‘This is it, this is home’

Published 9:00 am Sunday, August 14, 2016

Albert Lea resident discusses living as a Muslim today in the U.S.

 

In an election year where refugees, immigrants and the religion of Islam are hot-button issues routinely brought up in news cycles, the ideas and rhetoric brought up by some politicians and their supporters hits too close to home for one Albert Lea resident and her family.

Amna Rahman has lived in Albert Lea for almost two years with her husband and their 2-year-old son. They moved to the area from Cleveland, Ohio, where their son was born. Both Rahman and her husband were born and raised in New York — Rahman being from Long Island and her husband from upstate New York. Rahman’s parents are from India and Pakistan, while her in-laws are both from India. Rahman’s parents and in-laws are immigrants who raised their children in their family’s Muslim faith and culture.

Muslims call their religion Islam, and the Arabic word Islam implies the attainment of peace through submission to Allah. Muslims believe in Allah, who they believe created the heavens and the earth and all that exists. The literal Arabic translation of Allah is God.

Rahman, 34, said the way her family’s religion is portrayed in the mainstream media does not accurately represent what her parents taught her and her three sisters growing up. Instead, she said her religion is not that far off from most other organized religions.

“One thing I’ve realized is the core values of all organized religions are pretty much the same. Just the way we go about them is different,” Rahman said. “All organized religions teach you to be a good human being. Nobody tells you to judge anybody on the basis of their religion.”

She attributed part of the misrepresentation of her religion to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and its hijacking of the Muslim faith.

 

ISIS

Something Rahman said has been most troubling to her is the growing association of ISIS with her religion.

“ISIS this past year has killed more Muslims than any other religion, so it’s not Islam. If anybody hates Islam it’s ISIS, because they’re killing so many Muslims across the world,” Rahman said. “As a Muslim and as an American, trying to figure it out and make sense of it, it doesn’t make sense and you get even more angry. Not only are they attacking my home, they’re using our identity and our religion as they’re doing it.”

Rahman said she hasn’t been able to comprehend how the two could become linked, and attributed the growing association to a lack of knowledge and understanding of Islam.

“We ourselves don’t understand because we’re taught at a very early age that killing an innocent person is equivalent to killing all humanity, and saving an innocent person is equivalent to saving all of humanity,” she said. “This is the train of thought we’re brought up with, and never once has it been justified to kill anybody.”

Rahman said the religion she was brought up in preaches charity, and humbling oneself to realize how less fortunate others can be. The religion has a call to prayer five different times a day, where Rahman said its followers pray for peace in and around themselves. She likened it to a form of meditation, and said the prayers are similar to those of other faiths. Islam has a holy month called Ramadan, where Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to remind themselves of the misfortune of others and to inspire charity toward the less fortunate. Rahman said that this year, the fast inspired her and her husband to look into ways to either donate water or help promote clean drinking water in the more impoverished areas of India.

Rahman said the closest mosque to Albert Lea is in Owatonna. In contrast to some religions, where the main day for attending a place of worship is on Sundays, Rahman said Muslims’ main day of worship is on Fridays. She said her family attended a number of the Owatonna mosque’s services during Ramadan, but with an added caution this year due to current events, specifically the shooting at an Orlando, Florida, night club in June.

“This past Ramadan there was a shooting in Orlando and apparently that was ISIS. That happened during a holy month for us, so I think there was a lot of backlash with that,” Rahman said. “This was the first Ramadan where we were afraid to go to the mosque and we were afraid to go in and pray, and we had to remind ourselves to be careful.”

 

Racism and religious backlash

Growing up with immigrant parents, Rahman said she and her family experienced some racism because of their cultural background, like stereotypical Indian 7-Eleven jokes, but said most comments or taunts were easy enough to ignore. In today’s society, though, she said more of the younger generation are being attacked because of their religion. She said this makes it more difficult for younger people to deal with, as their religion is tied more closely to their identity.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s different now, so I’m more worried about the younger generation. Especially since I became a mom, I think about how I have to raise my son and the values that I have to instill in him and how I’m supposed to teach him how to react to all of this negativity, unfortunately, that’s around the religion at the moment,” Rahman said. “You have to educate people around you, because they don’t really know until they’re told. … The media has Islam in a very negative light right now.”

