Twenty two years ago, I remembercoming to the United States as a practicing Muslim. My husband and I had decided to come here to not only obtain a world-class education, but also to outrun the religious discriminations we had been facing in our own country. America was a safe haven for my family as well as many other Muslim immigrants from around the world. Today, we live in a different America, one who is afraid of Muslims and mislabels us as the terrorists we so despise ourselves. After nine eleven, we experienced a backlash. No one thought Islam was violent for hundreds of years prior. We coexisted with our fellow neighbors of other religions or no religion at all. Now, we are in a predicament and it has become our duty to speak out against these stereotypes and show the true beauty of Islam to the world once again.
Esma Arslan, a Turkish American who is just 20 years old, is one of those who have chosen to speak publicly on matters that she feels strongly about. This is why we have chosen to interview this young woman about some of the highlights from the PBS show that was aired very recently as well as some other related topics inshaAllah.
First of all, I’d like to thank you on behalf of AKWA for taking the time to give us some insights about your experience on participating on live television on a topic that matters to all Muslims especially the ones in the United States. We know that you are an active member of your community in Honolulu in both the religious and academic spheres. Can you elaborate?
Esma: Of course, thank you for having me. As for the question, I like to be involved in things that I am passionate about. I love my religion and for this reason I have been volunteering as a teacher at the Nooran Islamic Sunday School for almost 7 years. I used to be a student myself, but have long since graduated. Even though my own life is very busy and teaching young children three different subjects for an entire Sunday morning is tiring and draining, I believe that as a well-educated Muslim, it is my responsibility and civic duty to give back to my community’s youth.
I am also involved with the sisters “youth” group. I put “youth” in quotations because most of us are either finishing high school or are already in college. We plan lots of fun activities to bring our sisters together and strengthen our friendships with each other, but we also try to coordinate community service projects. Currently, we are running a drive to collect clothes, backpacks, and school supplies for children at homeless shelters. We are also collecting donations that will sponsor care packages to the adults at these shelters. And finally, we are giving a potluck at one homeless shelter. Every year the youth girls serve iftar during Ramadan so we decided to use our cooking skills to help our non-Muslims community as well.
I am also associated with many academic activities such as the Pre-Med Association at my university as well as with a non-profit organization called VIDA which aims to provide medical relief to Central American countries. In fact, I will be traveling to Costa Rica and Nicaragua this summer to participate myself. I work at Queens Medical Hospital and work part-time as a private math tutor.
I know that PBS is a highly valued television station among the American public and has been rated the most fair network for news and public affairs. Also it has been rated as the most trustworthy institution among nationally known organizations for 12 consecutive years providing trusted programming that is unique from commercial broadcasting. How did it feel to represent the Muslims in Hawaii on PBS on the show called Insights?
Esma: I was asked to join the panel for the show only several days before it was to be aired so I didn’t have much time to think it over or prepare for it. And since the show was going to be live, I was even more stressed about it. I really did not want to say anything incorrect or wrong on behalf of my Muslim community or about my religion. I didn’t want to represent any of our women in a way that they didn’t want to be represented and for these reasons I was very nervous. I definitely felt like a huge responsibility was given to me and I wanted to honor this opportunity to the best of my abilities. Hakim Ouansafi, who chairs the Muslim Association of Hawaii, who also organized the show with PBS, had a lot of confidence and faith in me which helped to keep me calm and level headed. He kept reminding me that I was doing this for the sake of Allah, for Dawah only.
From what I have gathered watching the show, you were articulate, sincere, and confident in your words and your manners. Considering that this was your first experience being on television, you did such a great job. You spoke as a local member of your community and people who have watched the show were able to connect with you in many ways because of this. I believe that you offered a great service to the whole community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In addition to the many benefits of shedding light on this particular matter, I know that PBS Hawaii had a target purpose for the show. Can you talk about that?
Esma: I agree that there was a greater purpose to the show than to just shed light on the religion. We live in the age of the Internet. Information is always accessible to everyone including those that want to learn about religion or about Islam. However, I think it was important to show people, especially those outside of Hawaii, that we have been coexisting on these islands with our non-Muslims counterparts for hundreds of years with very few incidences of racism or discrimination. I think our Muslim community is very aware of how much fear and hatred there is of Muslims on the mainland and we wanted to do our part to settle people down and prevent as much violence towards our brothers and sisters as possible.
What were the things you wished to say, but couldn’t say? What kinds of messages were you unable to put out due to time constraints?
Esma: When I was asked about my headscarf, I talked about the beauty of modesty and how it allows me to claim my religion wholeheartedly and it protects my identity as a woman and as a Muslim. However, I also wanted to mention the importance of a hijab when it comes to interacting with our male counterparts in society and how dressing modestly and covering the hair almost ensures that your future husband will have approached you out of respect and admiration for your intellect, your personality, and your devotion to Allah as opposed to merely being visually drawn to you. In a world that is governed by appearance, unfortunately, I think it is important to have an external barrier that forces men to pay attention to a woman’s words and actions instead of her appearance. In my own experience, male students and male professors have always treated me with more respect and dignity praising me only in my achievements and never the way I looked.
