Video, podcast and summary: “Being Muslim in America (and MIT) in 2016”


Last December, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. In March, he added that “I think Islam hates us.” Cambridge City Councilman Nadeem Mazen and Wise Systems co-founder Layla Shaikley–both MIT alumni–join engineering masters student Abubakar Abid to explore how this type of hateful, discriminatory rhetoric influences public opinion, discuss its impact on the daily lives of Muslim-Americans, and examine strategies for combating it.

Layla Shaikley is an MIT alum, co-founder of Wise Systems and co-founder of TEDxBaghdad. With her viral video sensation “Muslim Hipsters: #mipsterz,” she helped launch a national conversation about how Muslim women are represented.

Abubakar Abid is a engineering masters student at MIT and a member of the Muslim Student Association.

Hisham Bedri is an MIT graduate who studied new imaging technologies and their implications on privacy.

Moderator: Seth Mnookin, associate director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing and director of the MIT Communications Forum.


Being Muslim panel group photo

[Cross-posted from]

Seth Mnookin, associate director of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing, began the Forum by introducing each of the speakers and stating that Nadeem Mazen, a Cambridge city councilman originally booked to speak at the night’s event, would not be able to make it. Hisham Bedri, an MIT graduate who studied new imaging technologies and their implications on privacy, would sit in Mr. Mazen’s place. Mnookin asked Abubakar Abid if he felt any different within MIT over the last six months since the rhetoric around the current Presidential campaign has become hateful towards Muslims, and if anyone within the MIT community spoken to the Muslim Student Association about what’s going on.

Abid thanked the Communications Forum for organizing the event and the audience for attending. He stated that he believes this discussion is “crucial,” especially in light of the current political discourse. Abid said that he has heard of the impact of this rhetoric both at MIT and the larger American landscape. Abid said that a few weeks prior, he spoke with an MIT Muslim student who had recently been shouted at by a server at an MIT cafeteria and accused of “all sorts of terrible things.” That same student was singled out and asked for identification while boarding a Safe Ride whereas other passengers weren’t asked for identification.

“Even me, as a Muslim student on campus, I was shocked to hear this,” Abid said, adding that anti-Muslim sentiment “isn’t uniform. It tends to target people who are already the most visible and potentially the most vulnerable in that group.”

To truly get a sense of the landscape of Muslim sentiment, Abid stated that we need to seek out as many narratives as possible.

Mnookin asked if anyone within the MIT community has offered support to the Muslim Student Association.

Abid said that one of the great things about the Muslim Students Association is that it serves as a vehicle for interfaith dialogue and for building a rapport with other student groups on campus including the secular student group. Abid said that they had received “a strong amount of solidarity” from other religious groups and that they are very grateful. He believes that most MIT students on campus are supportive of MIT Muslim students, but he is seeing occasional incidents where Muslim students feel threatened and vulnerable.

Mnookin asked if anyone from the administration had reached out the Muslim Students Association.

Abid said that they had. The Muslim Students Association recently met with MIT’s president and vice-president, both of whom Abid said were “extremely supportive.”

Mnookin then asked Layla Shaikley to tell the audience about her #Mipsters video and about the reaction.

Layla Shaikley

Layla Shaikley

Shaikley clarified that she became a public figure by accident. She was a teenager when 9/11 happened and saw a shift in the perception of Muslim women. Prior to September 11th, wearing a hijab generally didn’t draw criticism or questions. As the perceptions of Muslims shifted after 9/11, Muslim women who chose to cover were often the first victims of outward discrimination.

“It led to an adolescence of apologetic-ness frnakly,” Shaikley said. “That’s not like me. I’m not like them. I like fashion. I like tech.”

She added that around age 18 or 19, she stopped apologizing and began to take action. More recently, she put together a music video with her friends that depicted them doing everyday activities like skateboarding and goofing off in their neighborhoods. The video was uploaded “to create some sense of awareness” of the plurality of being Muslim to those outside of the culture. Shaikley was in Egypt on a UN mission when the video was released and woke up to find that the video had gone viral.