As Rahman has gone to other parts of the country to visit family and friends of the Muslim faith, she has seen areas where mosques have been vandalized, either with racial slurs or in some cases pig blood. Luckily, she said, she hasn’t heard of or experienced any kind of vandalism through the mosque her family attends in Minnesota.

 

The hijab, and the oppression of women

Rahman said she feels there are far too many misconceptions about her religion, which she thinks are perpetuated by ignorance and the media focusing on only certain aspects of the religion.

For instance, she said, hijabs are not something strictly tied to Islam, but are more of a cultural choice. Rahman, for instance, does not wear one. She said Muslim men and women are taught to dress modestly, but that hijabs are not a part of those teachings. She said hijabs should in no way be seen as a way of oppressing women.

“Muslim women are not by any means oppressed,” Rahman said. “We come in all different shapes, sizes, races, backgrounds. We dress whatever way we want, however we want. If you even talk to a lot of the girls who wear hijabs, you realize how outspoken they are, how strong their beliefs are. After having a conversation with them you realize you wish you could have that kind of attitude and spirit that they have. It’s so misconstrued that it’s a sign of oppression when it’s not.”

Rahman said the issue of some societies suppressing women is more of a global or cultural issue, and not one that should be tied to the religion of Islam. Growing up in a Muslim household with three other sisters, Rahman said she knows firsthand that the misconception doesn’t align with her religious beliefs.

“My parents have always instilled in us to live life on our own terms. My mom always encouraged me to travel. I traveled, I saw the world as a single Muslim woman,” she said. “Now that I’m married, I think my husband can vouch for the fact that I’m not oppressed by any means,” she added while laughing.

Rahman added that her husband has been extremely supportive of her goals and ambitions, and has pushed her to pursue those aspects of her life. She said her husband realizes that she has dreams of her own on top of having a family.

Rahman is an attorney who is still licensed in New York. She said she is taking some time off for the time being to be with the couple’s young son, but will eventually get back into the law profession. In New York Rahman dealt with some family law, but primarily worked in immigration law — working with marriage visas and with refugees looking for asylum. Her husband is a doctor with Mayo Clinic, a job that brought the couple to Minnesota in the first place.

The couple met each other during their college years and then reconnected in Florida, where Rahman was attending law school and where her husband was completing one of his medical rotations. They’ve been married nearly three years.

 

Refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.

Rahman’s parents first came to the United States in the 1970s. Her father was 19 and came to the country using a student visa, bringing Rahman’s mother over after they were married. Rahman’s in-laws came over to the U.S. during the 1960s through similar circumstances. Rahman said she has visited her family’s home countries and last visited Pakistan in 2000. She said only distant relatives remain overseas, and the couple’s immediate family members are now all in the U.S. Rahman said she hopes refugees and immigrants looking to come to the U.S. are able to do so like her family members were, especially in a political climate where some politicians are calling for a ban on refugees from certain parts of the world.

“They deserve to be here. I do agree that there needs to be something where we have to be a little bit more careful in who we’re letting in and do a little bit more of a background check, but I don’t think it necessarily has to be that certain part of the world. I think that has to be in general,” she said. “With refugees, when they come in they come in legally. They’re not doing anything wrong. They need a place to stay, they need a place to go, otherwise they wouldn’t be fleeing their home country. But I think a lot of people are now coming here to make a better life for themselves, but it’s getting harder. Times are tough right now.”

The misinformation that Rahman feels is perpetuated leads to too much negativity, she said, and that negativity needs to be corrected. One way she thinks this can be done is by Muslim-Americans getting involved in their communities.

