How to Be Muslim in the South
After the horrendous Chapel Hill murders, there’s new attention on Muslims in the most religious—and Christian—part of the country.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Nora knows first-hand what’s it is like to be a Muslim in the conservative Bible-thumping South.
When Nora was in junior high in Jonesboro, Ark., she would often find her locker covered in flyers about religious events and racial slurs. The black students at her school would help her tear them off.
The bullying by her white classmates didn’t stop there. They would tell the young Muslim girl to “tell your family to stop blowing up our country” and call her a terrorist. When she was away from school, Nora would receive voice mails from boys and girls condemning her cultural background and Islamic religion.
“Once we had an assignment to discuss any case currently undergoing the courts in U.S. Supreme Court,” she said. “I’m proud of my faith and background, and I looked at cases about Muslims, and the trials about the hijab were the most popular. I went up there to present, wrote my title on the board and I started getting shun(ed) by the students.”
Instead of the teacher defending Nora’s right to present, she shut her down.
“The teacher told me, ‘We’ll just do this after school one day,” Nora, who was born in the nation’s capitol to Moroccan parents, said.
Nora, a former president of the Muslim Student Association for three years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said she could identify with the three Muslim college students who were murdered this week in Chapel Hill, N.C. An investigation is ongoing about whether their deaths were a hate crime. However, officials have said that the incident was caused by a parking dispute, not religion.
Craig Stephens Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of murder. On social media, he has described himself as a “gun-toting” atheist. Hate crime or not, Nora, said that Muslims are often targeted—and at the very least misunderstood—because of their religion, especially in the South.
Mark Potek, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Birmingham, Ala., said that hate crimes increase when the public conversation focuses negatively on Islam and Muslims and said the last several weeks have seen “incredible horror stories” about Muslims and the Islamic State in particular.
He cited this week’s death of Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old American aid worker, who was taken hostage in 2013 by the self-proclaimed Islamic State in 2013, as an example.
“There is all of this stuff going on in the news about how very scary Islam is, and, wrongly, that all Muslims are bad,” Potek said. “Anti-Muslim is very much in the air we breathe today.”
The South is often more intolerant of religious and cultural differences than other parts of country. Potek said the anti-Sharia law movement, which is currently underway in many states, is one way the religious right gins up support against Muslims. A recent poll by the conservative Nashville-based Lifeway Research showed that 37 percent of people surveyed are worried about Sharia law in the United States.
In that same poll, 45 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that with the statement, “ISIS gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like.”
“Those are very scary numbers, especially if you are a Muslim,” Potek said.
Nora said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, she never heard anything about her religion from classmates. She attended the Islamic Center of Jonesboro while growing up in the South. The attacks timed with Nora entering middle school and she became a target.
“I’d hear racial slurs such as ‘Go back to your home country and go find your uncle the terrorist we are looking for.’ And I’m not even from the Middle East where he was from, that’s not what a child at age 12 needs to hear,” Nora said. “This is my home. I’m a first-generation American and I’m proud of it.”
Susan Glisson, executive director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, said despite the prejudice, there are examples of support for Muslims in southern communities.
“I can tell you that right after 9/11 many of us in Oxford, Miss., were worried that the mosque there would be attacked in retaliation,” she said. “We made a point of riding by to check on it. A few years ago, I learned in a meeting that the mosque president attended that he had a number of voice messages on the mosque phone … after the attacks. He said he was worried they would be threats, but they were all expressions of support.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups in the United States, notes that anti-Muslim feelings appeared in this country after Sept. 11. Potek said that sentiment against Muslims trended downward after that year until 2010 when numerous politicians made strong anti-Muslim statements on national television. Hate crimes against Muslims increased 50 percent that year, Potek said.
“We’re going through a similar state now,” he said.
On her college campus in Little Rock, Nora said that she has made it her mission over the last three years to educate students and faculty about Muslim culture and Islam. She said she has only had one incident where someone said something about her culture. Last year, when she ran for student government president, she and a friend were passing out flyers and a student said that she wouldn’t vote for anyone who didn’t come from the same background as herself.
“It’s been a good experience here, and I wouldn’t ever change my decision to attend another institution,” Nora said.
Part of that, she believes, is because the campus sits in Little Rock, a city that has a conflicted racial past between blacks and whites. In 1957, in what became known as the Little Rock Central High Crisis, Gov. Orval Faubus called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending the all white school after the Supreme Court declared segregated school systems were unconstitutional. In response to Faubus’ defiance of the federal government, President Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne and federalized the National Guard to enforce the Supreme Court’s order.
Since then, Little Rock has spent a lot of energy on diversity. But that doesn’t mean that a hate crime or intolerance can’t—and doesn’t—happen.
“A lot of times (it) comes from uneducated people,” she said. “In this country, it’s happened to the Japanese, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and now we are in an era where it is happening to Muslims. We have to stay strong and stay together because that’s only way we will be able to survive.”