On August 12, the United Nations celebrated International Youth Day, a day dedicated to focusing on issues confronting young people around the world. Under the banner, “The Road to 2030,” youth from different countries spoke on topics ranging from climate change to tackling poverty.
But Yasmeen Azam, current president of the Muslim Student Association at California State University, Long Beach, spoke about something more personal to her: Islamophobia.
“I had a dear friend at Cal State Long Beach who took a political science class on the Middle East,” said Azam, 20. “[This friend] would focus on Islam in her essays, and the professor would make sly comments about them in class. I also had a friend who got her car egged in Long Beach.”
She added, “The climate is still very much Islamaphobic.”
With over 1.6 billion adherents, Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion, according to the Pew Research Center. Since last November – during which time the world witnessed the ISIS attacks in Paris, the ISIS inspired massacre in San Bernardino, and Presidential Candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from coming to the U.S. – there have been over 100 anti-Islamic incidents in the U.S., from an Islamic Center in Kentucky being defaced to a Muslim cab driver being assaulted in the Bronx.
This past May a lawsuit was filed against the Long Beach Police Department by a Muslim resident over an incident that took place in 2015 in which her hijab was forcibly removed by a Long Beach Police Officer during a traffic stop.
While Islamophobia is nothing new, a growing number of Americans are taking an openly hostile view of the religion. Many believe the terror group ISIS (or Islamic State) represents “true Islam,” according to surveys reviewed by USA Today, while the Pew Research Center reports that almost half of Americans suspect Muslims living in the U.S. of being Anti-American.
“It is unfortunate that there are still people in our country who believe that it is acceptable to blame an entire religion and its peaceful followers for the act of a small minority of criminals and terrorists whose actions are a deviation from Islam’s teachings,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Council of Islamic-American Relations via e-mail.
Ayloush also says that Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric has helped normalize bigotry in this country.
“This rhetoric is pushing a growing segment to excuse or even justify violence against American Muslims who are increasingly portrayed by Trump and other hateful voices in politics and media as ‘the enemy,’” wrote Ayloush.
The growing hostility that many Muslim Americans encounter is partly why Azam, a Los Angeles native, jumped at the chance to speak at the U.N.
She arrived with an essay she had prepared for an international youth competition. While she ultimately lost that, one of the organizers asked her to come and present her essay to the U.N. Azam opened her remarks by saying she has long harbored the dream of working at the U.N. But then, instead of reading from her essay – which she described as “fluffy” – she decided to speak from the heart.
“I took the risk and spoke my mind, rather than sticking to a script,” she said by email. “The response from the U.N. and from my community proved to me that it was indeed the right decision.”
Azam added that while she is usually “very nervous when I speak, I wasn’t really that nervous (before giving speech to U.N.).”
During her 10-minute address, Azam spoke about her experiences as a youth, seeing her teenage friend fending off Islamophobic comments while buying a slurpy at 7/11, and seeing her father, an immigrant from Jordan, continuously profiled while flying from LAX.
“It’s a very humiliating process, to be put into a position like that where you’re publicly doubted because of the way you’re last name is spelled,” said Azam. “You have to prove that you’re not a threat.”
Indeed, that was and is the main message of Azam’s speech; that terror should not be equated with Islam. “The entire discourse needs to shift from ‘how Islam is not related to terrorism’ to ‘what terrorism looks like and why does it occur,’” said Azam. “To replace questions of ‘how Islam is not, to how Islam is.’”
In the face of Islamophobia, Azam says that Muslims find it increasingly important to apologize, which she believes is a mistake.
“We don’t even realize it, but by constantly apologizing, we are further reinforcing the narrative of Muslims being violent,” said Azam, “as if our tenets are easily swayed by political insurgency groups and now we have to reclaim them.”
Azam is currently a junior at CSULB majoring in International Studies with a double minor in Economics and Middle Eastern Studies. Besides her position as Muslim Student Association President at CSULB, she also serves as Community Outreach Coordinator for the Islamic Center of Hawthorne and is the Assistant Regional Youth Director for the Muslim American Society (MAS) in the Greater Los Angeles Chapter.
This past summer, MAS organized a youth camp called ‘Finding the Champ Within’ with the goal of recognizing prominent Muslim Americans such as Muhammad Ali as a way of empowering Muslim youth.
To visit Azam’s blog from the Muslim American Society, go here.