Home » From the Diary of an Extremist
“Go back to your country! We don’t want you here!”
The words still echoed in my mind as I crossed through the carpeted lobby of the Student Union building. Students sat in huddles on the floor, others sitting lazily on the arms of couches occasionally laughing at something someone said. When I walked by, the voices quieted suddenly. Like needles pricking me all over, I felt their eyes following me.
But no one said anything.
I held my breath until I rounded the corner where there was a staircase leading to the second level. I didn’t like taking the elevator. It was too uncomfortable. I never knew who’d end up riding the short ascension with me. Besides, thirty steps never killed anyone.
At least I hadn’t heard of it if it had.
When I pulled open the heavy door, I heard a burst of laughter from the lobby that was so distinct from the earlier banter that I knew that I had, again, been the butt of a joke.
I sighed, letting my footfalls on the steps distract me from the pounding in my chest. My face burned and I wondered how long I could hold up. I had been wearing niqaab for eight months, but I was still adjusting to life in the face veil.
No one told me it’d be like this.
Yes, Neveen had warned me that people wouldn’t like it, but I mean, this? Oh my God. Do these people have a life? All I do is dress how I want—which is what I thought my American nationality gave me right to— and I don’t have a day of peace in my life. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.
“Are you a terrorist?” a woman had asked me at the mall. When I turned around all prepared with my sarcastic reply, I saw her eyes widened and her jaw dropped in a stupor, as if she really, I mean really, expected an answer.
If I hadn’t been so irritated, I would have laughed. The first response that came to my mind was, Well, if you really thought I was a terrorist, would you feel comfortable coming up and asking me?
But I just smiled—not that she’d benefit from that gesture since my niqaab concealed my face—and said politely, “No, ma’am. I’m a Muslim.” I paused until her mouth opened wider as she got over the fact that I could actually speak perfect English, no doubt. “And you should be Muslim too.”
At that, I had walked away, my heart pounding in my chest, seething at the ignorance—and audacity—of people.
Presently, my heart softened as I saw the MSA room ahead of me. It looked so official, the nameplate on the door: “Muslim Student Association.”
I let out a breath of relief as I pulled open the door. The soft sound of Qur’an wafted from the speakers in the corner of the room, and tears welled in my eyes at the beautiful recitation of Surah Ar-Rahmaan—the
Qur’anic chapter entitled “The Most Gracious.”
The room smelled of sweet incense and I breathed in the scent of home. I took a seat at the table and glanced around. There was no sign of Amira—the MSA vice president. I checked my watch. It was 11:31. I was only a minute late. Hopefully, she hadn’t forgotten about me.
I flipped up my face veil before removing my notebook from my bag and opening it to review my notes in preparation for the meeting. My heartbeat had slowed to a comfortable rhythm, but for some reason, I was a bit nervous. The last time I’d met with the MSA officially was the year before when I was vice president myself. At the time, Amira had been the secretary, and we met at least twice a week to brainstorm ideas for the organization.
I looked over my list of concerns and suggestions:
Movie Night (concern)
Potluck Night, one for men, one for women (suggestion)
Music during social events (concern)
Nasheeds played instead (suggestion)
I frowned. It was much shorter than my original list. But I trusted Neveen more than myself, so I had taken her advice and chose brevity over venting. It was hard not to vent though. Sometimes I felt as if my jilbab and niqaab were not only a barrier between me and non-Muslims but a barrier between me and other Muslims. It just didn’t seem fair. I had expected to be voted out of my vice president position, but I hadn’t expected to feel like an outsider in the MSA itself. This, Neveen hadn’t warned me about.
“Don’t expect too much,” she had told me earlier that morning. “People aren’t really open to these types of changes.”
“I think they’ll be open,” I told her. I had always been somewhat of an optimist. “Besides, if anyone can convince them, I can. Amira and I were best friends. She’s the one who—”
“I know, Latifah. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up. I know Amira’s really sweet, but you have to realize that you’ve changed and—”
“I haven’t changed,” I said, a bit offended. “I’m the same person. All I did was put on a jilbaab and niqaab.” I couldn’t understand why a black over-garment and face veil was such a big deal.
“But that’s not how they see it. To them, you’re a…” She averted her gaze and looked out the window momentarily as she searched for the word.
Sighing, she met my gaze. “Extremist.”
I felt my face grow hot in anger. “An extremist?” I narrowed my eyes. “Neveen, how could you even think something like that? These people are like family to me. Yes, we have our disagreements, but I love Amira like a sister. She’s the one who taught me about Islam. And the MSA is the closest thing I have to a family. I don’t care what differences we have, I’ll always love them for giving me a home when my parents turned their backs on me after I became Muslim.”
My eyes had begun to water as I reflected on how much these people meant to me. “They’re all I have,” I told Neveen, “and whatever they say or do, I’ll stick by them because they’re my brothers and sisters in Islam. We all make mistakes. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse them of something like that.”
She shrugged. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m overreacting.”
“Yes, you are,” I said, still a bit angry about her extremist comment. “Now tell me what you think I should say at the meeting.”
Presently, the door to the MSA room opened and Amira entered. She smiled and walked over to me, extending her hand as she greeted me. “As-salaamu’alaikum. I’m sorry I’m late. My meeting with Rahim went longer than I expected.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you had another meeting.”
