The insidious Islamophobia I experience as a white, blond Muslim — and how I combat it

People assume I’m one of them, safely in the club, and insult Muslims in front of me — not realizing the community they’re insulting is mine, too.
Photo illustration of author and a frame of silhouetted women wearing hijabs.
Joanna Neborsky / for NBC News
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By Nadine Jolie Courtney

As I sat behind the table at the young adult book conference, I had the sales pitch promoting my new young adult novel “All-American Muslim Girl” ready to go: “It’s about a white-passing Muslim girl who, faced with Islamophobia, decides to start actively practicing the Islamic religion she knows little about. It’s fiction, but based on my own life.”

As I delivered the pitch to those walking by, everything seemed promising — librarians were encouraging, booksellers were immensely responsive, I engaged in some thoughtful conversations with fellow authors. Then the other shoe dropped.

Because I don’t fit people’s expectations of what a Muslim is supposed to look like, they get confused. They trot out questions. “But do you pray? But do you drink? But you eat bacon, right?!”

“You?” a woman who wandered by my table said incredulously after hearing the book summary. “You’re Muslim?”

“That’s right,” I said with practiced cheer. My Jordanian father’s childhood warnings — years before 9/11 — rang in my ears: “The world’s not fair, pumpkin. Some people will judge you when they find out you’re a Muslim.”

The woman pointed at my uncovered hair. “But you’re not wearing that thing on your head.”

You see, I don’t “look” Muslim: I have blonde hair, green eyes and fair skin. Never mind that Islam isn’t a monolith, that the word “Muslim” is often incorrectly conflated with “Arab,” that the world’s largest Muslim population is actually in Southeast Asia in Indonesia, that there are roughly 700,000 Black American Muslims, that I am half Circassian (a Muslim ethnicity known for pale skin), that while many American Muslim women choose to wear hijab — a head covering — but many choose not to.

Because I don’t fit people’s expectations of what a Muslim is supposed to look like, they get confused. They trot out questions. “But do you pray? But do you drink? But you eat bacon, right?!” And, occasionally, this stinging barb: “But you look so normal!”

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As a white-passing Muslim — the daughter of a Jordanian-Syrian immigrant of both Circassian and Western Asian descent and a white, blonde Roman Catholic of Swiss-Austrian descent who converted to Islam when she married my dad — I’ve been privy to Islamophobia my entire life. It’s just that the Islamophobia I’ve been subjected to is a uniquely subtle version.

Unlike my Syrian grandmother and my hijab-wearing cousins, the Islamophobia I experience is stealth. Nobody ever insults me directly, unlike my family and friends who have experienced pointed stares in the grocery store, jeers in the hallway at school and unkind comments uttered on the street. (There’s a misconception that incidents like these only began for American Muslims after 9/11, but the fact is, the situation was never particularly good.) Instead, people assume I’m one of them, safely in the club, and insult Muslims in front of me — not realizing the community they’re insulting is mine, too.

It’s hard to put into words how emotionally devastating it is to hear people say horrible things about Muslims, how demeaning and dehumanizing it feels; it’s corrosive on a molecular level. Every time somebody makes a jihad joke in front of me, or says something derogatory about a fellow Muslim’s appearance or smell or accent or choices, it’s a hurtful reminder that they’d likely say the same thing about me behind my back if only they knew.

Over the years, I’ve realized from my own experiences and those of other Muslims that there seems to be a dichotomy in many American minds between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims.” Bad Muslims are scary Muslims: ones who pray five times a day and wear hijab or niqab (a facial covering) or have long beards. A good Muslim is one who seems as American as possible and has completely assimilated. (Drinking, yay! Hijabs, boo.) Someone who doesn’t make non-Muslims uncomfortable. A Muslim in Name Only.

People who find out I’m a Muslim immediately want to know which one I am. When I was younger, I would go along to get along, assuring them that I was a good Muslim, a safe Muslim.

Now? I care less about their comfort level and more about my own. Yes, I pray in Arabic. Yes, I’d like to make the pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj. Yes, I try to fast during Ramadan. Sorry, not sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. I’m still me: blonde hair and pale skin and Pearl Jam obsession and all.

In my book, the main character joins an Islamic study group where she and her friends engage in spirited debates on various scholarly points about the religion. I hoped to show that within the Muslim community there are a variety of schools of thought and levels of practice, and that — despite what some inside and outside of the religion loudly proclaim — you are still a Muslim even if you aren’t always doing it perfectly.

Sadly, as a Muslim woman, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Those like me who don't show any visible markers of Islam are often lumped into the problematic “good” category. Muslim women who choose to wear hijab, in contrast, are not only frequently targeted by bigots — not to mention subject to quiet, insidious forms of discrimination in situations such as the workplace — but also offensively held up as examples of women who “need” to be “liberated.”

In fact, while wearing hijab is hugely politicized — like all aspects of women’s bodies, clothing and choices — it is a choice for many American Muslims. It tends to mostly be non-Muslims who are fixated on whether or why Islamic women wear a hijab. Within our communities, there’s more of an understanding and acceptance that it’s a personal decision, period.

Personally, I think it’s a choice that’s to be celebrated for its depth of meaning, beauty and courage — a visible, tangible way to not only signal to the world at large that you are a Muslim, at a time when that can be fraught, but also to quietly remind yourself of your faith.

Growing up in a large Muslim family, I was often the lone blonde in a sea of brunettes, the only non-Arabic speaking grandchild in a room humming with the melodious language I couldn’t understand but yearned to speak. (In my 20s, I finally hired a tutor and learned how to read, write and speak it for myself.)

I’ve chosen to use my passing privilege out in the world to educate, correct and hopefully build bridges.

While I used to feel frustrated by my appearance as it relates to my heritage — the blonde sheep in my family who never quite fit in — I’ve chosen to use my passing privilege out in the world to educate, correct and hopefully build bridges through my writing.

As one of my characters says: “It’s time we stopped feeling guilty about not being Muslim enough. Or being too Muslim. Or not being the ‘right kind’ of Muslim. Whatever that means.”

So instead of snapping at the woman who insulted my community, I looked her in the eyes as I gently educated her, briefly explaining that how Muslim women dress is their choice.

Then I pressed my book into her hands and encouraged her to read it.