Arshia Saiyed is a first generation Indian Muslim who serves as the director of growth, strategy and talent at Nashville Classical Charter School in Nashville, Tennessee.
One important point: Islam is not a monolithic religion, and no one person can claim to speak for all of it. Arshia doesn’t speak for the entirety of Muslim America. This is her own story. Interview conducted by Tyler Huckabee.
Let’s start with you personally, Arshia. Give me a little of your background.
I was born in Chicago. My parents are both Indian, and they moved the late ’70s, early ’80s. I have three sisters, and we moved to Kentucky when I was eight because my parents wanted to escape cold weather. So from age eight to eighteen, I lived in a very small town about thirty minutes outside of Louisville. Then I went to a liberal arts college, did Teach for America for three years, and now I’m in law school.
My parents had an arranged marriage. They met when they were already married. My dad moved to the U.S. in the late ’70s for school. He went back to India and married my mom in 1980, and my dad became a citizen when I was in high school. They’ve been here longer now than they lived there.
How has your parents’ experience in the United States been?
My dad, in particular, has loved it. He was born just a year or two after India’s independence. It was a turbulent time. He loved JFK and was a young man during the rise of the Kennedy family. There’s been a lot of romanticism in India about the Kennedy family. My dad loved the social policies and the Civil Rights movement. It made him want to be an American.
How about for you?
It wasn’t until I was a little older, in high school, that I realized I was a lot different from the people I grew up with. There was a clash of cultures. September 11 happened when I was in eighth grade, and that was a turning point in this country about what it meant to be Muslim. It redefined what America’s collective enemy was. That changed my experience.
I’d never felt counter-cultural. My family is Indian, and people assume Indians are Hindus. No one thought that we were Muslim. My older sister started covering her hair when she was in high school, but she was the only one in my family at the time who was visibly Muslim. A lot of anti-Arab sentiment didn’t impact my family because we don’t look like what people think Muslims do.
But did you start feeling self-conscious?
Not really. I think that the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in this country — and I definitely believe that it’s growing — has occurred more within the last couple years and less around 9/11. I think September 11 was a pivotal moment, but the response after 9/11 was different. I remember Bush going to the Mosque in Washington D.C. and people of all faiths banding together to support the victims. The growing Islamophobia has been more a recent trend, I’d say.
Why do you think that is?
It’s really strange. Based on what I see, there’s a bigger threat to America from far right-wing extremism or lone wolf shooters than there is from Muslims. There’s a greater risk of going to the movies than there is from American Muslims. But throughout U.S. history, it’s been much easier to focus on The Other, whether it’s Communism or the Japanese or immigrants or whatever it is. We collectively, as a country, want to have an enemy outside of ourselves. Right now, there’s an anti-immigrant/anti-Hispanic sentiment that’s as strong as the anti-Muslim sentiment. It’s The Other.
Muslims are becoming a larger population in this country, and I think that has more to do with the new Islamophobia than any sense of a real threat. That’s not to say there aren’t real threats abroad, but I don’t think Muslims are the biggest ones, and I don’t think Muslim-Americans are a threat really at all.
If we’re going to stereotype, my demographic as a white male in this country is more dangerous than Muslim shooters, statistically speaking. But people aren’t scared of white males.
Yeah. It’s easier to look through a window than into a mirror.
When it comes to your own faith, how did it become something you really believed? Did you feel like you had to believe it because your parents believe it, and was there a process of making it your own?
Being a religious minority means that, every day, I have to choose to be Muslim. This is a predominantly Christian country so, whether it’s the holidays I get off from school or shopping at the grocery store and going through the holiday aisle, we live in a Christian-dominant society. It’s easier to be Christian.
For example, our Muslim holy day is Friday. I don’t get Fridays off. I can’t easily go to a sermon and a prayer. When I became a teenager, fasting during Ramadan and celebrating with my family involved missing school and work. It’s choosing to be Muslim.
A lot of Muslims my age have, at some point, felt that it’d be much easier socially to be not Muslim. And some people make that choice, but for me, I know I’m Muslim. But the world around me isn’t. It’d be easier to be something else.
So why do you keep doing it?
There’s a lot of misconceptions about the religion. For me, I believe in a God that is forgiving and loving above all else, and sent numerous messengers to people — whether it’s Mohammad, Jesus, Moses or Adam — prophets to spread good will and values that are loving and unite people regardless of their social caste or race. I really love that about being Muslim. We’re all different colors all over the globe, but we pray the same things at the same time. To me, it feels like a religion for all people.
