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Living Through 'Punish a Muslim' Days

By Shireen Younus

On “Punish a Muslim Day,” I missed the Quad shuttle.

It was the worst type of moment—I was walking across the Quad lawn, calm and slow, texting on my phone, aware that it was 8:48 a.m. and the shuttle would be leaving in two minutes. And then, suddenly, I looked up. Almost as if in slow motion, I watched the shuttle pull up in front of the SOCH, watched a crowd of my peers board it, and watched it roll away.

So, I walked to class instead. And I made it; was sitting in section at 9:05 a.m., a whole two minutes before Harvard time ended. (Really, who even needs the shuttle, which is always late when I need it to be early, and is always early when I need it to be late?)

But I spent the day thinking about that moment, when the shuttle rolled away. I hadn’t tried to run after it. It was a lost cause—I was too far away, it was already moving. When you’ve missed it, you’ve missed it.

And on that day, on a day which had been dubbed “Punish a Muslim Day,” there was something unsettlingly familiar about that feeling of resignation. That feeling when the shuttle’s going, and you know you can’t catch it. That feeling when you wake to vitriol on the Internet that teeters over the edge into real life, and you know you can’t stop it. You know you haven’t been able to stop it before, and if something happens today, well—it’ll be no different. Why would it be?

When I learned about “Punish a Muslim Day,” I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even surprised. I wasn’t taken aback, wasn’t shocked at the horrors that people are capable of. I didn’t change my plans, didn’t even consider the possibility of skipping class or not wearing my headscarf. I didn’t even do anything out of the ordinary to keep myself extra safe that day.

When I missed the shuttle, I had to walk. I had no choice. When I learned that a certain day had been dubbed as prime time to attack me, I went on with life. I had no choice.

Because if I stopped everything every time I was in danger, I wouldn’t get anywhere. This is what being Muslim is. It is waking up every morning, ready to duck when the world comes swinging at you, and it is realizing that some days, that swing will collide with you. You’ll end up with a black eye or a split lip, and guess what? You’ll wake up the next morning to play again. Tough luck.

Being Muslim is knowing how to navigate, and survive, and thrive, even while you duck and dodge and jump. Sometimes, it’s a hate crime, coming at you. It’s the constant, ever-rising threat of violence. It’s those numbers and those brutalities that control your narrative. Some are triple murder and abduction and rape. Some are single bullets. Always they are rising, always they are underreported. Being Muslim is the pervasiveness of this violence. It isn’t distant. It’s hit the mosque you attend, whether in the form of a bomb threat, a threatening letter, or bullet holes. Sometimes it’s even reached your home, or your school.

Being Muslim is not knowing where life ends and the crime begins. It’s refusing to cry over the split lip, because you know what? Some people break their legs trying to duck, and that could be you. So being Muslim means shrugging off the yells in the street. It means excusing the rude TSA agents who derail you in airports or the waiter who deny you service. It means knowing that that’s just life—the violence is when someone pulls your scarf down in the middle of the street or when someone threatens your little sibling at school.

Being Muslim means having no real allies in this game. It means watching the people who can’t duck get hit. It means being forced to sit on the sidelines while Republican and Democratic presidents alike bomb the countries that you come from, and indiscriminately kill those who could have been you in another life. It means taking forced timeouts: when the referee blows the whistle, and the game pauses, whether for a White House iftar dinner or an interfaith event—a moment in which there is no real swing to duck, but also no real allyship; just forced smiles until the game begins again.

But being Muslim is also about playing the game, and getting good at it. It’s about communities coming together to not duck anymore, but stand, and face the swings, and return the hit. It is about strength, in belief and in hope. It’s about fighting back—whether working to document masses of hate crimes, or building community resources to empower those affected by violence, or attending protests, or engaging in community building and activism while juggling the busy life of a college student.

So on April 3, I wasn’t doing anything I haven’t done before. I didn’t have any new feelings. Because for me, and for millions of Muslims across this country and across the Western world, April 3 was not the first “punish a Muslim day” we lived through. There was also February 10. June 18. And too many others to list here.

We will live through more—always ducking, always dodging. We will also have more and more days where we return a hit and are able to stand tall. But until then, you’re going to need to do better than a flyer and a hashtag to scare us.

Shireen Younus ’20, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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