It is a strange time to be a minority in America. The past decade has seen unprecedented gains for women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community and other minority groups. Yet the same 10 years have been pockmarked by unjust police violence, simmering racial tensions and, in recent months, increasingly divisive policies being codified into law. Inspired by how far we have come and motivated by how far we need to go, I decided to run for the U.S. Senate.
While perhaps another female candidate would have to endure endless comments about her shrillness or appearance, a Latino candidate might be grilled about his legal status or a black candidate might be bombarded with images of nooses, for me it is always about my religion.
I am a proud American-Muslim woman.
My religion is not something I can hide, nor is it something I would choose to hide. Much like a Catholic wearing a crucifix, a Jew donning a kippa or a Sikh wearing a turban, I display my religion openly. My scarf does not define me, but it is a part of my story. And that story is a complex one, especially in today’s political climate.
I knew when I entered politics many would see me as “The Muslim Candidate” and nothing else. I am not the Muslim candidate. I am an American candidate, a Democratic candidate, a grassroots candidate and, yes, I happen to be Muslim. I also happen to believe in the separation of religion and state and that my religious beliefs must and shall remain entirely separate from any political office I am lucky enough to earn. Many politicians of many faiths would do well to remember this themselves.
When I decided to run for U.S Senate, I knew I would face hurdles other candidates do not. Out of fear for my safety, my husband told me it would be okay with him if I removed my scarf. I replied that I didn’t put the scarf on for him, and I didn’t need his permission to take it off.
Ultimately, this is what being Muslim in America is about. Being Muslim is about the American story, because being Muslim in America is about being free.
Being Muslim in America means having the right to wear the scarf or not wear the scarf, because here, no one can tell us how we must worship or dress.
Being Muslim in America means the freedom to protest unjust travel bans while being surrounded by Jews who protect us when we pause to pray, because here we have a voice, and here we have allies.
Being Muslim in America means the freedom to marry who we choose, regardless of that person’s race, religion or gender, because here, love is love.
Being Muslim in America means the freedom to join our military to defend our country. It means the freedom to fight ISIS, who are not Muslims, as well as others who commit terror in the name of Islam. We will not allow them to spread their false message of hatred, intolerance and oppression.
Because being Muslim in America is about being free.
And it is this freedom that America has guaranteed me that makes me want to give back to my country. To ensure that all Americans are treated with dignity and compassion. To fight for universal health care and better education, for our environment and social justice. Here, even as a religious minority, I am free to lead.
When my husband told me that he’d be fine with my removing my scarf if it would make me safer, I chose not to, but what a luxury it is that I have that choice! With a simple change of wardrobe, I can remove what instantly labels me as different.
But what if what makes you different is your skin color? Your immigration status? Your bank balance? Who you love? How do we work together to create an America where differences are embraced instead of feared? Being a Muslim woman in the public eye has shown me we still have far to go to live up to the ideals on which this country was founded. I have experienced harassment, ridicule and threats. But while Muslims may be the flavor of the month, we are not the only flavor on the menu.
As a candidate for U.S. Senate, I have vowed to have the tough conversations. I believe wholeheartedly it’s the only way we can heal and move forward as a nation. And the toughest question we can ask is, “What have I done to help?”
For many of us, without any direct skin in the game, it’s easy to express outrage at a specific policy or to commiserate with our friends about the current political landscape. We isolate ourselves more and more, and we become surrounded by people who share our views. In doing so, we drift farther away from any kind of meaningful change.
Now is the time for intersectionality. To lean on each other. To learn lessons from communities who have battled oppression."
I have spent the last several months crisscrossing the state of Arizona. My state is as purple as they come, and I have met many people you might assume would view me with hostility. But while a scarf-wearing, fast-talking candidate with an Arkansian drawl might be met with surprise, almost everyone greeted me warmly and spoke to me earnestly. Beneath the partisan differences, I found we are all so similar. We want the best lives possible for ourselves and our children. We want education, clean air, good jobs with fair pay and the ability to access health care without fear of bankruptcy.
So how do we all work together toward our shared goals instead of getting weighed down by that which divides us?
Now is the time for intersectionality. To lean on each other. To learn lessons from communities who have battled oppression. Our friends who are African-American, our family who are LGBTQ and our neighbors who are immigrants are on this journey with us. We have to take up their causes as our own and fight for their rights as if it’s personal to us.
Because freedom is personal to us.
Limiting the rights and freedoms of others ultimately limits those same rights and freedoms for ourselves, our families, our friends and future generations.
Now is the time to talk to our neighbors, even if we disagree. If I can find common ground with a self-professed Muslim-hater at a gas station in the middle of nowhere at 11 p.m., then maybe you can find a way to reach out to that family member who made last Thanksgiving so unbearable. We certainly don’t have to condone or accept views we disagree with, but we must show up for the conversations. Hearts and minds are changed when dialogue happens and preconceived notions fall away.
Dr. Martin Luther King said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”
So now, let’s communicate. Let us open our homes and our hearts, even to those who may initially look at us with suspicion. Let’s listen to their fears and dispel those fears by being friends, neighbors and allies.
Let’s work together. We have major problems to solve, and we need leaders with character and strength to solve them. We need leaders who don’t target or label groups for political points and who call out those in position of power who do.
Now is the time to support those targeted communities, no matter who tries to label them. You’ll notice that when they’re handing out the labels, they never say “White-American, Heterosexual-American, or Able-Bodied-American.” Instead they try to label people as “other.”
But no matter what label they try to stick on them, to stick on you, to stick on me, thanks to the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, we all wear the label “American.”
- This article originally appeared on HuffPost.