She returned stateside and realized that “this whole incredible dialogue” had formed around the video, largely from the Muslim community. The video was later picked up by mainstream media outlets including Glamour and GQ.

“I sat back and watched as this dialogue really formed on who Muslim women are, what they’re supposed to represent and who can speak on their behalf,” Shaikley said, adding that she later wrote about the reactions to the video in The Atlantic.

Mnookin asked Shaikley what the reactions were from the mainstream press.

“Muslim women are so cool,” Shaikley said. “These women are so hip.” The mainstream media focused largely on the fashion aspect of the video, but those who delved deeper were interested in the women featured in the video including Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first U.S. woman compete in the Olympic Game in hijab.

Mnookin asked Hisham Bedri when his family moved from the Sudan to Newton, Mass.

Bedri’s family moved when he was about a year and half old. Bedri said he grew up in Newton and had lots of Jewish friends growing up. Bedri said that reading Elie Wiesel’s writings on how hate grows and believes that there are some parallels between the hatred once felt towards Jews and the hate currently felt towards American Muslims.

“Ultimately I think the antidote to that is you really need to start standing up for other people,” Bedri said. “Any time something happens, you need to understand that it’s a direct attack on me just as much as it’s a direct attack on other people.”

Hateful rhetoric, Bedri said, leads to an environment wherein “a small lapse in judgment” can lead to dire consequences. He cited a recent example of a Muslim woman on a train who was approached by several people asking if she was carrying a bomb.

“That’s a situation that could immediately escalate into something that nobody would ever want,” Bedri said.

Diffusing hate speech not only builds a safety net for Muslim-Americans (and any other under-represented minority) but also for those around them Bedri added.

Mnookin said that this reminded him of the I’ll Ride With You movement in Australia wherein Aussie citizens volunteered to accompany Muslims who didn’t feel safe taking public transit. Mnookin asked if the panelists had seen similar things happening in the US.

Bedri said that the MIT community and administration have been extremely supportive and that discrimination against Muslims largely stems from people who have never met a Muslim.

Abid added that while Muslims are integrated in the US, there are geographical pockets where there are no Muslims and because of that, people there are often resistant to learning about Islam. A school district in Virginia, for example, recently received complaints after parents learned that their children were learning about Arabic calligraphy in class. Not learning about Islam perpetuate anti-Muslim sentiment.

Mnookin said that the MIT community is not representative of the larger US population. He asked the panelists if there are steps being taken outside of a university setting to combat the political rhetoric about Muslims.

Shaikley stated that this is a tough issue. People from outside the Muslim community often criticize those within by saying “if you’re not one of them [a terrorist] why don’t you stand up against it?” Ultimately when an entire population of people spend their time being defensive, they’re not living their lives or contributing to something greater. One of the biggest challenge facing young Muslims is the energy wasted being apologetic and defensive.

Mnookin raised the point that after a terrorist attack, people often ask why the Muslim community isn’t speaking out. He asked the panelists if people within the community aren’t speaking out for fear of drawing attention to themselves or anyone else.

Shaikley said that those who are scared of being a Muslim in America “are out,” either by leaving the faith, Americanizing themselves, assimilated in other ways or not partaking with the Muslim identity. “We all have friends like that and that’s fine,” she said, adding that this is not her choice. Those who are openly Muslim are making a conscious choice.

Mnookin asked Bedri if he felt the same way and if there are people who identify as culturally but not religiously Muslim.

Bedri said that Muslim identity is a strong part of many people’s lives who may feel far away from the Islam faith. When people get hurt because of terrorists, Muslims hurt as well. Bedri said that there are several examples of people outside of the Muslim faith who have done good work in protecting the Muslim community. One example is Colin Powell’s statements about Barack Obama. When critics were saying that Obama is a Muslim, Powell directly stated that being Muslim shouldn’t matter. Another example is at MIT shortly following the Boston Marathon shootings, Dean Randolph asked for police to stand outside the MIT mosque during prayer in order to protect Muslim students.

Mnookin pointed out that these examples are anecdotal and “doesn’t make me feel like there’s a lot going on in our culture as a whole” in terms of outsiders speaking out to protect Muslims.

