Muslim Girl’s Story Reminds Me of My Anti‐​Semitic Boyhood

December 4, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared on Cato​.org on December 4, 2013.

In the May 2013 issue of Teen Ink, a magazine I read regularly, Brooklyn teenager Isheta Khanom writes of “Being Muslim”:

“People are afraid of me. Why are they afraid of me, you might ask? …

“I’m a Muslim girl who was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’m turning 16 and starting my junior year in the fall. My parents are from Bangladesh. So, that’s pretty much my bio.

“But there’s a lot hiding behind that bio.

“The first thing people see is the Muslim part of me. Some of the stereotypes include that I don’t speak English, (don’t) know how to dress like an ‘American,’ am a terrorist …”

But Isheta’s proud of who she is and doesn’t hide it: “I’m a practicing Muslim. I pray five times a day, stick to the rules, fast when it’s time, and wear my hijab.”

The hijab, Isheta says, is “otherwise known as a headscarf or veil, and of course, the derogatory terms, like towel head, diaper head, turban, and whatnot.

“Whatever it’s called, it has a very important place in my life.”

Later, she adds, “I can do all that because of the freedom granted by the First Amendment …

“People think that the ideals presented in Islam are very different from American ideals. Actually, they aren’t. And let me tell you something else. Muslims are all different races. They have different backgrounds but share the same book and abide by its rules. And isn’t that true for Americans too? …

“And it hurts me to see that even those in my (Brooklyn) community, who are so diverse, are prejudiced against me. Me, my religion, my hijab. And those are all my choices. The choices I made because I had the freedom.

“You can see that I am not doing anything to hurt people …

“Making the right choice is not only about us, it’s about everyone. The way someone thinks and the choices they make are so important.

“Who knows what the future holds? I already made my choice. Now it’s your turn.”

In New York, regarded by tourists worldwide as the most sophisticated of American cities, Isheta is far from alone in feeling under suspicion because of her religion. The Associated Press won a Pulitzer Prize last year for covering the New York Police Department’s alliance with the CIA in secretly tracking Muslims essentially just for being Muslims: “Police systematically listened in on sermons, hung out at cafes and other public places, infiltrated colleges and photographed people as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks” (“AP wins Pulitzer for stories on NYPD spying,” Deepti Hajela, The Associated Press, April 17, 2012).

Dig this: “Individuals and groups were monitored even when there was no evidence they were linked to terrorism.” And we have not even been made aware of any evidence that has been revealed.

This happened in the same nation heralded by the Declaration of Independence?

Furthermore, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continued to proudly assert that he and his police were well within the law.

His law?

These outcast lives, as suspects, experienced by Isheta Khanom and other innocent Muslims, brought me back to my own boyhood in Boston, where I grew up in the early 1940s.

There, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, like my parents, were described by some descendants of the American Revolution — such as Henry Brooks Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams — as “furtive Ysaac or Jacob … snarling a weird Yiddish … The Jew makes me creep” (my book, Boston Boy, Paul Dry Books).

And I, like other Jewish boys in the ghetto, learned early that it could be hazardous to walk alone after dark, in or out of the ghetto, if we dressed or otherwise looked different from other Bostonians — especially if we appeared to be Jewish offspring of the killers of Christ.

A national radio favorite for many Bostonians outside my ghetto at the time was Father Charles E. Coughlin, parish priest of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Mich., and America’s most beguilingly popular anti‐​Semite. He also published a newspaper, Social Justice, sold Sundays before each Mass, and everywhere else in town.

It seemed to me that we Jewish kids might be more at risk of having some of our teeth knocked out by young avengers of Christ’s death soon after Social Justice was read and discussed by eager families.

Like one evening, after a storm, walking a couple of blocks from my home, I slipped and fell on the ice. Looking up, I was encircled by six or seven boys, maybe 15 or 16 years old.

“You hurt yourself, kid?” someone asked.

Then came the real question: “You Jewish, kid?”

I instantly became falsely irritated. “What do you mean, Jewish? I’m Greek. I just finished work at the drugstore in Grove Hall.”

“He’s a Hebe,” snarled one of them. “Say something in Greek.”

At Boston Latin School, we’d been reading The Odyssey in the original Greek, and I gave my interrogator the first paragraph in the language of the original.

“Sounds Greek to me,” one of the gang snorted, so they walked off, leaving me on the ground. Another time, I didn’t think fast enough and lost some front teeth.

The anti‐​Semitism was so tangible that, in the main part of Boston, there were stores I wouldn’t go into. They didn’t look like they took Jews. And I shared my parents’ joy when, for the first time in Boston history, a Jew was elected to the City Council.

So, I feel a kinship with Isheta from Brooklyn. She’s being even truer to herself than I was when I was a Greek. She still wears her hijab when she feels it should be worn. She prays five times a day. I don’t pray at all, but, like her, I have the First Amendment at hand when needed.

How many American kids can say the First Amendment is part of their regular vocabulary?

New York will soon have a new police commissioner under a new mayor, Bill de Blasio, who has criticized a number of Raymond Kelly’s suspensions of the Constitution. De Blasio, with whom I disagree on many other issues, should have Isheta present when he takes the oath of office, and ask her to say a few words about the nature of being an American.

About the Author