American Muslims reflect on a decade of suspicion
When Ahmed Ahmed moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career at 19, he was repeatedly complimented for coming up with an original, flow-off-your-tongue stage name.
“And I’d be like, ‘No, it’s not a stage name. It’s my real name… in fact, my parents named me Ahmed Ahmed.’ And they’re like, ‘Sure, sure.’”
Yet it was his name — originating in his Arab, Muslim heritage — that was to define Ahmed’s career. As an actor, Ahmed says his name meant he could only get certain kinds of roles — often those of “a terrorist, a cab driver, the sleazy Arab prince.”
And when he asked his agent to read for a “normal” part, she told him that unless he changed his name, he wouldn’t be offered those kinds of roles.
So Ahmed gave up acting, and eventually moved to standup comedy. And there again, his name — his heritage — would shape his future. But it was the events of September 11 that became the catalyst for a monumental change.
“For a long time after September 11, I was like, Man, I just want to be white. I want blond hair and blue eyes, and I wanted my name to be Travis,” he said in a CBC interview in L.A.
“But those weren’t the cards that were dealt to me, and you know when you get lemons, you make lemonade.”
So immediately after 9/11, and despite great reservations, he accepted an invitation from the Comedy Store in L.A. to get up on stage and focus his act on being Arab and Muslim.
“I kind of just turned my act around. I had to become more self-deprecating and make fun of myself.
“So whenever I talked about being Arab, that’s what they laughed at the most. I mean, one of my first jokes out of the gate was, ‘My name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I can’t fly anywhere… and whenever I board a flight, all my food comes pre-cut.’”
He moved on to become a member of the highly successful Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, shilling true stories about his life as an Arab Muslim in the post-September 11 world. There was no shortage of inspiration.
“I’ve been detained God knows how many times, profiled God knows how many times. I’ve been arrested twice and thrown in jail simply because my name is Ahmed Ahmed and it matches the name of a terrorist in the Middle East,” he said.
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Ahmed is not alone.
In the 10 years since 9/11, many American Muslims have reported similar experiences, some far worse. Muslims still complain of harassment, hate crimes and an anti-Islam bias in the media.
Such incidents have spiked at certain intervals in the past 10 years — as they did during the height of the debate over the Islamic cultural centre that was planned near Ground Zero, often inaccurately called the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Advocates say there are even deeper, more troubling signs of anti-Muslim sentiment in American society. They point to studies that suggest the average salary of Muslim and Arab men has dropped since 9/11. They also point to at least one study a few years back that suggested nearly 40 per cent of Americans agreed that to help stop terrorist attacks in the U.S., Muslims should carry special identification.
Ahmed says he’s a living example of what ordinary Muslims face on a daily basis. “We’re the new black. Or the new bad guy. America needed a bad guy and they found him.”
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Elinor Aishah Holland agrees. She converted to Sufi Islam more than 30 years ago — attracted, she says, first by what she describes as the warmth of Muslim culture, and later, by the religion’s emphasis on the spiritual. “On the whole, [Muslims] are the new bottom rung,” she said in a CBC interview. “It used to be you were in the worst position if you were black. I think Muslims have sort of taken that position now, at least in the United States.”
But like several others interviewed by the CBC, Holland is one of many ordinary Muslims who have been acting, in their own ways, to change perceptions.
Holland is an accomplished calligrapher, an expert in the art of writing stunningly intricate Arabic text. It is through speaking about her calligraphy that she has subtly reached out to non-Muslims.
“I think that people need to understand something about Islamic culture,” she says. “They need to learn some basic facts — like, we believe in Moses and Abraham, and we believe that Jesus was one of the greatest of all prophets.
“Just putting little things like that in my talk…and having people see Arabic script and recognize and not be afraid of it, that’s something I want to do and feel will have an impact slowly over time.”
She says that while so much has been negative since September 11 where Muslims are concerned, interest in the religion has also grown.
“I see a whole new generation that is studying Arabic, studying Islam, a whole new group of scholars, and a lot of people interested in studying calligraphy,” she explains.
“There is a lot of hate and a lot of mistrust. But the more people get educated and exposed, the better things will get.”
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It is with that idea in mind that Ahmed made his first film, Just Like Us, a rollicking yet also serious look at Arabs and Muslims, aimed partly, he says, at demystifying them.
“It’s a 72-minute answer to a lot of people’s question: ‘Do Arabs have a sense of humour? Do they laugh just like us?’ Yes, they do,” says Ahmed. “I’m just a comic and an actor who happens to be Arab and raised Muslim,” he adds. “It really redefined my character, my personality, my existence. “I felt like I was put in a situation where I was either going to crash and crumble, or I was going to stand tall and take my hits.”
Ahmed opted for the latter, and ended up making a name for himself.