Telling Stories of (and with) American Muslims: The Ordinary and the Extraordinary

On Stories

Many Americans only think about Islam or Muslims when something bad happens; maybe a hate crime, like the Chapel Hill shootings, or when an international terrorist group claims the badge of Islam to justify acts of violence. Thinking about our Muslim neighbors in these situations creates an extremely distorted and one-dimensional perspective on who American Muslims are. Like all people, they live multi-dimensional lives, and like all people, they have plenty of stories to tell about themselves, some that deal with religion and some that don’t.

I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a lot of American Muslims over the past several years, and these relationships have been transformative for me – not only in re-shaping my views of who American Muslims are (they’re many different things, of course), but also in challenging me to deepen my own spiritual practice and commitment to justice and mercy in our world.  I will often be one of a few non-Muslims sitting in a room with a number of American Muslims and I’ll think to myself, “If only my friends and family could meet all of these amazing people!” Social science research finds that knowing a Muslim is a strong predictor of having positive views about Islam and Muslims, but there’s a demographic reality that makes this challenging: when Muslims are only 1-2% of the U.S. population, it feels like a stretch to think that we’re going to solve this perception problem by having every non-Muslim American meet an American Muslim.

So I started thinking about how I, as an ally, could help introduce more people in my own network to the American Muslims I know – without telling their stories for them – and without arranging a massive number of events to get people meeting one another face-to-face. I find that I’m often sharing news stories on social media about accomplished American Muslims, but I wish the people in my networks knew all the awesome Muslims I know who are doing amazing things but who don’t garner press.  So this Ramadan, through Shoulder to Shoulder, we are publishing conversational interviews with some of the awesome American Muslims that we know well. The people we will profile (not that kind of profiling) are both ordinary & extraordinary, and we hope you’ll enjoy these peeks into their lives. Here’s a taste of one such conversation:

Kristin Sekerci is a volunteer activist with DC’s campaign for Paid Family Leave, a Program Coordinator at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative, and a mother to 16-month-old Harun. I spoke with Kristin this past month on the phone; this is a snapshot of our conversation:

Catherine: Thanks so much for doing this. Can you start by telling me a little about yourself? Where did you grow up?

Kristin: I grew up in Pennsylvania, in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. I grew up going to religious school my whole life, but not Islamic—Catholic, actually. So I was a little late to the game, so to speak. I became Muslim in college. I came to DC for university, ended up staying here, getting married, starting a family and starting a career.

Catherine: Tell me about your parents.

Kristin: My mom and my dad- they’re awesome. They’ve been super supportive throughout this whole process. First, marrying someone from a different country is kind of a scary deal for some parents, and with my religious journey, my conversion, my decision to cover my hair with the hijab- which I think was actually a bigger deal than the initial conversion, which is interesting. But they’ve been amazing, super supportive.

Catherine: I know you’ve been involved in the Paid Family Leave efforts locally- can you tell me a little about what drew you into that and what it’s meant for you personally?

Kristin: Sure, so I first got involved this past summer because I was home with my son, which incidentally is the reason I wanted to get so involved, because I didn’t have access to paid or unpaid leave because of the federal laws on the books. I found out about the campaign, and I decided I wanted to get involved. So, D.C. is trying to pass paid family and medical leave, which would be the most comprehensive and progressive in the country.

Catherine: So what has your engagement in that work actually looked like, in an everyday sort of way?

Kristin: It’s looked like a bunch of different things- I’ve done some canvassing (door-to-door)- that’s fun and exciting work, being in the community talking to people. The organization spearheading the campaign is Jews United for Justice- they’re a faith-based organizations, you know, Jewish background, and I remember going to some of the doors and opening with, “hey, I’m here with Jews United for Justice” and they would look at me wearing a hijab and be a little confused.

Catherine: Talk to me more about your little guy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen him!

