This Is What It's Like to Be a Muslim in Boston Right Now

When Anum Hussain heard about the Boston Marathon bombing, she immediately panicked, worried that the culprits would be like her. The 22-year-old Muslim was in the offices of Hubspot, the Cambridge marketing-software company she works for full-time. As her coworkers frantically rushed to call loved ones who'd been out watching the marathon that day, she was glued to the TV, fearing what she might learn about potential suspects. “My heart was beating fast, just praying that this person didn't turn out to be Muslim,” she recalled. “I knew that if they were, all hell was going to break loose.”

Her concern was warranted. That same afternoon, on the Boston subway, a second-year Muslim student at Northeastern University who wears a headscarf phoned her parents to report her safety; as she spoke to them in Arabic, a stranger pushed her so hard she fell to the ground. Later, one of Anum’s male acquaintances, someone with brown skin, was riding the MBTA when he realized that he was weirdly alone—all the other passengers on his car had moved away from him, as if he was a threat. Two mornings later in Malden, a town of about 60,000 that’s five miles away from Cambridge, a 26-year-old Syrian woman in a headscarf was walking down a main street, pushing her nine-month-old daughter in a stroller, when an angry man punched her in the shoulder, cursed "Fuck you Muslims," and screamed, “You are terrorists, you are the ones who made the Boston explosion."

These incidents happened before two Muslim suspects had been identified, before anyone knew the names Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, even before the New York Post splashed two completely innocent brown "Bag Men" on the front cover. As it was, not even two hours after the bombing, WorldNutDaily goon Erik Rush had been glibly lashing out at the Saudis on Twitter, then firing back at someone who asked if he was already blaming Muslims for the Marathon Bombing, “Yes, they’re evil. Let’s kill them all.” (“Sarcasm, idiot,” was how he later backed out.)

"We could all feel it coming," said Hussain, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants and first person in her extended family born in the United States. Growing up in Windham, N.H., among a local community of more than 100 others who shared her faith, she was was only 10 on September 11, 2001. New England was the only home she’d ever known. So it was both confusing and upsetting when people started calling her “terrorist” at school, or when kids would make jokes about her "Uncle Saddam." Or when, on a field trip, a student from another class told her to go back to own country. “That was the most confusing taunt," she said. "This is my country.”

A summa cum laude graduate of Emerson College, Hussain is the regional director of Muslim Inter-Scholastic Tournament, a national non-profit that hosts annual faith-based challenges for high-school students of the Islamic faith. (That's her in the photo above, in pink, at a MIST event at MIT earlier this month; she doesn't usually wear a headscarf.) On the evening of the bombing, Hussain and her co-regional director released a joint statement to the 300-plus Massachusetts high-school students affiliated with MIST, proactively anticipating "comments of hatred" in the attack's aftermath and urging the young Muslims not to let bullying affect them emotionally.

That same night, Hussain was commiserating with a half-Indian, half-German coworker—someone who isn't Arab or Muslim, but had still been beat up after 9/11 for his looks and his exotic name—when they came up with the idea of making an 'It Gets Better'-style video for people like them. "We just thought, 'Something needs to be done.'" Immediately, Hussain sent an email to her 600 Hubspot colleagues, pitching their support with the video, and within 24 hours, she raised over $1,500 from their network, hired a production guy, and found three people who'd faced anti-Muslim discrimination and were willing to be filmed.

One of those subjects is the Northeastern student, who, despite the stereotype of her headscarf, identifies as a die-hard Patriots fan. "That's what we're trying to get across," confirmed Hussain. "Regardless of what our background is, we all are Bostonians—no more, no less than any other Bostonian. We all feel the pain that Boston feels, we all feel the love that Boston feels, we all feel the pride that Boston feels and our religious or ethnic background doesn’t keep us from feeling that joy, pride, or sadness.”

And then, of course, the worst case scenario turned out to be true: the Tsarnaevs claimed to be Muslims. “We were incredibly disappointed," said Hussain. “But it's embedded in our faith and our teachings that killing is not permitted, so I personally do not consider these individuals to be actual followers of the Muslim faith, but rather some radical ideology that exists outside of Islam.”

Not everyone is enlightened enough to see such a distinction. On Friday, amid the public celebration on the Boston Common, many of Hussain’s friends and acquaintances decided that it would be safest to stay indoors. “It's just sad that when an entire city is mourning, part of that population is not able to participate,” she said. On Facebook, Hussain watched Muslim teens contemplate staying home from school on Monday, fearing harassment. Even Hussain has altered her routine since the bombing, taking a taxi home every night and asking the driver to drop her off directly in front of her apartment, rather than walking home alone.

"I don't feel comfortable walking through my own city," she admitted. "I've lived on the same four blocks of Boston, right off Boylston Street, for the last four years. And now, all the sudden, I'm afraid to walk them alone."

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