From The Washington Post
By Pamela Constable
One Muslim woman who wears a headscarf said she felt people were “moving away from me” on a D.C. street this week. Another went into a store in suburban Maryland to look for a wedding gift but left without buying anything after other customers fell silent and stared. A third woman was buoyed by a friendly greeting from a total stranger as she loaded her children into her minivan.
From uneasy silences to unexpected hugs, Muslims in the greater Washington area say they are experiencing a mix of reactions from non-Muslims as the nation reels from a series of terrorist attacks at home and abroad, and anti-Muslim rhetoric inflames the presidential campaign.
None of those interviewed this week, including professionals, students, parents and activists, had experienced any direct threats or physical hostility. But some said they felt a new, uncomfortable chill when interacting with non-Muslims in public — as well as surprising displays of support.
Sheba Massood, 32, a Muslim mother of four from Sterling, Va., went out for dinner and a movie with her husband last weekend, days after a young Muslim couple staged a massacre at a workplace gathering in San Bernadino County, Calif. As usual, she wore a headscarf and loose robe; her husband, a technology specialist, wears a beard. But when they walked into the theater, Massood felt oddly self-conscious.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, will people think we are a threat? If we change seats or sit too close, will they be suspicious?’ ” Massood said Wednesday. “I don’t want people to be scared of us. I want to tell them we are an American family. We are so sad about everything that has happened, and we are scared, too.”
But the next day, she was putting her children into the family van when a stranger across the street waved and called out a greeting.
“I could feel his sincerity,” Massood said. “It made my week.”
Muslim advocacy groups have reported scattered incidents of harassment against individuals or mosques in various parts of the country, and one local case of a fake bomb being discovered, at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va.
But the Washington area — home to tens of thousands of Pakistanis, Indians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Africans — has been historically welcoming to Muslim immigrants. On Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson gave a supportive news conference at the All-Dulles Area Muslim Society, the largest mosque in the capital region.
Still, Muslim parents say they are urging their children to be cautious in public.
Some worried that behaving like a normal American working family — Massood is a Cub Scout den mother, for example — is no longer a source of reassurance to their neighbors or co-workers, because the San Bernadino attackers were a seemingly typical husband and wife with a 6-month-old baby.
Others find themselves struggling to explain the violent scenes and ugly comments their children have been seeing on television, including declarations by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that Muslims should be barred from entering the country.
“My kids are 7 and 9, and they asked me what is going on. I told them about the history of African Americans and how segregated they were before some good people decided to stand for their rights,” said Sonia Rehman, a psychologist and business owner in Springfield, Va.
“I told them history is about to repeat itself, and we will come out a much stronger and more insightful nation,” she said.
Rehman said one parent she knows was asked worriedly by his 13-year-old son whether he would be allowed to go to college if Trump became president.
Rahima Ullah, an English teacher in Herndon, Va., said she is concerned about what her 14-year-old daughter might face in a society in which anti-Islamic emotions and rhetoric seem to be spreading more widely than at any time since the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11, 2001.
“There is a little bit of fear out there, so I tell her to be careful. Unfortunately, there are angry people and their actions may not be sensitive,” Ullah said. “But we don’t stop her from going out and doing things. Thank God, most of the [non-Muslim] people we know are being reassuring, and they are sad and worried about the same things we are. We are on the same vibe.”
Muslim women, who are easily identified by their head coverings, may be more susceptible to religious hostility than men. But several men also said they have felt a sudden coolness in the atmosphere at work in recent days, a fraught silence beneath perfunctory conversation. Some said they are being bombarded with questions about Islam — not in accusation, but in confusion and fear, as if they had suddenly become spokesmen for their faith.
“There’s been no direct hostility, just a sort of mutual uneasiness,” said Tariq Zakaria, who works in an accounting firm in Northern Virginia. He said he felt uncomfortable being called on to explain things such as jihadism or distant terrorist attacks “when we are regular people with families and mortgages,” but he added that he was “encouraged that down the road this will lead to more openness and education.”
On area college campuses, Muslim student activists said they have seen growing consternation and worry since the terrorist attacks in Paris and California but had not heard of any direct slights or confrontations.
Nada Mousa, an active member of the Muslim Student Association at American University, said that campus police are stepping up patrols and that non-Muslim friends have volunteered to walk her and other Muslim students to class. She also said the recent terrorist attacks, as well as the threatening comments by Trump, have led to a burst of curiosity about Islam among non-Muslim students.
“We had a huge turnout at our latest ‘Meet a Muslim’ event. This is definitely a hot topic now,” Mousa said.
But like Zakaria, she complained that it was awkward for Muslim students to feel as if they have to defend Islam against the image of terrorism.
“When you have to act defensively, you are giving the terrorists just what they want,” Mousa said. “It is better to try to ignore [the issue] and just be nice to people.”