Almost 14 years ago on a Tuesday afternoon, second-grader Ymn Ghalyoun sat in her elementary school classroom. She remembers hearing about the planes crashing into two towers in New York. At first, Ghalyoun didn’t understand all of the news she was seeing on television about the buildings crumbling. But soon enough, things started to change for her.
She was told to be careful, to watch what she said, because the country – whether on the news on in her everyday life – was watching. Ghalyoun, who didn’t wear a hijab at the time, started to become conscious of the way others perceived her religious identity, her otherness.
“I started feeling afraid,” she said. “I wouldn’t want my mom to come to school because I didn’t want people to know that I was Muslim.”
And while Ghalyoun says that she will not let that day define her, it is hard for her to deny that things could never be the same after it.
Now Ghalyoun, 21, stands in a small, square room packed with people sitting on the floor against the walls. She is in the company of many other Muslims like her, waiting for “Chai Chat” to begin – a weekly meeting of DePaul’s United Muslims Moving Ahead (UMMA) to discuss issues concerning the Muslim community over homemade chai. Hosted in the Muslim Life Center in DePaul’s Student Center, this week’s topic was sexual assault in the Muslim community with special guest speaker and DePaul alumni, Leena Saleh
Ghalyoun, a board member of UMMA, flits around the room, checking in with students and making sure all is in order for the meeting. She is focused on the task of preparing the chai for everyone, steaming water in her silver, electric tea kettle. Over the loud simmering of the kettle and chatter of people, Ghalyoun says, “Okay, we have two choices: organic Earl Grey or sweet cinnamon spice.”
Without hesitation, everyone responds, “Sweet cinnamon spice!”
“Does anybody not want tea?” Ghalyoun asks as she counts the people in the room. She then passes out slips of paper with discussion questions for the meeting. Although frenzied by preparing for the meeting, Ghalyoun seems to be in her element. She is with people who share her beliefs and religious center, she is caring for other people. She is Ymn.
Ghalyoun is one individual in a sea of Muslims worldwide. The unfortunate truth, however, is that most Americans don’t see individuals when it comes to Muslims. The public relies on media to give an accurate representation of who Muslims are collectively.
Aymen Abdel Halim, 32, communications director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) as well as media researcher, says that there is a definite influence on media portrayals of Islam and negative opinions of Muslims. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, immediately after 9/11, there was a 1600 percent increase in hate crimes against Muslims. Halim notes that after violent attacks by Muslims, using 9/11 as an example, the public will remember the images they saw on the news as a means to identify the “bad guys,” even if those “bad guys” aren’t Muslim. He explains that people often react negatively to everyone they perceive to be Muslim. Osama bin Laden and his conspirators wore turbans, and because of their images being plastered across television screens, Halim explains that Americans widely associate brown skin and a head scarf with Islam….even though turbans aren’t Muslim at all.
DePaul student and UMMA member Zena Saad, 19, also has an educated opinion on the topic of Muslim representation. Referencing the 2011 book “Homeland Insecurity: The Arab American and Muslim American Experience After 9/11,” she says that the book explains that media negativity toward Muslims was a problem even before 9/11, and that the attacks only made things worse.
“To the people that know Arabs and Muslims as their neighbors, friends, co-workers – they know that it’s not the truth, but that’s what in the news. That’s what’s in movies. That’s what’s in TV shows — and that was pre-9/11” Saad says. “When 9/11 actually happened, that set off triggers for bigoted individuals who were ignorant of the truth.”
Of course, the Muslim stigma has remained pervasive over time, with films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “American Sniper” becoming box office hits and Oscar-nominated triumphs. She says that when her dad’s co-worker went to go see “American Sniper” with his family, there were security guards standing outside of the theater because of the way people had been responding to the film. Indeed, shortly after “American Sniper” was released in theaters, “#KillAllMuslims” began trending on Twitter. Saad says in disbelief, “For me, it’s a rational thought like, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something wrong with this movie; people are coming out wanting to hurt other people […] maybe there’s a little issue here,” Saad says. She says that the lack of media attention toward the hateful reactions to the film are “just a reflection of what American society has become.”
Despite the success of “American Sniper,” it is sad to consider that some Americans can’t separate fiction from reality. Just a month after the film debuted in theaters, three college students of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were shot to death execution-style in their home. Ghalyoun says that the Chapel Hill shooting was “internally shaking” for her, as she felt connected to the students in a unique way being young, in college, Muslim, and a part of the same organization the two female victims were, United Muslim Relief (UMR). She doesn’t understand the debate about whether or not the shooting was a hate crime or a parking dispute when none of the victims’ cars were parked in the shooter’s parking spot. She also criticizes the double standard of Muslim crime versus white crime.
“If the roles were reversed, it would be the opposite, like immediate demonizing of this [Muslim] human being. And the reason I can say that is because it’s happened before. You see it all throughout the media, ‘This white man is just mentally unstable.’”
