US student Heraa Hashmi came under the spotlight after deciding to share a 712-page document of Muslims condemning atrocities on Twitter. We talk to her about the story behind the post, and her experience of life as a Muslim woman in America.

Heraa Hashmi took action after she had enough of Muslims being accused of staying silent over random acts of violence.
Heraa Hashmi took action after she had enough of Muslims being accused of staying silent over random acts of violence. (TRT World and Agencies)

Heraa Hashmi, a Muslim American teenager, was sick of stereotypes of Muslims being passive in the face of acts of violence carried out in the name of their religion.

Last November, the 19-year-old, who is a student of molecular biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, was so irritated that she shared a list on Twitter of every instance she could find of Muslims condemning attacks. Since then her tweet has been shared over 18,000 times and won international attention.

Hashmi speaks with TRT World about what she hoped to achieve, and how she feels about the place of Muslim women in US society.

What led you to compile a 712-page document of Muslims condemning stuff and post it on Twitter?

HERAA HASHMI: It all started from an argument that I had in class. This was a history class and we were discussing violence as it pertains to religion and, obviously, the topic of terrorism and Islam came up. There was a student who believed that Muslims were inherently not peaceful and that we supported terrorist attacks and we remained silent in those times, because we supported the terrorists. And I said that's not true, we are always speaking to our communities about how it's wrong. He didn't believe me, so I went home very frustrated.

And I noticed something. This is something that the media is constantly portraying; that Muslims are silent in the face of terrorist attacks. And so I went home and I compiled a list from academics and scholars and laypeople around the world to show that that's very untrue.

How did your classmate's comments make you feel?

HH: It made me feel frustrated, because as a Muslim in America I'm a minority, so when I go outside I represent more than myself. People look at me as an accurate representation of 1.6 billion people, and it can be a huge burden. And when there's someone who says they're Muslim and [they] commit a crime, I'm expected to apologise on their behalf instead of recognising that that is a lunatic, that is somebody who does not represent the majority. So it can be very frustrating at times, and this conversation did leave me feeling very down and depressed about the situation.

Why do you think some Americans have a negative perception of Muslims or Islam?

HH: I don't know… I think there could be a lot of factors. One is the lack of exposure and education, so you know, Muslims in America are less than one to two percent of the population. So many people have never met a Muslim, and many people have never been to a mosque, or visited a mosque. And definitely the media. I was reading [in] a study that around 80 percent… of Muslims in the media are portrayed in a negative manner, so... there is that factor where we're not normalised in the media. So there's this association between Muslims and something bad — for example, violence — and I think the only long-term solution to that would be education, and opening up dialogue between different communities.

What kind of response did your list receive? Was it what you expected?

HH: Definitely not what I expected. I was planning to just give the list to the student, but one of my friends was telling me "you know this would be a very good resource for the public." So when I put it out on Twitter, I did not expect the response that I got. And I got a lot of support from both within and outside the Muslim community. Of course there were some criticisms, and I do like to hear constructive criticism. Some were saying "you are pandering to people who are asking you to condemn," [but] my point is that their perception is very wrong, and also that it's unfair to hold Muslims to that standard. So I've been getting a lot of support, and it's been a wonderful experience.

Many Muslim intellectuals and activists have argued vocally that Muslims shouldn't have to apologise for acts committed by people who happen to share the same religion. Why did you choose to respond to your classmate's comment this way?

HH: This was around the time of the election... and I was of that opinion [that Muslims shouldn't need to justify other people's individual acts]. I argued with him [my classmate] that it was unfair to hold us to that standard, when no other community is held to the same standard, but at the same time, I know that this is a very real problem. There are TV show hosts, there are politicians that will argue this. And from a realistic standpoint, I thought the best way to argue with arguments like that is with data; [with] hard facts and evidence. And so I went that route instead, and I think it's good to have a public resource out there that's all in one area. And if you ever encounter something like that you can always direct them to, because it's there; it's all in one place. It's easy to navigate, and it's very easily accessible.

Do you think you are really going to be able to change the minds of people, like your classmate, who hold Islamophobic views?