Another thing that I wish I had said when asked about what I liked about the Quran is how much I appreciate its authenticity. The Quran is still written in Arabic and most Muslims learn to read the Quran in its original tongue because above all else we want to preserve the Quran. Any two copies of the Quran from anywhere in the world are exactly identical word for word, letter for letter. This is a trait that is unique to the Islamic faith. The word of God can only be interpreted, it can never be changed or alter to suit and fulfill our own desires.
What was the reason they chose you out of all the Muslims?
Esma: When I was first asked to be on the panel, I really wanted to say no and when I tried to recommend other members of our community instead, they told me that they really wanted me. I think I was chosen for several reasons, the biggest of them being that I am visually identifiable as a Muslim because I adhere to the dress code by wearing a hijab and dressing modestly. I think another reason is because I am an active and practicing member of the Muslim community. But there are many other reasons too. For one thing, I sound like an American when I talk. I do not have an accent and it is obvious that I was raised in this country and in this culture. I was lucky enough to receive a private school education which gives me a stronger vocabulary and an easier time formulating thoughts and opinions on the spot. I think they wanted someone who would be the least stressed trying to answer questions on live television even though I was stressed anyway. In addition to these reasons, I think I was chosen because many people outside of our religion think that our women are not educated and that we all become house wives. My case is a good example because I am still in school and will probably be in school for a good five to ten more years. After graduating with my BS in Biology from the University of Hawaii, I plan to attend medical school and hope to become a successful surgeon one day.
In the interview, you talked about ‘Iolani School where you spent 6 years until your graduation in 2013. Tell us more about how they treated you and what made them respectful from your perspective.
Esma: As I mentioned on PBS Hawaii, ‘Iolani was a safe haven for me. They were very welcoming and very respectful in every single manner. When I started school in the seventh grade, the assistant Dean at the time was Lily Driskill. She had experience teaching for a few years at the American Creativity Academy in Kuwait, and so she was very aware of all of my practices. When I started fasting during Ramadan, she informed all of my teachers that I would be very tired, and she requested that they be flexible with turning assignments in on time. Dr. Driskill always told me that if I had any problems with students or even with teachers, that she would always take care of it and protect my well-being. I was always welcome in her office even just to talk if I was struggling with something in particular. The school also provided me with a room to pray in. They really accommodated my every need. In PE class, I requested an all-girls section. This wasn’t even a requirement from the religion. It was just my personal insecurities with playing sports and swimming with boys, and the school was more than willing to acquiesce to my request. On field trips or at any school event, they always made sure that there were options for me to eat from. I always felt love and support from them. When I tried out for sports in high school, my coaches were extremely flexible with my attire. Even when I did theater as my elective, my theater teacher, Mr. Duval, always understood and respected my boundaries when I performed scenes with groups that included boys. Everything about ‘Iolani was amazing. It was truly the perfect environment for me to grow into my own faith. I never felt ashamed of practicing my religion to the fullest extent.
What was the reaction from your friends after they found out that you were on television? Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Esma: Even though I didn’t tell anyone, somehow the entire Muslim community already knew about it. When I came home from the studio that night, I had been tagged in so many posts about the segment from my Muslim friends with lots of positive praises. I think my Muslim friends and family were proud of me, but my non-Muslim friends were very happy for me as well because they know me and my family and they know that we are good people who would never harm anyone else. It bothers them just as much that there is so much ignorance in the world. I think they were happy that I had the chance to once again overcome ignorance in a respectful and public way.
Last, but not least, what is your vision for future America?
Esma: My vision is the same vision that the pilgrims had when they escaped from Britain in order to freely practice their religion and to live their lives the way they wanted to. The America that the first U.S. settlers dreamed of, land of the free, home of the brave, is the same America we should still be fighting for. This country has overcome so much racism and bigotry. I only hope that we will overcome this too and that the Muslims of America will no longer be burdened with the blame of terrorism or violence. The constitution gives us freedom of religion, but it is up to the people of this nation to seek knowledge and not be ruled by their fear and ignorance. I hope that my children will be able to freely practice their religion as I have been able to do and that they will never feel unsafe in this country, which will surely be their home as it has always been mine as well.
We greatly appreciate your contributions to our Muslim community and value your appearance on television as an ambassador of Islam as all Muslims are. PBS Hawaii let us know that their segment on Muslims in Hawaii received one of the highest numbers of callers and commenters with eager questions about the religion. Although the panel did not get to answer all of them, they managed to spark a positive curiosity among their watchers. Thank you Esma Arslan and thank you PBS Hawaii.
Interviewer: Filiz Arslan