Oh, the plight of the “mentally unstable” white man…
Saad sits up tall, wearing a pink dress over blue jeans with a black and pink-flowered head scarf. Her hijab drapes over her head and chest beautifully, but during certain parts of the year, the head scarf is a red flag for strangers who see her on the street. She says that during the winter, strangers are friendlier toward her.
“My head scarf is covered by my hat and my scarf and the hood of my jacket, and it’s a very different feeling I get from people around me than when my head scarf is showing,” she explains. Saad says that in warmer weather, she feels more animosity from people because her hijab is in plain sight. “Initially when people see me, I don’t get the nicest vibes from them.”
It’s not just strangers Saad gets strange vibes from, but her peers as well. She recalls a few months ago, during the first week of fall quarter, she volunteered to read a passage from a book for her honors philosophy class. After she finished reading the passage, she remembers feeling something indescribable from everyone in the room.
“There was this feeling of surprise from everybody […] I really honestly did not know what they expected, but I could literally feel the surprise in the air,” Saad says. “My professor even commented, he was like, ‘Yeah, that was a really good reading!’”Perhaps it was how “American” she sounded reading the words on the page. Perhaps it was the fact that she could read so well at all. Or perhaps it was the preconceived notion of what a Muslim should be.
Ghalyoun as well remarks that she often feels wariness from people on the street. In some ways, her effort to combat the Muslim stereotype is unconscious.
“I don’t have to be nice to a stranger on the bus, but sometimes I find myself being extra smiley,” she says. Ghalyoun, in her experience, feels that Muslims have to try harder than most to receive the benefit of the doubt. “They always have to be extra nice or extra kind or extra this to strangers or whatever – just so they’re not seen as monsters.”
It’s difficult to escape stigma when media representation fuels Islamophobia. A 2012 report by Live Science showed that about 91 percent of Muslim media portrayals in the United Kingdom were negative. Even worse, researcher Christopher Ball found in a study that despite the fact that angry messages put out by Islamic groups were a small minority, these messages were the ones that got more media attention. Often times these angry messages were preached after the general media made negative portrayals of Muslims, and thus the cycle repeats over and over.
The microscope used to scrutinize the minority of militant Islamic groups reflects on the public opinion of Muslims. In 2014, Pew Research Center ranked religious groups according to how highly Americans felt of them, and at the bottom of the list – even after atheists – were Muslims. Using a thermometer to visually represent how “warm” or “cold” Americans felt about a given religion, Muslims fell the lowest on the thermometer, with just 33 degrees, a generally cold public opinion.
Ghalyoun remembers the isolation and shame she felt through elementary, middle, and high school, the coldness she felt from her classmates for being Muslim. She remembers shortly after 9/11 not being able to be open about her faith in the same way that her peers were. She remembers running down the halls of her high school, being
chased by her peers screaming at her.
Go back home!
Run, there’s grenades coming! She’s got grenades!
The taunting Ghalyoun has faced for years, coupled with terrorist Islamic media portrayals, have created a constant paranoia within her.
“Sometimes I stop and I cry I’m so confused. I feel like no one understands me, like they don’t want to understand me at times, and it really hurts.”
One of the most frustrating things that Ghalyoun, Saad and Halim find about about Muslim portrayals in the media is how misrepresentative it is about Muslim crimes and demographics. Halim says that the Muslim religion is one of the most diverse of all religions, and a 2011 study proves it. In the U.S., 30 percent of Muslims are white – yes, you read that right – while 23 percent are black and 21 percent are Asian. ISIS, the new “it” terrorist group of Islam, can’t seem to stay out of the news for their horrific crimes against innocent people. But despite what the media stresses, 90 percent of victims of ISIS crimes are Muslims. It is the unfortunate truth that some of the least representative images of Muslims are the ones that are permanently stained into the public’s minds.
Yet somehow, in spite of the media’s vendetta against their religion, Saad and Ghalyoun have only become more devoted and understanding of their faith as they’ve gotten older.
Back at the Muslim Life Center, it is decided that because of the growing number of attendees, the meeting will commence in the prayer room, a hidden dwelling behind the main room of the Center. Cautioned that they should remove their shoes before entering, students are led into the room, which is more than twice the size of the main room. The walls of the room are gold, lightly decorated with hanging bookshelves and a wooden fan with red-and-gold patterned fabric. The floor is diagonally striped red and beige. Near one corner of the room, there is a straw colored fabric screen that Muslim students may use to pray behind. One student takes advantage of the screen to pray moments before the meeting officially begins. The screen is then folded and moved against the nearest wall to allow room for students to sit on the floor.