HH: I think that if it helped one person, then it was definitely worth it. It probably will not change minds, but my aim and my end-goal is to open up [a] conversation that normally would not be [had]. [I wanted to] show that yeah we are vocal, whether you hear it or not doesn't mean that we're not very active in our communities. Because we are, so I was hoping that this would at least change the rhetoric a little bit. And whether it did so remains to be seen.

Do you think election of US President Donald Trump has emboldened people to be hostile towards Muslims? To what extent is your document a response to his campaign?

HH: With the [presidential] election, what it did was validate a lot of people's ignorance or misconceptions about Islam. So I do think on one level it has emboldened people, especially you see after he came into office there was a rise in attacks against Muslims in America. This list did come around the time of the elections in November so I do think that this was a little bit of a response to the rhetoric that was going around at the time and the political atmosphere. [Muslims are] often silenced by the media, and this was a response to that.

What would you say to fellow Muslims, or people in general, who are put under pressure to condemn the acts of people they have no connection to?

HH: I would say… try to have a polite and dignified conversation, and tell them that it's unfair to hold us to that standard. We are a religion of 1.6 billion people around the planet and the actions of a few do not represent all of us, but if you do want to research, if you do want to know about how we do condemn terrorism on a theological level that resource is there for you, but just know that it is very ignorant to hold us to that standard.

You Tweeted [last week], and I quote "Being a Muslim woman… it's an identity that comes with having to represent more than yourself. You resist oppression on the daily. You resist people using you for their own means. Fetishising you. Trying to control you. Silence you." What triggered that affirmation?

HH: So [last Monday] there was a hashtag going around called #MuslimWomensDay, and this was a hashtag aim[ing] to celebrate Muslim women and when I was scrolling through there were a lot of as usual negative comments. And for me, especially recently in the media here, Muslim women sometimes can become a controversial topic just because we are visibly Muslim.

I know I like to call my hijab a flag of Islam, when I go out in public that's the first person people see about me — my faith identity. So I believe that it does come with a burden... When I go out there and I talk to someone they may look at me as a representation of Islam, and so I always have to make sure from a young age that I'm trying to be the smartest, I'm trying to be the kindest, I'm trying to be the most helpful, because if I do something wrong they may attribute that to Islam, not [to] me as an individual. So that's what I mean when I say burden.

So this was part of a discussion about misplaced acts of solidarity?

HH: Yes, so February 1st is World Hijab Day and many of my friends had reached out and been asked "we want to rally with you, and we want to show solidarity, especially with Muslim women, so is it ok to wear a headscarf?"

And I talked to some people, and asked for opinions like "what do you think about that?" and I personally think I love solidarity, it's so vital to this resistance, but at the same time we have to recognise that we have to respect those that we're trying to stand in solidarity with, and [to] understand that the hijab is not for me especially it's not just something I put on my head. It is a representation of my faith. It is very symbolic of my faith. So, you know, respecting that, as you stand in solidarity, is something people should [be aware of].

So you're trying to say that wearing the hijab isn't just a superficial gesture, that it has symbolic importance?

HH: Yes, yeah so I know yesterday's tweet was in response to [something] someone had tweeted, a woman wearing niqab (a full facial veil) it was in a very sexual manner and, you know, the hijab does remain a religious symbol for many, for the majority of Muslims. So respecting that and not wearing it in a way that fetishises Muslim women, or contributes to this appeal of "exotic" Muslim women, or things like that.

A website inspired by your list has been set up. Do you have any ideas on how your work can be developed further through this and other initiatives?

HH: Yeah so the website was actually made by two volunteers in Nigeria. They have [developed] a feature I've been working [on] with them, and you can submit a case… it doesn't have to be high-profile, it can be just the average person condemning any attack, or any domestic violence, or anything like that, you can submit it through the website.

I also have been working with Georgetown University's The Bridge Initiative, it's an initiative solely dedicated to fighting Islamophobia... We have been pooling our resources so they've been providing me with the data that they have and I've been helping promote the website and adding to it. So you can definitely look up their Facebook page, and then also go to the website and submit any cases that you have.

Source: TRT World