Shaikley said that the right thing to do is have more open discussion events and use media outlets to spread a variety of narratives about Muslims. Shaikley’s mother founded a Muslim school in California. After September 11th, local Jews and Christians stood by the school’s every day before and after classes to make students feel protected. Shaikley’s mother told her that after the San Bernadino shootings, the local community did the same thing. Beyond widespread acts of kindness, “right now it’s widespread acts of information that really might mitigate” the effects of hateful rhetoric Shaikley said.

Mnookin discussed a Buzzfeed article about Muslims living in Tennessee. One of the reasons why Muslims in that location felt integrated is because they said they could identify with evangelical Christians who also have deep-rooted faith. He asked Abid, whose family lives in Arkansas, about what their experience has been.

Abubakar Abid

Abubakar Abid

Abid stated that he is seeing the Muslim community become less outspoken about political issues. His own parents tell him “don’t do anything political. That’s the number one piece of advice from them,” Abid said, adding that his former role as president of the Muslim Students Association drew questions. The increased silence, Abid said, is the real toll that anti-Muslim rhetoric and policies have, and it only encourages more anti-Muslim sentiment.

Mnookin said that Nadeem Mazen is the first Muslim elected official in Massachusetts and he has been active in organizing the younger Muslim community politically. Mnookin asked the panelists if there is a generational divide in terms of how to navigate being politically active and exist safely and comfortably within American society.

Abid said that he sees a generational divide and a divide between first-generation Muslims and those who immigrated later and feel more ownership of America and obligated to start fighting against aggressive domestic surveillance programs and bad foreign policies.

Mnookin asked the panelists if the ability to speak out against US foreign policy is a different beast for Muslim-Americans than it is for the general population.

Bedri said yes. “People are going to call into question your identity, of how American you are, as you challenge foreign policy,” he said. In terms of the generational divide, Bedri said that Muslim-Americans are just becoming more politicized. He commended Nadeem Mazen for catalyzing local political action within the Muslim community. In general, participating in civics is a vital part of integration into US society and he believes that we’re going to see more politicization in the near future. The increased number of scholarships aimed at encouraging Muslim students to go into politics or take an active role in the media are an indication that this is happening already. “That’s going to be very interesting to see.”

Shaikley believes that the younger generation is more politicized than the older generation, in part because being a Muslim-American is inherently a political act.

Mnookin asked if the panelists agreed.

Abid said that a lot of people believe that Muslim-Americans need to become political. In the Muslim community, stories abound about federal agents who embed themselves in the Muslim community to report on their activities. These types of stories and policies like domestic surveillance initiatives make many Muslims want to practice their religion on privacy without getting involved in the political side.

Mnookin brought up the commissioner of the NYPD who recently stated how un-American Ted Cruz’s comments about policing Muslim neighborhoods. He asked what the panelists thought about the fact that this statement is coming from an organization that’s been so heavily involved with domestic surveillance programs.

Bedri said he thinks it’s “absolutely awesome.”

Abid said that one of the silver linings of the political campaign rhetoric is that it’s forcing citizens to confront these issues whereas five years ago, that was not the case.

Bedri went over the details of the New York Police Department’s domestic surveillance program, which included monitoring Muslim organizations and mosques in New York and beyond.

Abid recommended a documentary called T(Error) which follows a live FBI entrapment scheme where FBI agents are sent to convince people to commit crimes then get rewarded for capturing them in the act.

Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin

Mnookin brought up an article by Boston University terrorism expert Jessica Stern which stated that groups like ISIS make it impossible to be moderate Muslims. Stern points out in the article that this is more successful in Europe where the Muslim community is much less integrated in the general population. Mnookin asked, with programs like the NYPD and Homeland Security surveillance programs, what types of reactions are those risks causing?

Abid said that the big concern is that Muslims will go into hiding and not go to the mosque. Several studies show that if Muslims are active in their mosque and civic organizations, they are much, much less likely to radicalize. If people are afraid to go to the mosque, there is a serious concern that people are going to get their information from the internet instead of from legitimate organizations. The emphasis should be on making Muslims feel comfortable participating in civic activities.