“Muslim people, we’re your doctors, we’re your lawyers, we’re your neighbors, we’re your colleagues, we’re your friends,” she said. “My siblings and my husband are all in the profession of medicine. They want to save lives. So, they’ve dedicated their whole life, their entire career to save lives. So when we see people killing innocent human beings — to us — that’s mind-boggling because we’ve dedicated our lives to helping save lives and then we see that certain people are using the religion and killing innocent people.”

 

Raising a Muslim son and being a Muslim man in the U.S.

Explaining some of those misconceptions, the negativity on the news or the hurtful things some people might one day say to her son has kept Rahman up some nights, she said.

“For our son, we named him a very prominent Muslim name. If you hear the name you’ll know that he’s identified as a Muslim. A lot of people tried to say ‘Maybe you should name him something that’ll be easier for other people where he won’t get picked on at school.’ The simple reason we chose his name was based on tradition. It’s the family name, it’s a tradition in my husband’s family,” she said. “Why should we break tradition? Why should we break who we are? He’s not going to do anything wrong; we’re going to try to raise him to be the best human being possible. I don’t think he needs to change who he is or what his beliefs are. He needs to understand how to adapt to the environment around him. I think it’s our responsibility that we have to show the community, that we have that extra responsibility now to go above and beyond to show that we are a part of the community.

“This country is embedded in every part of my identity. It’s who I am. I’m an American. I think like an American, I live like one, so I can’t change that. There’s no place for me to go back to, so saying ‘Go back to where you came from’ — there’s no place for us to go back to. This is it, this is home.”

In a time where people too often associate her religion with terrorism, Rahman said it has caused her and her family to be more cautious. That caution led to Rahman keeping her husband’s and their son’s names out of this article, as Rahman has said the negative stereotypes associated with Islam carry different implications for Muslim men. Rahman has legally kept her maiden name for professional reasons.

As an American man born from Indian parents with a very prominent Muslim name, Rahman said her husband almost always has to tack an extra hour or two on to any international travel to allow for extra scrutiny from the Transportation Security Administration.

“It comes with the territory at this point,” Rahman said.

 

Sept. 11, 2001, and healing in its aftermath

While Rahman’s husband was in college in upstate New York during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rahman was in Long Island attending university. One of her sisters lost a friend in the attacks on the World Trade Center, and it was also the first time that Rahman said she experienced any negativity connected to her family’s religion.

“You’re mourning, plus New York City is our city. It’s the closest city to our home. The World Trade Center was a place that I used to love to go to hang out with my friends. We used to go eat lunch, and I have really fond memories there as a child,” she said. “For us, we were heartbroken; it’s our city, and it was attacked. And, at the same time, we couldn’t leave the house.”

Rahman’s father owned his own business at the time, and was met with anger and racial slurs when he’d go out to go to work. Rahman said women wearing hijabs at the university she attended were spit on, and some had their head scarves pulled off by strangers. One of Rahman’s sisters was asked during a job interview if she was affiliated with any terrorist organizations.

“It was a difficult time because we were afraid. And at that time, I didn’t know what was going on, why it was terrorism and Islam,” she said. “I remember asking my mom, ‘Where in Islam does it teach us to do this?’ or ‘How does this happen?’ and she didn’t have an explanation because she said it has nothing to do with our religion, and we don’t teach people to do this. I think that was the first time where we realized our religion was being associated with terrorism.”

Rahman’s husband had a much different experience at the time, as religious leaders of all different faiths got together in his hometown of Olea, New York, to have some interfaith dialogue throughout the community. The efforts were meant to show similarities between the different faiths and the goodness in them, and to promote others in the community to communicate with each other and to ask questions instead of making assumptions when it came to religions they may not be familiar with. That positivity is something the couple has also found since moving to Albert Lea, and something that Rahman hopes will continue and help them to stay in the area.

“People, thankfully, so far have been really, really nice here. It’s just been a really friendly environment,” she said. “The people are good here, they’re good to us here — that’s what’s important. If our life is good here, if we can raise our son here, if people will respect our beliefs and our values, then that’s where we need to be right now.”

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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