By Naureen Aqueel – Freelance journalist
When I got married and was preparing to move to the United States of America, where my husband resides temporarily, I was showered with a barrage of uninvited advice. From relatives to acquaintances, from people in Pakistan to those abroad – everyone had something to say.
“Your visa is going to take a lot of (processing) time because you are applying from Pakistan.”
“You will not be able to live there with this Hijab of yours.”
“Your husband will have to shave his beard. Tsk! The name ‘Osama’ and sporting a beard? Tell him to change his name!”
“Take your Hijab off when you are passing by immigration – that will make things a lot easier for you.”
“My relative was detained for 12 hours at immigration just because he was a Pakistani Muslim.”
“You won’t find Halal food easily. Say Bismillah and eat whatever you get.”
All this unsought advice only made me nervous, especially at a time when I was already quite stressed. I had quite a lot on my plate – getting married, moving, starting a new life, leaving family, not to mention travelling alone for the first time.
But what I encountered upon landing in the USA was a pleasant surprise, especially after all the horrifying stories I had been fed. There were no suspicious looks, no harassment, no interrogation and Alhumdulillah, no problems at immigration. Let’s put it this way: everything was normal.
None of the Pakistanis or Muslims on my flight were harassed or questioned unnecessarily. None of the Hijabi women with me faced any problems. We were greeted with smiles and politely passed through all the necessary procedures.
Out of the airport, one of my husband’s Indian friend and his Moroccan wife gave us a generous amount of food for the night. At hotels and restaurants, we were greeted with smiles, ‘hellos’ and ‘how are yous’.
In day-to-day life, we come across polite salespeople who always greet you with a smile; passersby in the park always make sure to nod a polite hello and how are you. It reminds me of the Prophetic Sunnah of the smile and Salam that we seem to have forgotten in our Muslim countries; these nations practice these in another way. Going about our business, we often pass by other Muslims, women in Hijab or men with beards and a Salam is always exchanged. We have many Halal meat stores and Desi stores within 15 to 20 minute drives from our home; we have Halal restaurants for Desi, Asian, Middle Eastern and fast food. And perhaps the best things here are the Masajid: Masajid are open for women to attend the daily prayers. The sight during Friday prayers is invigorating –Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indians, Arabs, African-Americans all gather together, shoulder to shoulder for the Friday prayers. The sermons are usually in English and are true weekly reminders for men and women without distinction. Fridays feel like Fridays now, Alhumdulillah.
The Masajid usually have some activity or the other going on all the time: Sunday schools, boy’s scouts, girl’s scouts, sisters’ Halaqas, Tafseer classes and Tajweed classes. Young boys can also be seen playing cricket on the Masjid’s grounds or basketball in the basketball court during free hours, while the adults sit and read the Quran or network with fellow Muslims.
America has a thriving Muslim community. Their Masajid are probably more active than any Masjid in Pakistan in terms of the activities that go on there besides the daily prayers. Muslim societies have been set up that provide a voice to the Muslim community and engage in many positive campaigns for the community. Societies like ISNA (Islamic Society for North America), ICNA (Islamic Circle for North America) and institutes like Al-Maghrib, Al-Bayinah etc have a lot of productive educational and social programmes going on that are open for participation by anyone.
Living as a Muslim in America is not as bad as many people in Pakistan make it sound. Sure, the cases of harassment and discrimination reported in the media are true and we should all seek refuge from such trials and pray for the brothers and sisters that go through them. My husband has been stopped at some airports for extra checking and we have at times received wary glances from people on the streets – even from Desis who seem to get uncomfortable seeing a man with a beard passing by – but generally, the experience has been nothing like many overly concerned people would make you believe back home. And the risk of suspicion or discrimination should in no way lead one to change or hide their identity as some would suggest.
Practicing Islam is not that difficult in America. Most Americans I have come across are friendly and accommodating and they care very little about what faith you follow. While there are examples of negative influences on Muslims in foreign countries, there are also examples of people who have come here and become stronger in their faith. I have seen people grow to become stronger Muslims and more patriotic Pakistanis while living abroad. No one picture fits everyone and therefore, stereotypes are never a good way of looking at the world. There are all kinds of people and things in all places. What we can do is choose the best for ourselves and leave the rest to Allah (swt).