Without responding, she took a seat across from me and set down the clipboard she was holding. I was only half-aware of the document and fifty-dollar bill attached to the clipboard.
“Okay,” she said, letting out a sigh. “Let’s just get started. I don’t want to take too much of your time. First, I’ll let you explain why you—”
“Let me turn off the Qur’an first,” I said, getting up and walking over to the CD player and pressing the off button. When I returned to my seat, I saw that Amira looked a bit agitated, but I didn’t know why.
“As I said,” she began again. “I’ll let you start first, then I’ll tell you what conclusions we’ve come to.”
I didn’t understand her last comment, seeing as though I had called the meeting and hadn’t yet told her my concerns. How then could she and Rahim have come to any conclusions?
Not wanting to get distracted, I told her my concerns, all the while hearing Neveen in my head telling me to be calm, diplomatic, and understanding of their point of view.
When I finished, I exhaled, realizing just then how nervous I was.
“Okay, Latifah. Let me just be honest with you.” Amira leaned forward on her elbows with her hands clasped. “We were very upset that you didn’t tell us you were coming to movie night a couple of weeks ago. I mean, you’ve never come before, and then all of a sudden, you show up? You could’ve called to tell Rahim, or me at least.”
I creased my forehead in confusion. “Tell you? But…”
“Honestly,” Amira said, “I feel like all you do is come to things to sabotage them. You never have anything good to say. And you made everyone feel really uncomfortable that night.”
She narrowed her eyes, hurt. “Did you even realize that we had invited the dean to that event?”
I felt myself growing defensive. “But I didn’t even say anything there. I just sat in the back and watched the movie.”
“That’s the point, Latifah. You didn’t say anything. You just sat back and watched. And everyone else interacted, talked, laughed, and tried to enjoy themselves.” She shook her head. “I thought you didn’t watch movies anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t,” I said. “It’s just that it was a Black History Month program, and the movie…” I lost my train of thought for a second.
“Something the Lord Made,” she said in a flat tone, staring at me unblinking.
“Yeah, I’ve seen it before, and I knew it was clean, so I thought—”
“You thought. What about what we thought? How do you think it feels to have the dean sitting there with his wife enjoying the evening, and then walks in some, some…” She wrinkled her nose as she searched for the right word. “…some terrorist for all they know. I mean, you don’t even have the decency to wear something presentable. It’s always the same thing, that ugly black sheet. God, Latifah, last year you had so much style. You wore colors, bright colors.” Her nose flared. “And now,” she contorted her face as she gestured a hand toward me, “this.”
I was so stunned at her words that I was only vaguely aware of the tears gathering in Amira’s eyes.
“I don’t know what is going on with you,” she said, “but you can’t keep this up. I’m scared for you.”
“But…” I stammered, feeling my face go hot and tears sting my eyes. “What does this have to do with anything? We’ve always hosted events about diversity. We even have meetings on how to make nonpracticing Muslims feel welcome. I don’t understand what—”
“Of course you don’t understand, Latifah. You’ve been brainwashed. And I hope to God that you wake up soon.”
“Yes. Wearing that stupid mask on your face, looking like a ninja. And then all of a sudden, music is haraam, movies are haraam, and talking to men is haraam. I really don’t—”
“What? I can’t believe what you’re saying, Amira. All I suggested is that we try to be more sensitive to other people and more mindful of intermingling when we—”
“There you go again. Intermingling.” She shook her head.
“I have things to do,” she said before I could respond, “so let me just get to the point.”
I felt as if my face was on fire. I didn’t know what to say. This was surreal. She couldn’t be serious. I mean, even if she listened to music and watched R-rated movies herself, certainly she realized that there were hundreds of other Muslims who didn’t. And my jilbaab was a problem now? Oh my God. I didn’t know what to say. All I was doing was obeying what Allah said in the Qur’an and dressing as the female companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, had dressed. Even if Amira didn’t want to dress as they had, what was so wrong with my doing it?
I looked up to find Amira standing, the clipboard under one arm and the fifty-dollar bill in her other hand outstretched toward me.
I gathered my eyebrows. “What’s this for?”
I still didn’t get it.
“It’s a refund for your MSA dues.”
“Yes, Latifah, a refund. You heard me right. I already spoke to the dean of the school, and he agreed that this is the only way to solve the problem. It’s already official. We’ve revoked your membership.”
I was speechless as I stared at her.
When I didn’t accept the bill, she let it drop to the table.
“When you get past this crazy phase,” she said, “I’m here. It’s just that right now, we can’t risk having extremists in the MSA. It’s bad for da’wah. And, honestly, it’s bad for us.”
At that, she walked away, opened the door, and let it close behind her; and I was left in the silence of the room. But now, I didn’t even have the Qur’an to comfort me.
Right then, in my mind, there was the faint echo of the women’s words from earlier that day, and at that moment, they took on an entirely new meaning. “Go back to your country! We don’t want you here!”
This Short Story was published in the February 2020 print issue of The Mountain Ink.
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Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed, award-winning author of the 'If I Should Speak' trilogy and 'Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You'. She has written more than twenty books, including novels, short stories, and self-help. Her books are used in high schools and universities in the United States and worldwide, and her work has been translated into multiple languages. Her work has earned praise from writers, professors, and filmmakers. Her novel 'His Other Wife' is now a short film.