Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
September 22nd, 2010

Meet the Modern Face of Islam

Speaking out for the moderate Muslim majority in America



Take a good look at my picture on the right: if you saw me walking around in New York City I look just like any other girl wearing an H&M shirt, Blackberry in one hand and Starbucks coffee in the other, right?

Would you guess that I’m a Muslim — born and raised? Maybe not. But I am. And as of late, I’ve had to defend my religion more times than I can count.

This is the typical dialogue I encounter when people find out I’m Muslim:

Person: “You’re a Moz-lem?”

Me: “Yes! I am.” (I smile hard, to seem friendly and maybe overcompensate for any stereotypes said person has about “Moz-lems” — it doesn’t usually work.)

Person: “But, you don’t look like one!”

Me: “Well… I’m your typical modern Muslim girl in the city, but most people don’t know about us.”

And that’s where that conversation usually ends. It’s true that some people doubt the existence of moderate Muslims — and yet here I am, a testament to this fact.

I don’t wear a hijab, the veil some Muslim women choose to wear, and I don’t wear an a’abaya, a loose dress worn by many veiled women over their clothes.

These are both articles that many Muslim women have adopted, but I am not one of these women. My mom and my sister don’t wear the hijab either. In fact, my parents almost don’t want me to wear a hijab permanently, because they fear it’s asking for it in this anti-Muslim climate. And I tend to agree.

But again, I am still a Muslim, and the lack of these material items does not make me any less so. There are plenty of moderate Muslims in America, and overseas. People who pray, fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, and believe in Allah, the Arabic word for God. But, we still enjoy a good movie or a rerun of Friends as much as the next person.

Maybe we’re just not obvious to some people because, as you can tell from the above, we may not necessarily “look Muslim.”

I have to admit, the attachment of a religion to the mere physicality of a person has me wondering: “Really? Do people really think this way? Does Paul over there look Christian? What makes him look that way?”

Then I realize the time spent on this sort of questioning on my end can be better spent educating people on the moderate Muslim majority. That’s right: majority.

It may seem surprising that a large group of moderate Muslims exists when all one hears about is Mohammad So-and-so getting busted by the FBI for making a bomb in his basement.

But the truth is that the majority of Muslims don’t want to hurt anyone. Most are not terrorists. Most shun such activities and view these radicals as the worst examples of our religion (if you can even call them an example). I personally don’t view these extremists as Muslims at all. And I’m angry with them for convincing people that Muslims are evil, barbaric and backwards-thinking men and women.

A Muslim girl in New York City

For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I didn’t feel like the “Egyptian-Palestinian-American” who brought Nutella on pita bread sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t feel like the awkward girl who couldn’t date because her parents wouldn’t let her. Most of all, I didn’t feel like a “terrorist,” and I didn’t have to atone for the horrendous actions of a radical few.

As a young Muslim girl living in New York City, I hope I’ll be an example of the modern Muslim majority that isn’t evil, barbaric or backwards-thinking. My life is every bit as complicated as a normal 22-year-old girl’s, if not more so because oh, you know, some people think that I might be a terrorist.

I moved to New York this past May to intern at Al Jazeera English, an international news outlet. I’m a budding journalist, and what better place to cultivate my career than the media capital of the world?

So, with two large suitcases in hand (yes, I sort of flirted my way out of overweight luggage fines) I boarded a JetBlue flight from Orlando, Florida, to the city that never sleeps. And while I normally knock out during flights, I couldn’t this time because I kept thinking about how different my life would be here. Type A person that I am, all of this change that I couldn’t really control scared me to death.

Everything was new: new city, new place, new friends, new summer gig, new future. It was in every way the New York I imagined — except this time, I didn’t have to imagine myself here.

I started off interning with Al Jazeera English in the United Nations headquarters, which was a blessing in and of itself. I ate lunch next to foreign journalists and delegates, listened in on Arabic conversations (a bad habit, but I can’t help it!) and marveled at the diversity of the U.N. lunchroom.

Where I belong

For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I didn’t feel like the “Egyptian-Palestinian-American” who brought Nutella on pita bread sandwiches for lunch. I didn’t feel like the awkward girl who couldn’t date because her parents wouldn’t let her. Most of all, I didn’t feel like a “terrorist,” and I didn’t have to atone for the horrendous actions of a radical few.

I could finally let out a sigh of relief, because I knew in my bones I belonged here.

After an amazing three months at Al Jazeera English, I once again packed my bags and moved to Queens to settle into my new place.

To say that I fell in love with New York is a gross understatement. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, and the thought of returning to Florida to my boring life depressed me.