Mnookin wrapped up the panel by asking Shaikley if she received any threats when she started becoming a more public figure?

Shaikley said that there was criticism online but not in real life. She avoided reading the comments to her video so she did not receive any threats. “I was really taken aback by the extent and the growth of the conversation itself because it really proved that there’s this incredible vacuum over the topic,” she said. “We’re all so deeply involved in this conversation that we’re not terrorists.” The lack of diversity within how Muslims are portrayed is part of why she has embraced her role as a more public figure and carves out time to have discussions like the one addressed by the Forum.

Mnookin opened up the Forum to audience questions.

An audience member asked the panelists if they believed enough was being done to identify people who do make concerted effort to support the Muslim community. For example, when Cambridge city councilman Nadeem Mazen was attacked by a Breitbart editorial accusing him of being a terrorist, the entire city council unanimously voted to condemn the publication. The audience member asked. In the same way that Trump is being condemned for his statements, should allies be supported?

Hisham Bedri

Hisham Bedri

Bedri said that the Muslim community should do as much as possible to identify allies and to become an ally to other marginalized communities themselves. But highlighting the positivity only goes so far. While it’s important to identify allies, it is also important to point out instances and policies that are unfair towards Muslims.

Abid added that finding allies is, practically speaking, important for getting the word out about the plurality of the Muslim community and as a mechanism for sharing stories and challenging current narratives and power structures.

Another audience member said that he was struck by Abid’s story about the Muslim woman at MIT who was yelled at by a cafeteria server. The audience member asked if there is a way that people can become more aware of local, concrete examples of Muslim discrimination.

Abid said that he was surprised by this instance too. He said that anonymous services like MIT Confessions could be of use, but he would also support a platform for publicizing instances like this.

Going back to the positivity point, Shaikley said that Muslim-Americans also need to help each other out in getting press for reasons other than being Muslim. Getting Muslim-Americans recognition for other reasons is tremendously important for humanizing the community to people who do not know a Muslim personally.

Bedri said that a culture of fear prevents people from living out their day to day lives.

Shaikley said that incidents like the cafeteria working yelling at the Muslim woman incite fear in everyone, not just those within the Muslim community. When the conversation of terrorism arises, Muslims are the ones who are most likely to be directly affected. Shaikley herself has had a family member who was killed by terrorists. “Not only am I constantly fighting this identity that’s being pushed on me, but I’m actually facing the consequences of this crazy group of people,” she said. “I can probably guarantee that there are more Muslims affected than anyone else so there really needs to be a chance in this larger narrative.”

Abid echoed Shaikley’s point by emphasizing the need for a plurality of Muslim experiences in the media. “It’s really really important to just bring this discussion down to a human level,” he said.

Shaikley stated that she hoped nobody in the audience is ever the victim of otherization, but if they are “many Muslims will be by your side, including us.”

Bedri said that the Communications Forum discussion is preaching to the choir. He asked how to reach people beyond an audience that is already interested in supporting the Muslim community.

Abid said that social media often acts as an echo chamber of people who share your own viewpoints, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. He cited Sweden’s new program of providing a phone number anyone can call and speak with a random Swedish person. The program gained serious traction over social media. Abid believes that other marginalized communities can follow suit.

Christina Couch

About Christina Couch

Christina Couch is a human interest and finance journalist who’s making the transition into science writing. Her writing credentials include work for Wired Magazine, Discover Magazine, The AV Club,, Time Out Chicago and Entrepreneur Magazine and she’s the author of a financial aid guidebook that came out in 2008, but what she’s most proud of is getting to gesture wildly and say “TODAY I INTERVIEWED THE MOST AMAZING PERSON ON EARTH!” to family and friends at least once a week. Christina has spent the last five years living as a permanent traveler and moving to a different city or country roughly every three months (thank you remote work technology). Aside from travel and space and robots (and traveling space robots), Christina’s interests include awkward dancing, indie videogames and the first three Die Hard movies. Thesis: Life After Hate: Recovering From Racism


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