The meeting begins, but Ghalyoun is nowhere to be found. Preoccupied with making the tea, she enters and exits the room, getting a silver platter from the cupboards of the room to serve the tea on, styrofoam cups in hand. While the tea is served on the silver platter after about 25 minutes, Ghalyoun doesn’t join the Chai Chat until 40 minutes in. A short time after, the meeting takes an intermission.
Students get up and leave the room to stretch out. Ghalyoun comes over to guest speaker Saleh to check in with her. “Do you need anything?” Ghalyoun asks. Saleh says she’s fine, but mentions that her phone is dying. “You can use my charger,” Ghalyoun insists.
Getting Saleh the charger, Ghalyoun also joins some students in the front room. Most of the students talk, but Ghalyoun sits in a corner, enjoying a cup of yogurt and permeating the room with her orange. Her presence is silent but not ignored; she may not be a talker, but her kind aura adds something to the room that words would never be able to.
In the prayer room, a group of students are using the break to pray. One student leads the prayer in the back corner of the room. The students kneel, feet pressed to the floor, hands rested on thighs. The leading student recites a part of the prayer (in Arabic) and the students all lean forward to the floor, hands flat on the ground, slightly extended, forehead touching the floor. The leading student repeats the same line of the prayer, and the students rise back up to kneeling position. They repeat multiple times before one last long pause in the down-facing position. One by one, the students get up if they feel they are done. The prayer is quiet, peaceful. It is necessary.
Saad recalls at the age of 13, her life as a Muslim underwent a transformation. She went to Lebanon, where her parents were born, and beheld the culture of the country. She saw how the people of Lebanon incorporated the Muslim religion into their culture rather than apart from it like she learned in the U.S. Saad admired how hospitable the people were, offering more food to people in restaurants the more they talked to the workers.
Saad returned home to the States with a new frame of mind. Instead of mechanically taking part in her religion by going to the mosque or praying or memorizing scripture, she began to examine why exactly she needed to do these things. Gradually she began to understand the central role Islam played in her life, and that there is meaning behind everything she does in the name of God.
“He doesn’t need us, He created us, you know? I need him. That’s the whole purpose,” Saad said. “It really helped give clarity in everything I do. I used to not be the happiest person around, so it was really amazing for me to have that guidance with my religion and my spirituality.”
Saad believes her positivity stems from her faith. She is very intelligent and serious when it is required, but even when discussing the dehumanization of Muslims, her inner light shines through. She stops mid-interview to say hello to a friend who is passing by at the Student Center. Although she is sitting, she reaches her arm up to embrace her female friend. “How are you?” she asks with her face pressed against the other girl’s, smiling ear to ear. She then apologizes for the interruption with a burst of giggles. But Saad can’t stop her bubbly personality from spilling out. It’s natural for her.
“I love everybody in the world, and there’s no person that I would not help. […] People make fun of me for the way that I say ‘hi’ to them sometimes because it’s too perky or whatever. I don’t know, I sometimes just wake up and feel like dancing in the morning. That’s just who I am.”
Ghalyoun has begun to love herself more than she did in her adolescent years. It is a day-to-day process, but she credits the transition to college and surrounding herself with Muslims like herself with helping her accept who she is.
“Finding my own community here and learning how I could contribute, it opened doors,” Ghalyoun says.“The [DePaul] campus is empowering in a way; I feel like it empowers me to represent who I am in a positive way.”
Ghalyoun says that in her life she strives everyday to question her religion, to seek greater understanding of her faith and why she is Muslim. She says she doesn’t want to “blindly follow something.” Ghalyoun’s religious values are very important to her, and sticking to them makes her a better person and Muslim. In addition to her board position with UMMA and job as resident assistant for DePaul Housing Services, she’s currently trying to start a DePaul chapter of United Muslim Relief. The organization advocates and provides relief for underprivileged communities around the world. Even though she may end up handing the chapter off to someone else (as she’s graduating next year), bringing UMR to DePaul is a cause that Ghalyoun won’t give up on. It is one more thing she can do to give back to the community that has given her life.
Ghalyoun knows that her story is not representative of all Muslim experiences; she doesn’t want it to be. Neither does Saad. Their stories are uniquely their own. They are part of a larger conversation, but they represent the individuality that exists within Islam, within humanity.
Muslim hostility and Islamophobia aren’t things that will go away overnight. People will continue to commit hate crimes against Muslims; Muslim acts of terror will continue to get the most media attention. But despite the media’s effort to take away their humanity, there are still things it can’t take away from Muslims. The media can’t take away their devotion to their God. The media can’t take away their hijabs. The media can’t take away their sense of purpose in this world. And the media can’t take away Muslims’ resolve to be proudly, completely and unapologetically themselves.
Ghalyoun says, “I don’t say sorry for who I am because I’m not sorry. I’m not any of those murderers, I’m not any of those attackers. I’m not this, I’m not that. I am Ymn, that’s who I am.”