My whole life, people have feared me for being Muslim. Now I’m confronting those fears where they live—in the alt-right and in my own community.
At the Republican National Convention in 2016, I planned to shoot some photos and video. But just after landing in Cleveland, as I waited in line to get in, a man in full Thomas Jefferson costume approached me and asked: "Are you Muslim?" I told him yes. He told me Islam was evil.
I’m used to this: People openly stared when I photographed the new World Trade Center being built on assignment in Manhattan. They weren't the first. But in Cleveland, when I talked to people—really talked to them—I could tell meeting a real Muslim face to face made some kind of impact.
I’ve come to believe that many who speak out against Muslims are motivated by fear. Fear that I’ll force women to cover themselves. Fear that they’ll be subject to Sharia law. Fear that I’d kill if given the chance. So I’m going to confront those fears, one by one. In "Who's Afraid of Aymann Ismail?" a Slate video series, I’m going to meet with anti-Muslim activists, state legislators, and my own family to find out if there really is anything to fear about American Muslims.
Episode 1: Homophobia
In the conservative Muslim household where I grew up, homosexuality was never acknowledged. I didn’t even realize gay Muslims existed. So when my younger cousin Mo came out two years ago, I was thrilled for him because I knew how hard it must have been. Then I heard he’d left home for good after his family—my extended family—tried to hurt him.
Episode 2: Ramadan
When I watch Fox News in the first days of Ramadan, I realize that this is how a lot of people must see it—as yet another reason to be suspicious of Muslims. But in my 20th year of fasting, I’m starting to realize how unique it is to experience the holy month in America. In some ways, the experience is more profound here than in Muslim-majority countries.
Episode 3: Hijab
When you see a woman wearing a hijab, what goes through your head? You might wonder if she’s conservative, or if she has no choice but to wear it. Lately, it might seem political, like in the infamous Pepsi ad or this Allure cover.
My older sister Hebah, who just finished her medical residency, has been wearing hijab since she was five years old, but it doesn’t look like it used to. It’s smaller now, and more practical. My mother, an immigrant from Egypt, believes the hijab is essential to practicing Islam as a Muslim woman. And she badly wants her daughter to believe that too.
Episode 4: Blasphemy
When you think of what happens to people who mock Islam, your mind probably goes to Charlie Hebdo, or Theo van Gogh, or the violent attack outside the “Draw Muhammad” contest in Texas. Violence by Muslim extremists who believe they’re defending Islam from “blasphemy” is very real. And it's created a climate where many people believe, often stridently, that you can’t offend Muslims without consequences.
Episode 5: Extremism
Like a lot of American Muslims I know, I had parents who wanted to shield their kids from aspects of Western life they found to be “un-Muslim”: sex, drugs, alcohol. Christmas. But they couldn’t shield us, not even close. So at a young age, I started to form two identities: the Muslim and the American. As I got older, I often felt like I had to choose.
What happens to young Muslims in the West who have grown used to feeling like they’re two different people? In my case, plenty of resentment and an eventual run-in with the police that challenged how I saw myself.
Episode 6: Sharia
It happened at the Republican National Convention last year, and it’s happened at just about every right-wing protest I’ve covered in the past few years: People tell me Sharia law is coming to America. Muslims secretly want to impose their will on all of us. In fact, there are already “no-go zones” in United States, and we must act now to stop them from spreading.
Episode 7: Ex-Muslims
When we began this series, hoping to confront fears about American Muslims, I asked viewers to send ideas for what to cover next. In emails, YouTube comments, and Facebook messages, no subjects were more requested than ex-Muslims. Atheists who leave Islam are too often ostracized from their families and communities—and sometimes far worse. Their voices tend to be ignored by progressives of all backgrounds.
Episode 8: Christmas
This year, a Christmas commercial from a British retailer led to threats of a boycott on right-wing Twitter because it briefly included a Muslim family. The uproar seemed ridiculous—but the truth is, the ad might have provoked the same reaction in my parents’ conservative Muslim-American household. In my immigrant family, any celebration of Christmas was considered an affront. It was something observant Muslims simply didn’t do.
Episode 9: #MeToo
In 1983, Mona Eltahawy, then 15, went on hajj, the obligatory Muslim holy pilgrimage. As she approached the Kaaba, at the center of the sacred site, she felt a man grope her from behind. Unsure what to do, she broke down in tears and continued the pilgrimage—only to be groped a second time by a policeman.
Eltahawy, now a renowned Muslim feminist writer and activist, kept this story to herself for years. But in 2013, she broke taboo and discussed it live on Egyptian television. In February, she used the hashtag #MosqueMeToo to invite other Muslims to break their silence about abuse in Islamic religious spaces. Hundreds did.
Episode 10: Interfaith Marriage
On a recent Sunday, not long after I landed in Iowa for the first time, I found myself at my first-ever Catholic Mass. It’s fair to say I was the only Muslim there. But I was with someone who’s had a deep connection to Islam for longer than I’ve been alive.
In 1985, Laura Fendt fell in love with a Muslim immigrant from Egypt named Kamal Hammouda. They spontaneously got married that fall. Then they got married againthat winter, this time by a priest. It began more than three decades of an interfaith union that many people, Muslim and non-Muslim, still don’t think should exist.
Episode 11: Taqiyya
At a protest the night before Donald Trump’s inauguration last year, a woman accused me of “taqiyya” on the street. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was telling me I’m a liar because I’m Muslim.
I’ve since learned that the concept of “taqiyya” has taken hold in anti-Muslim circles to mean deception—that any Muslim can lie to non-Muslims if it means advancing some hypothetical Islamic global conquest. The term is often deployed to refute anything a Muslim tries to say. After that night, I wanted to know where this conspiracy theory came from, and whether anyone would even believe me if I tried to prove it wrong.
Episode 12: Excommunication
Last month, Wajahat Ali bylined a long story called “A Muslim Among Israeli Settlers.” Soon after, amid an intense backlash, he was disinvited from speaking at the largest Islamic gathering in the country.
The piece involved Ali talking to settlers in the West Bank. As a Muslim journalist, I’ve been told my work betrayed Islam or our common cause before, but never at a volume anywhere close to this. It didn’t take me long to learn that the objections to the article, and to Ali’s work in general, were far deeper than I understood.
Episode 13: Bean Pie
If you’ve never had a bean pie, you’re missing out on a lot more than a dessert. Made from navy beans, it was developed by black Muslims in the Nation of Islam in the 1930s. The history of why they created it, and what it represents, tells one of the most essential stories about Muslims in America. And as you’ll see, it is extremely delicious.
Episode 14: Muslim Marine
For a few years, Mansoor Shams has intentionally sought the attention of Islamophobes on street corners in major cities all over the country. He holds a handwritten sign with a simple message: “I’m a Muslim Marine, Ask Me Anything.” He’s taken out billboards and talked to anyone who wants to talk to him. Mansoor is brave, and I thought his strategy was brilliant—but I wondered if it also suggested Muslims have something to prove, or need special credentials to be trusted. Why play to that?
Aymann Ismail is an award winning video editor and producer at Slate whose work focuses on identity and religion. He's appeared on CNN and NPR, and has been featured in The New York Post, Adweek, Gawker, and The Huffington Post. His current project "Who's Afraid of Aymann Ismail?" is a video series that moves beyond stereotypes of both American Muslims and their self-professed adversaries, finding hope and fault in both. He now lives in Newark NJ, where he grew up.