We live in a world that likes to tear people down and point out their differences, but being a Muslim makes me feel like I’m part of an inclusive faith.
A lot of people would say Islam — and most other religions — aren’t very inclusive at all. Where’s the disconnect?
I hear that. There are a lot of Muslims that follow religious schools of thought that don’t believe Islam is as inclusive as I think it is. There are systems and ideologies that have taken the faith and rewritten it to be that way. I don’t agree with that. I think the Islam we see on the news has been hijacked by clerics who think that Islam is about fire and brimstone — an angry God, who is ready to punish and exclude. I don’t believe those things. I don’t think moderate Muslims are the ones setting the conversation.
Also, I don’t believe in a God who would condemn good people. I don’t think you have to be Muslim to be a person of God.
What are some of the other misconceptions people have about Islam?
There’s a vocal group that believes Islam is incompatible with feminism. I don’t believe that at all. When the Prophet Mohammad brought the message of Islam, he revolutionized women’s rights in that area at that time in a way that Christianity hadn’t. From the beginning, Islam has taught that women can divorce their husbands, and they’ve broken down social constructs like slavery. They believe all women and men can pray together. Women are just as able to spread faith to their community. There’s a lot of political and societal things that have held women back all over the world, including the Western world, and a lot of that is, frankly, more about patriarchy than it is religion. To understand women and Islam, you have to get into the nitty-gritty details of the ancient and modern world.
I also think people believe Islam is inherently violent. I don’t think that’s true. In order to believe that, you’d have to believe that 1.6 billion people on this earth are capable of heinous violence. That’s impossible. It doesn’t consider the scope and diversity of the religion. A lot of people are Muslim. A lot of people from different backgrounds are Muslim. People also may not realize how many Muslims they might know who are normal people, who happen to go to a special prayer on Fridays.
There’s a global sense that Islam and Christianity are locked in an age old war. What are your interactions with Christians like?
I think it’s interesting that Christians don’t realize how close Islam and Christianity are in terms of their doctrine—I’d include the Jewish faith in that as well. Most of my friends are Christian, and when I talk about my faith, they’re shocked to realize I grew up on the same Bible stories they did. And second to Mohammad, the most revered person in Islam is Jesus. There’s a misunderstanding about how close our faiths are.
I’ve been really blessed to have so many Christian friends who are really loving people. Compared to a lot of Muslims, my exposure to Christianity has been very full and fruitful.
How about pop culture depictions of Islam? Are there stereotypes there?
There’s a lot of unfairness in the way Muslims are portrayed. For example, Homeland, distilled down, says “even your really nice, normal Muslim neighbors could be harboring a terrorist cell.” It sparks fear. Over a billion people are Muslim. We’re going about our lives. We’re not plotting while we’re also saying hi to you at work. Shows make it seem like Muslims have duplicitous lives. We don’t.
It’d be nice to see more characters on TV who are Muslims who aren’t either terrorists or doctors. Not all Muslims are doctors.
What do you wish everyone understood about Islam?
I wish people would spend a little time doing research. Picking up the Koran or even just reading the Wikipedia page on Islam would be a step. Even just getting to know a Muslim. I don’t think changing one idea is going to solve the problem anymore than changing one public policy is going to change poverty. The main thing is that people need to be more open-minded and go to the source instead of drawing conclusions. The media gives thirty seconds snippets of stories. Islam has gotten a thirty-second snippet as this misogynistic religion. Starting the conversation is the first step.
Most religious groups have texts with some ancient, violent content, but Muslims get called out for violence in the Koran in a way that other groups don’t. Do you think there’s a double standard?
Both the Bible and the Koran are ancient texts that were written for specific times. They had messages for the people who received them. They have messages for us today. People need to realize that people who interpret the Koran very strictly are like people who interpret the Bible very strictly. The way Christians feel when Fundamentalists do and say terrible things is the same way we Muslims feel when we read about terrible things happening in different parts of the world.
Do you see opportunities for common ground between religions?
My family is Indian, and India has a history of many different faiths peacefully cohabiting in one country. There’s a common understanding that people of faith all want the same thing: We want everyone to have a fair chance, we want to prosper, we want our children to have education, we want to look out for the poor. Those are common values we can work towards together.
As simply and as plainly as you can say it: What does being a Muslim mean to you?
My mom used to tell me when I was younger that God can forgive any indiscretion you have against him, so I can forgive the indiscretions of humanity. Islam is action-oriented: I can do good things for others. I believe I’m on this earth to do good things. It’s not about following every commandment perfectly. It’s about serving humanity.