I decided to stay in New York to work on my master’s at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

It was there I met Monica, a familiar name here at Busted Halo. She’s my first Jewish friend, and I’m excited to get to know more about her religion because, the truth is, I know very little about Judaism.

I do know, however, that there are many similarities in our religions and in our cultures. Just ask any Muslim or Jewish girl how hard it is to find a good Muslim or Jewish guy, and you’ll find an overwhelming consensus.

So once again, New York has brought me something new to explore. In a way, meeting Monica serves as my own education about Judaism. I can only hope I will provide a similar education to those wishing to know more about the modern face of Islam — even if that face belongs to a 22-year-old.

The Author : Carmel Delshad
Carmel Delshad is an Arab American multimedia journalist based in New York City. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the City University of New York, where she is studying international reporting. She is focusing in broadcast media, with an emphasis on radio and video for the web. She has conducted research on the effects of social media in the university setting and is very interested in pursuing further research on how social media is affecting the news landscape. Her post-graduation goal is to work with an international news agency as a multimedia reporter and eventually conduct research on the internet culture of youth in the Middle East.
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  • Denise Stark

    Good read!

  • Larry Mosher

    I am so glad to read your introduction from you new home in New York City. Having a scarcity of Muslim and Jewish Men what are you to do?

    Since I have not formerly introduced my self can we talk?

    I have only been exposed to the ‘violent’ voice clips the biased television networks broadcast daily. With that video clip, and viewing what collateral damage is not at times acceptable. My question to you is how can a conversation begin between you and I about our Faiths? I recognize you as a Muslim wanting to better your education and environmental surroundings as well as worship you Faith too.

    I a Roman Catholic here in the south, Atlanta, GA and wondering how I can begin to have a conversation about your faith & Traditions as well Scripture. This conversation is in no way to be a proselytizing discussion

    I would appreciate your reply.

    Blessings of Peace and all good!

    Larry Mosher

  • Rana Samhoury

    Carmel, excellant article! It felt like I was speaking because it’s the exact way I feel and I am sure many other Arab Americans living in the United States. Well said and well put. I hope everyone gets a chance to read your article because it brings light to a very dark topic! Thank you!!

    P.S. I love the humor as well in this article. You are a great writer! Good Luck with everything!

  • Aminta Iriarte

    Carmel I am a huge fan! I think you’re a great role model for Muslim-American girls.

  • Monica

    Wow Carmel. You put it all out there. This article is so honest, and while I know a few things about stereotypes myself, I’ve never had to defend myself from being a “terrorist” or belonging to an evil religion. Well, except for that we get accused of having killed G-d’s son…

    It looks to me like you found your voice. I hope you write a ton more on this topic, you sexy Mos-lem woman. I look forward to us learning about how similar we actually are!

  • ml

    Good luck in your career and in your time in New York!

    As I see it, Islam has a serious PR issue, which is not wholly dissimilar to Catholicism’s current PR issue (and in some ways, Christianity’s PR issue). The “discussion” (it’s barely a discussion) is drowned out by the people shouting the loudest, and the sane people in the middle are largely ignored because they don’t make as interesting a story.

    I was fortunate to be able to interact with Muslims of many different persuasions during my time in college (Michigan, fed by the Metro Detroit region, including many Arab, especially Iraqi, immigrants). My experiences weren’t entirely positive or negative, but the impression I got was that it is a complex group of people with a range of ideas, religious, political, and otherwise. Some were like you, pretty much standard young women interested in a career and modern issues, and others were insular, and seemed uninterested in making friendships beyond their culture.

    I got to see political and social points of view unique to people who had grown up under, or had family members living under Saddam Hussein and Ahmadinejad, and see how these situations shaped them into passionate, engaged, and generally wonderful to know people.

    On the negative side of things, I took a fun “Intro to Near Eastern religions” course, which covered the religions of Abraham. There were three professors, one each lecturing on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I had some questions for the Islamic professor (who was a Muslim convert), and went up to introduce myself after a lecture, and ask a few questions. As was customary, I offered to shake hands while introducing myself. He wouldn’t. I know now why, but I was put off by the situation, as he was my professor, and the first impression was that he’d rather not have me there. Thinking back on it now, prefacing his opening lecture by explaining his stance on this might’ve avoided awkward encounters such as that. It was only later when I made mention of it to a more in-the-know classmate that his behavior was explained.

    And there were many more encounters, some good, some less-than-good. Overall my opinion is pretty neutral, as it is for any large group of people. There are some people you enjoy being around, some you’d rather not, some who feel really cliquish and won’t have you. As you mentioned, the majority are silent and flying under the radar; it’s just the loud or unsavory ones who are most immediately identifiable as Muslim.

    (Sorry for the verbose comment)

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