true story of a Muslim girl growing up in America. 

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SJ:

         First of all, let's talk about the difference between origin and religion. What do you say when people ask you where you’re from?

LB:

         When asked where I am from, I always say I’m Palestinian, but I was born in America. My dad is Palestinian and migrated from the Middle East. My mom is American, so I am half-half.

When I'm asked about my religion, I say I am Muslim.

SJ:

         Do you think that people associate you being Middle Eastern with you being Muslim?

LB:

         Yes, there is a stereotype that all Middle Easterns are Muslim and all Muslims are Middle Eastern, and I don’t think people understand the difference. For example, I have been asked if I speak Muslim (which is not a language), and it’s the lack of understanding that makes people ask ignorant questions. A lot of it comes from the media and what they perceive us to be.

 

SJ:

         Do people offend you? Do you think they have a fair chance to know if they’re being ignorant?

LB:

         I do get offended, but not often. Sometimes people say things without thinking about who is listening around them. I stand up for my religion and myself immediately when I hear things being said.

Throughout my life, I think I’ve had a big impact on people. I tell them about my religion and myself so I can change their views of Muslims. When I explain the misconceptions, it gives people the opportunity to understand what my religion stands for. In my opinion, the only time someone is ignorant is when I defend myself, and they still go along with the stereotype and name-calling.

 

SJ:

         How are you like Americans? How would you say that you're different?

LB:

I was born here, and I am an American citizen. I’ve grown up here with my parents. My mom is American, so I grew up just like any other American child and experienced what everyone else experienced in their childhoods, such as holidays and traditions that American families share. For the most part, all of my friends are American.

I see myself as primarily American due to my upbringing, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a new respect for my culture and religion. It’s made me lean to be more Arab in the sense that I am more modest and respectful of my religion. The influence of going to Jordan every summer has had a great impact on the switch I have made. I keep a good balance of being American and Arab. I get along with people in my life and understand both sides of my culture even when they conflict.

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SJ:

         What do you wish people knew about your culture? If you could give a message to people who didn’t grow up diversely, what would it be? 

LB:

         I would like to tell those people to not be afraid to ask others about their foreign backgrounds or different religious viewpoints. I know people are afraid of offending others, but you are less likely to offend someone by asking and getting a clear perspective than creating your own opinion that could offend others. I also think you should get to know someone before you judge them. Getting to learn new things builds a better foundation for developing an open mind. It’s better to agree to disagree than disagree and create tension.

SJ:

         How would you define true beauty?

LB:

         I don’t define beauty from the outside; I define it based on what is inside, in someone’s personality. Pretty girls are girls who are selfless, caring, and respectful. A beautiful person has a smile on their face even when they aren’t truly happy, they have a heart that is pure and doesn’t care what others think of them, and they live to be happy and not pessimistic.

SJ:

         What does it feel like to be a Muslim in America?

LB:

         Being a Muslim in America has its positive and negative sides. It’s great being a Muslim in America in order to educate people, express my religion, and show people we are great people! Muslims in America have the power to spread our religion and prove that it can be practiced anywhere in the world. Muslims are not strictly Arab or middle eastern, but rather have are very diverse. You can find Muslims almost anywhere around the world, and I think that is one of the things I love most.

On the other side of the story, I personally would love to be back in the Middle East and have a stronger religious connection than I do now. I go to Jordan every summer and visit my family, which has had the greatest religious impact on me. Each visit, I feel I learn more and engage more than I usually do here at home. 

SJ:

What do you hope people will get from reading our interview?

LB:

         I hope the people who read this interview become more respectful and humble in their lives towards other. Always remember to be kind to one another (like Ellen DeGeneres would say), and look at the glass half full in situations that could bring you down.

fringe photography is a high school senior photographer located in fishers, IN, and serving the surrounding areas of carmel, zionsville, mccordsville, and indianapolis.