On Being Filipina Muslim in America

by Um Zaynah (aka Annie Galarosa)

Photo credit: SEAsite http://www.seasite.niu.edu

Photo credit: SEAsite http://www.seasite.niu.edu

“What’s it like, being Muslim in America?’  Whenever I’m asked that question, it’s usually followed by statements such as, “I didn’t know there were any here in the United States.” “I thought all Filipinos were Catholic.” So, to introduce one perspective, I thought I would use an interview format with myself.

Q. Were you born a Muslim?  No, no more than anyone is born a Christian or Buddhist. I consciously chose to revert to Islam when I was still in college back in the 70’s.  It was a time of change due to civil rights activism, the unrest and riots on university campuses and city streets, the controversy of the Vietnam War and inevitably, the developing social conscious and awareness of many folks; and like my peers, I was profoundly moved by it all. In particular, of all the writings and books that came out at the time, the Autobiography of Malcolm X made the most impact on me.

Q. What is revert?  To revert means to “To go back to a former condition, practice, subject, or belief.” One modern school of thought believes that anyone who believes in the one God and declares this (called “shahada”- one of the five pillars of Islam) embraces Islam; the root meaning being “submission” or “surrender to the one true God.” That said, the roots of Islam shares a long history with the Jewish and Christian community going back to the teachings found in the Old Testament and the Torah and also found in the Quran. So rather than say that one has converted to Islam, I use the word “revert.” One could take this notion further by saying if all believers who submit to the one true God, are called Muslims, this would include Jews and Christians.

Q. So were you Catholic before you “reverted” to Islam?  Yes, like in most Filipino families who immigrated to the United States, I was raised in a Catholic family, sent to a Catholic school for 12 years of my life and did all the Catholic things expected by the church. However, with all due respect to the high standard of education that I received with regard to preparing me for college, I had always felt conflicted and suspicious of all the unaddressed issues about the Catholic church, it’s dogmas and the role it played in colonizing indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa and Asia. After learning about the spiritual journey of Malcolm X, it made sense to me to learn more about Islam. Then after my marriage in 1986 to my (now former) husband from Lebanon, who was Muslim, my being a Muslim became more apparent to my family and few close friends who attended our wedding presided by a Sheikh from the Idriss Mosque in Northgate.

Q.    How did your family or friends take it?  Because I had always displayed a little rebel streak in me even as a child, my family took it with a grain of salt because I was always a little “different.” And it helped that my older siblings had already created diversity in my family with intercultural marriages to non-Filipino spouses.  The diversity of the friends that I have also speaks to their openness and acceptance of people from different backgrounds. It’s not to say that I didn’t or still don’t have moments when relatives, friends or strangers would make inappropriate remarks, whether joking or not, or say something ignorant about my being a Muslim.

Q.  Have you experienced negative or anti-muslim incidents? Aside from minor inconveniences like attending family parties where a lot of pork is served – all kidding aside, I personally have not. This is probably partly due to the fact that I do not wear a hijab in public (most common head covering worn by Muslim Women). I only wear them on certain occasions and when I do, some folks who weren’t aware of my religious belief have thought I was going through cancer treatment. On a more serious note, hate crimes against Muslims (or people who appear to be from the Middle East) or their establishments such as mosques, restaurants or other types of businesses are easy targets for haters. Unfortunately, one is an easier target by how you look or if your name sounds Arabic. For example, Sikhs – because the men wear turbans similar to what Osama Bin Laden wore, have also been targeted and have experienced everything from murder, malicious mischief against their establishments, their families and other bias incidents. Christians from the Middle East are sometimes also targeted. Hate crimes against Muslims peaked right after 9/11 in 2001; the most recent being the murder of three Muslim students at Chapel Hill South Carolina. Last November, headstones and memorials at a Muslim cemetery in Washington State were vandalized and in California last fall, mosques in Santa Cruz and San Diego were vandalized and there was a shooting at a mosque in Coachella. According to the FBI data, nearly100 anti-Islam hate crimes occur each year from 2011 to 2013.  Muslims may be the latest “target-du-jour”, but anti-Semitic crimes in the U.S. remain consistently high, out ranking anti-Muslim or other anti-religious crimes, not to mention the countless anti-Black hate crimes and incidents, many of which go unreported or unrecorded. The following is the Southern Poverty Law Center website which has tracked anti-Muslim hate crimes and bias incidents since 9/11 until 2013. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2011/03/29/anti-muslim-incidents-sept-11-2001

Q.  Any last thoughts or remarks?  On being a Filipina Muslim in the U.S., what comes to mind is a remark made by the late “Uncle” Fred Cordova in his book Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans about Filipinos being a minority within a minority within a minority. I am who I am and it is what it is; I may have a 4th strike against me in this society because of my religion but I don’t feel alone in being a potential target. Ignorance, the current “war on terrorism”, media bias and the fluctuating economic situations of people seem to be the main triggers for haters to behave the way they do. We need to continue to educate people about other cultures and religions, examine our own biases and monitor incidents and hate crimes to stop them before they escalate into all out riots similar to the race riots of the 70’s and most recently, the Ferguson riots in 2014.

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