Kristin: Well, he’s 16 months now. It goes by fast. His name is Harun- it’s Arabic, although we spell it with the Turkish spelling, it’s Arabic for Aaron. Which is really nice because my whole family is Catholic, and I thought that was a nice way to show the commonality and the history of the prophets and how we share them. He’s a huge flirt, I don’t know where he got that from. He’s a bit of a handful, but it’s been fun because I take him a lot of places so he’s gotten to know the community. He’s kind of made the case for me when I take him to paid leave events because it shows why paid leave is so important. He’s been growing up with the campaign, so that’s been fun.

Catherine:  So you’ve been working for the Bridge Initiative for several months now, right?

Kristin: Yes, I started in February of this year. I’m the program coordinator. I do a few different things- event planning and coordinating in particular. It’s a research project on Islamophobia- so we do research and bring it to the public square, critiquing some of the narratives out there. Unfortunately, it does hit close to home, but it’s been really exciting to be part of it and watch it grow.

Catherine: You all do such great work- I’ve been so grateful for everything Bridge has provided. Do you have a favorite holiday?

Kristin: That’s a tough one actually. I’ve been Muslim for four years now, and I still really love Christmas- which is fine, but I feel like I need to love Eid more. It’s been an evolving struggle, kind of. Every year I’m feeling a little more ownership of it, but I’m finding that I’m trying to Christmas-ize Eid. For instance, I bought lights and I hang them up in the apartment when it’s Ramadan and I’m thinking this year to send out Eid cards, since usually I send Christmas cards and that’s always been really fun. So, I’m trying to own Eid a little more. I became Muslim the second day of Ramadan. It was during the really early morning meal. Ramadan is really special in that regard, it’s kind of an anniversary.

Catherine: Have you found it difficult observing Ramadan in America, when not many people around you are doing it?

Kristin:  I found that the element of giving something up wasn’t new to me, because of Lent- 40 days of giving up something or doing something extra. The concept was already there for me, so in that respect it was an easy transition, but the time of the year when Ramadan fell that first year- in August- it was the longest time of the year. But I had a support system- my husband and some other friends who were Muslim, so that helped. I know some people who don’t have any Muslim community and I can’t imagine that. I think community is really important.

Catherine: What especially drew you to Islam?

Kristin: So, I guess it would be easiest to answer by saying that I kind of lost my faith at one point in college- I had visited a part of the world where Catholicism was used in really nefarious ways in the generation just before mine. So, I had a crisis of faith but in my heart I was still seeking. I had never met any Muslims before college, but I started to work with some Muslims, and I found them to be really nice people and I started asking them questions. I just loved Islam being such a direct line to God- no intercessor- and I loved how much it’s a way of life- it’s not just something you did every now and then, but has input into so many different aspects of life. It just really made the world make sense, and made God make sense for me. I still have a lot of questions, in terms of my relationship with God, but it was just kind of a clarity for me.

Catherine: What’s your favorite movie?

Kristin: Easily the Sound of Music.

Catherine: I love the Sound of Music!

Kristin:  Yes, I love Julie Andrews.

Catherine: I used to make my siblings watch it and build steps out of our couch cushions so that we could perform that “So long, Farewell” song.

Catherine: Anything else do you want to share, particularly with those reading this who may not know many Muslims?

Kristin: I would want to say that I have a lot of friends who also converted, and I’ve been very fortunate that my parents have been so open-minded and accepting, but there’s a whole spectrum- I have friends who take off their scarf when they go back home because they are afraid. I know it’s a really big thing to ask a family to accept something that big, but I want to say that it’s so important to be open-minded. People think that Islam is such a different scary foreign thing, but it’s really a beautiful way of life- so I’d just say be open-minded and learn more. And it’s a really scary time right now if you’re covering, so if you see someone who looks Muslim or who could be perceived to be Muslim, reach out to them, say hi. Don’t be afraid to say Happy Ramadan—don’t be scared to visit a mosque or ask questions of a Muslim. We’re all in this together and we need to increase understanding of each other.

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