Speaker at Islamic Center talks about growing up Muslim

Groton — Omer Bajwa knows how hard it can be to grow up Muslim in America. But, he said in a speech at the Islamic Center of New London on Sunday, with challenge comes opportunity. 

Bajwa, a chaplain at Yale University, came to the Groton waterfront mosque Sunday afternoon to discuss the complexities of life for young Muslims in the U.S. today.

The ICNL recently began a youth guest lecture series focused toward Muslim youth. Bajwa’s appearance is the second in the series. The first, which took place in Mid-December, covered the history of Muslims in the U.S. 

“Islam is not just a foreign culture in the U.S.; Muslims have been part of the American landscape for a few hundred years,” ICNL member Uzma Zaidi said. 

Zaidi and other members of the ICNL organized the lectures in an attempt to connect with younger Muslims.

“We just felt that we were not doing much for the youth, and we felt that we could learn more, and other people could learn more,” Zaidi said.

Speaking extemporaneously, and with authority, for more than an hour, Bajwa sometimes framed his lecture in dichotomies — pre- and post-9/11, or being an immigrant versus being born in the U.S. He also spoke in terms of solidarity — the struggle against Islamophobia is akin to the struggle against anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, for example.

Bajwa recognized that every young person in the room on Sunday “had grown up in the shadow of 9/11.”

Born in Pakistan, Bajwa moved to the U.S. when he was 3 years old. He reflected on his early education in upstate New York, where, he said, he, his brother and their best friend were the only Muslims in school.

“I fully understand what it means to stand out,” Bajwa said. But, he acknowledged that he was in school before the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and that the public and political conversation around Islam since then has darkened. He further contextualized his comments by noting that the U.S. has been at war in two majority-Muslim countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — since the early 2000s. 

“People have called me Osama bin Laden because I’m a brown guy with a big beard,” Bajwa said. “Elected officials and media can say the most terrible things about Muslims. This is the reality of what we’re dealing with, of the stress and anxiety and humiliation of being a Muslim today.” 

National numbers, and a local reality, back up his points. According to the Pew Research Center, assaults against Muslims surpassed the former 2001 peak in 2016, with 127 reported victims of simple and aggravated assault compared to 93 in 2001.

Intimidation, meaning reasonable fear of bodily harm, is a more widespread tactic, with 144 reported victims in 2016. That same strategy was employed against the ICNL in September 2018 when Gary Joseph Gravelle allegedly perpetrated an anthrax hoax by sending an envelope to the ICNL with a note in crayon cursing the Prophet Muhammad, along with a white powdery substance.  

Early on in his remarks, Bajwa asked a rhetorical question meant to be answered internally: “How many people here have been bullied and picked on because of their Muslim identity, or because of their racial or ethnic identity?” he asked. “In school, at the shopping mall, in the post office, at a rest area getting gas. Put in a position where you’re so disempowered because if you try and say something the situation could get worse.”

Syed Zaryab, 20, of Groton, said the speech resonated with him because of his personal experience with bigotry and racism.

“I went to high school in a horrible place. In middle school as well I have been bullied,” Zaryab said, declining to name the schools. “I have been called horrible names — a ‘terrorist,’ ‘Osama bin Laden’ — if I had a penny for every single time, I’d be a billionaire by now. Not only that, I’ve been beaten up, and the school did nothing. They suspended the person who beat me up and me, because apparently I provoked it.” 

After examining the modern bigotry young Muslims need to navigate, Bajwa came to the opportunity portion of his lecture: Adversity brings a chance to practice a vital virtue of Islam, mercy. 

“These are perilous times, but the light that will keep us going through this is the message of hope and mercy,” Bajwa said. “When you’re confronted by a bigot or a racist, even in that moment there’s a way to understand; there are different kinds of responses, but we want to give the most merciful response.”

During a question and answer session following his speech, Bajwa was asked to give advice to immigrant parents raising a child born in the U.S. He implored parents to listen, be kind, and know that children notice everything, especially behavior.

Following his speech, Bajwa spoke to the “burden of representation” Muslims and other minority groups feel to explain their religion or culture.

“Many black youth and Latino youth are saying, ‘It’s not my job to have to teach you about the dangers of racism and anti-immigrant bigotry. That’s on society to figure out.’ I respect that,” Bajwa said. “Having said that, if you have an opportunity to push back against Islamophobia, I would encourage people to rise to the occasion.” 



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