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Muslim Student Ibrahim Rashid: “I’m Not Scared”

Becoming a spokesperson for tolerance, post Trump election

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Ibrahim Rashid is an American-born, internationally schooled Muslim whose parents grew up in Karachi, Pakistan. In the days following Donald Trump’s election as president, Rashid (CAS’19), an international relations major at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, has taken to dressing in traditional kurta tunic and keffiyeh scarf. Pinned loosely to his tunic is a handmade cardboard sign that says, “I’m not scared.” Not only is Rashid unafraid of the potential fallout from the blatant Islamophobia voiced by Trump and many of his supporters, but he has decided that after graduation he wants to work for the US government.

An exuberant presence with close friends of all ethnicities, Rashid has created a Facebook photo project called My Muslim Friends and is evolving as an eloquent spokesperson for tolerance, on campus and beyond. In the wake of radical Islamic terrorists’ deadly Paris attacks a year ago, he addressed a vigil for victims outside Marsh Chapel. In November 2015, when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced the commonwealth’s plan to join other governors in closing states’ doors to Syrian refugees, Rashid spoke at a pro-refugee rally outside the State House. (Baker reversed his decision.) Days after Trump’s victory, Rashid was quoted in the New York Times and had an opinion piece on the Huffington Post. His message in all these forums echoes the sentiment that American Muslims, rather than keep low profiles or retreat in fear of prejudice, should claim their status as equal citizens with confidence and pride. He wants his fellow Muslims not to cling together in fear, but to assert their right to pray, wear hijab or niqab, and practice their peaceful, charitable faith despite headlines grabbed by a murderous, nonrepresentative radicalized fringe.

“I want to fight the narrative that Muslims are victims,” says Rashid, who was born in Maryland, but has lived in Dubai, Lagos, Johannesburg, and London. “I want to show Muslims that you have a home here in this country.”

Rashid has been prolific on social media, particularly Facebook, where he has posted interviews with BU students and faculty, and through My Muslim Friends, where non-Muslims speak about their impressions of Islam. Most recently he began posting photographs of BU students and others holding signs saying “America is great because…” (“America is great because of diversity” reads one. Another, held by a family of four: “America is great because of the future” had arrows pointing from “future” to the two young children).

“The other day I wrote about how my cousin Sarihna, who is six years old, was bullied in her school for being Muslim,” Rashid said in a post following the Times article. “So to have her story out in a major news publication makes me so happy. Everything I do I do it because I want to leave behind a better world for my family, who will go through all the same trials and tribulations that all Muslim Americans have to go through.”

After graduation the 19-year-old would like to pursue a career in international diplomacy through the US Foreign Service or the State Department. BU Today spoke with Rashid recently about being a young Muslim in America, and why he is hopeful and unafraid.

BU Today: Many Muslim Americans, after candidate Donald Trump fanned the flames of Islamophobia, are anxious about his presidency, but you’re wearing a sign saying, “I’m not scared.” Why not?

I’m not scared of the future. I have a lot of hope and optimism in this country. People see my sign and smile at me, give me the thumbs up. I had some people cry and hug me. This sign is me trying to spread some positivity and hope to my classmates. I want to support them and give them strength and show that while yes, the future does look bleak for some communities, they do have allies. The amount of solidarity, activism, and unity I’ve witnessed in the past few weeks gives me hope that whatever comes our way, we’ll come out of it stronger and together.

Was coming to BU from Dubai, where your family is based, a difficult transition for you?

I had a pretty smooth transition to BU. In fact, I was rooming with my high school best friend. What was really surprising, though, was how racialized and divisive things are over here. My entire life I’d gone to international schools, where my friend group was made up of around 15 nationalities. Coming from that, I thought, people can all get along.

What was your take on the presidential campaign, and why do you think Trump won?

I think a small element of his supporters do harbor racist and ultranationalist views that are on display on alt-right forums such as Stormfront, where white supremacists and neo-Nazis feel energized by Trump’s victory. However, to assume that all Trump supporters harbor such views neglects the economic realities of many Americans who feel hopeless and left behind by our changing economy. By dismissing Trump as stupid or unqualified and solely focusing on all the ridiculous things he said on the campaign trail, we ignored the big issues that many Americans are facing and denied ourselves the opportunity for a genuine national discourse on how to move the country forward. This resulted in widespread frustration with the current establishment and a push towards a change candidate that for some people represented hope.

How did you feel when Islamophobia reared its head early in Trump’s campaign?

It was very disheartening to hear Donald Trump call for a ban on all Muslims after the Paris attacks. Being a freshman only in my third month of college and living in a new country, I didn’t know how to handle hearing about mosques being ransacked and Muslims being targeted on the streets simply for wearing a hijab. I felt scared for myself, my friends, and my family. For the first time in my life I felt that I would be treated differently because of the color of my skin or my faith. I used to go to class and start crying uncontrollably because I would think, what if something happens to my sister, who goes to Northeastern, if she steps outside? I considered leaving BU and America because I felt so scared. Thankfully I didn’t. But after spending my entire life thinking so highly of America and looking forward to coming here for college, seeing people accept and encourage such hatred was really difficult.

But now you are speaking out, encouraging conversation and mutual support with your My Muslim Friends Facebook project. What changed?

What got me out of that post-Paris rut was so much support from people. When I spoke at the peace vigil and at the State House, people were tweeting about me, articles were written about me, people were hugging and supporting me. At the State House there were 3,000 people gathered and the crowd was cheering for everything I said. I feel like before that point all I had seen was what I was reading online. I had internalized this narrative that this country was terrible and unaccepting of me, but when I went out on the streets people were very supportive, and I had a community. What’s different from now and last year is that while, yes, I am saddened by all the hatred that Trump’s presidency has generated, I don’t believe that he represents the American people. In the year I’ve been here I’ve seen a tremendous amount of love and kindness from my professors, my friends, and from strangers.

What are some American misconceptions about Muslims?

People tend to homogenize Eastern culture and talk about Muslims as if they are one monolithic entity. But if you bring together a bunch of Muslims from Pakistan, Bosnia, Turkey, and Lebanon, they’ll all act and talk differently. In Dubai, I met some Muslim women who wore bikinis and shorts while others were covered up and wore hijabs. But despite their difference in lifestyle choices, they’re still Muslim so long as they have faith. People need to realize that they can’t homogenize huge geographic regions and cultures. Doing so neglects the vast spectrum of diversity of practices and beliefs within the Muslim world, which is intellectually disingenuous and lazy, I think.

Tell me about My Muslim Friends.

My Muslim Friends is a Facebook Page modeled after Humans of New York that seeks to promote solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims through photography and storytelling as well as to counter the narrative of Islamophobia. So what I do is I go around Boston approaching random people and I ask them, “Do you have any Muslim friends? How are they similar to you? How are they different? What do you like about them?” And more often than not, I have people saying really positive things about the Muslims that they have met. What I’m trying to do with this project is show young Muslim youth that just because they have an unusual name or belong to a different faith doesn’t mean that they can’t find an accepting community here. But if you don’t show them love, compassion, and acceptance, then it’s easy for these kids to see themselves as victims, second-class citizens, and isolate themselves from society. And I think that victimhood narrative is very dangerous.

Can you explain why you say the victim narrative is very dangerous?

The narrative that ISIS thrives on is based on the idea of a clash of civilizations, where Eastern and Western cultures can’t coexist. They will take instances like France’s burkini ban or Donald Trump’s pledge to ban all Muslims and say, “Look at that, you’re not wanted in the West. You will never find a community there. But if you come to us, we’ll take care of you.” And that’s a very dangerous narrative that I want to fight. Islamophobia does exist and Muslims do have to fight for their place in this society like any other minority group. But that fight can only be won if Muslims build intersectional coalitions with all kinds of people, irrespective of race, gender, and faith. And I think the first step to doing that is by showing Muslims that they do have a community here that will accept them and give them a home. I believe that by promoting a narrative of inclusion, we can empower Muslims here and also weaken ISIS’s efforts abroad.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Muslim Student Ibrahim Rashid: “I’m Not Scared”

  • kay font on 11.30.2016 at 8:40 am

    Ibrahim is eloquent and brilliant. I’m so glad that he was brave enough to find the reality of America is different than the America he read about when he came to the US for college. I’m glad he is standing up and speaking about unity and encouraging Muslims to be courageous and find the truth (just as he did) as they live their lives in the US. This is the message that we ALL need hear.

  • SBA on 11.30.2016 at 12:59 pm

    In times like these, Ibrahim’s efforts are nothing short of heroic. Keep spreading your message – this alum is completely behind you.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 12.07.2016 at 11:47 am

    The charges of Islamophobia and racism are not only baseless but obstruct dialog.

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