Mona Dibas, all-American woman, was born in San Diego, drives an SUV with a “Bernie 2016” sticker on the bumper and sings along to her friend’s “Hamilton” CD.
She was just elected President of the Southwestern College Associated Student Organization and is hard at work planning to take charge in June.
Even though she is popular and clearly on a roll, Dibas said she must always be vigilant. So it goes for Muslim-Americans.
“It used to be because I was a woman I needed to protect myself,” Dibas said. “But at this time, it’s not even about that. It’s about the fact that I wear a hijab.”
Dibas’s decision to wear an Islamic head scarf sometimes draws negative attention.
“I remember recently I parked my car a little too close to this truck and I had my little sister with me,” she said. “(The driver) got so mad and he started to curse and (say), ‘you can’t effin drive because of that towel on your head.’ My sister was very scared. I just drove away and he also pulled out and started driving behind me and I remember feeling so afraid. They could have a gun, they could ram into my car. I remember feeling completely angry and I cried. I was thinking we’re in 2015, we’re such an advanced world, yet we can’t get over the fact that I wear a hijab and you don’t.”
Such incidents flare after terrorist attacks, she said. Violence against the Muslim-American community has nearly tripled following the November stadium bombing in France. A man in Michigan called a store clerk a “terrorist” and shot him in the face. A Pennsylvania taxi driver was shot by one of his passengers after the passenger asked him about ISIS.
Violence has also spilled on to school grounds. A San Diego State University student was recently attacked and verbally assaulted for wearing a hijab on campus, spurring a march of hundreds of diverse students showing solidarity.
Dibas and her younger sister, Nada, are among the estimated 3.3 million Muslims residing in the U.S., less than one percent of the population. They are native San Diegans who live typically American lives in Chula Vista. Typical to a point.
Recent events like the San Bernardino shootings have escalated anti-Muslim rhetoric, including controversial statements by Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Trump’s “Muslim ban” calls for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Trump has actively worked to stir anti-Muslim resentment in the U.S.
“A poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing 25 percent of (Muslims) polled agreed violence against Americans in the United States is justified as part of the global jihad,” said Trump at a rally in South Carolina last December. “They want to change your religion.”
The same poll, which surveyed 600 Muslims, also found that 61 percent define “jihad” as a “peaceful, personal struggle to be more religious” or a “non-violent action.”
Cruz upped the ante after the Brussels attacks by calling on law enforcement to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S.
Sadly, Mona Dibas said, national polls showed support for Trump and Cruz grew following their anti-Muslim statements.
“I’m not surprised that the polls went up,” she said. “Islamophobia, especially after 9/11, has been in people’s hearts, but no one has given them that push to take that feeling out to make it visible to everyone. Growing up I’m sure there were people who were hesitant or a little afraid being around me, but they never physically showed me that. A lot of Trump supporters you hear them say, ‘He’s just saying what’s on everybody’s mind.’”
Dibas said she and Nada try to educate people about Islam while developing their own identities. It was a yearning for self-identity that Mona Dibas said she decided in the fourth grade to begin wearing a hijab, the headscarves worn by Muslim women in many parts of the world.
“I had a friend who wore (one) and I would ask her why,” she said. “Her response was beautiful. She said ‘Look at our classroom, no one is wearing it but me. It gives me this power in my heart to know that I’m different than everyone else and I don’t have to follow society.’”
Mona’s decision was even questioned by her parents.
“My parents never forced me to wear the hijab,” she said. “My mother was like ‘Are you sure? You’re young, you don’t have to.’ She didn’t want me to wear it because she was worried that I was being pressured. I told her ‘No. This is me.’”
As she grew older, she said she realized that the hijab was also empowering.
“Society is all about twerking and crop tops. I don’t define beauty as that,” she said. “Beauty is being humble. Beauty is being kind and that’s what the hijab taught me. As I grew up I started to realize this is the strength that comes with it.”
Ahmed Binsanad is a 15-year-old volunteer at Mona Dibas’s mosque who sometimes gives tours to visitors. He said he is interested in studying business and would like to work with cars.
He has only been in the U.S. for two years, but has already been forced out of his high school by bullies.
“At school they kept bullying me because I’m Muslim,” he said. “Every time I walked (by they said) ‘terrorist.’ They make fun of me. It’s common.”
Binsanad said he now believes that he does not belong in public school.
“I used to go to public (high school), but after what happened I went to Muslim school to be with normal people who I belong with,” he said. “I think I don’t fit in with (public school students) because of the bullying and stuff like that.”
A report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) found that more than half of California Muslim students are bullied for their beliefs. Turki Alharbi, 21, who studies finance at Southwestern College, is one.
“I came to (America) when I was 18 by myself,” he said. “I was fascinated with America because of the movies and the songs.”
An ugly incident at a grocery store made him realize he would have to deal with people that do not like Muslims.
“I was walking to Ralphs with my cousin and picking Arabic food there,” he said. “There was an old lady walking by us. She screamed, ‘If you (always) speak your fucking language, then go back to your fucking country.’”
Mona Dibas said the problem was common.
“I was 12 the first time I had someone come up to me and tell me, ‘You’re a terrorist. Go back to where you came from,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you a number of times that it’s happened to me or it’s happened to my sister or online.”
Mona Dibas said it is this type of hostility that renders her unable to mourn with the rest of the nation during national tragedies because she feels she must go on the defense.
“We don’t get a chance to be human,” she said. “You don’t get a chance to mourn with everyone else, to feel bad with everyone else. We have to protect ourselves from these Islamophobia comments. After shootings like (San Bernardino), Muslims are afraid to go walk alone. If I’m alone in the nighttime, I don’t go anywhere. I have to have someone with me.”
Nada Dibas said American Muslims must always keep their emotions in check.
“It’s really important to not get angry,” she said. “That’s what they want. They want you to prove to them that you are an angry Muslim. You react calmly, you just smile. At the end of the day, as a Muslim, you think ‘what would the prophet do?’”
She said the best way to overcome prejudice is by correcting misinformation.
“You educate them and let them know how it is that you work and sometimes that works. A lot of times you’ll have people that are understanding.”
Mona Dibas said educating Americans will erase misconceptions and bring people closer.
“We are just regular people,” she said. “We want our children to go to school and have a good education. We want to be able to work in a proper job, retire, have food on the table for our family.”
Alharbi said he is trying to create a club at SWC to reshape the way society thinks.
“People think about the Middle East in a religious way only, which is really wrong,” he said. “Yes I’m Muslim, but people judge me on my religion. If they see my culture and think about it, they will have a different perspective about it. I’m trying to provide my culture to American society so that they can understand it and look at it in a different way.”
Mona and Nada Dibas see themselves as ambassadors for their culture, even though their forays into the public arena worry their parents who live in Abu Dhabi. Nada said her mother was rattled when she saw Mona’s face on the front page of the Southwestern College Sun newspaper following her election as ASO President.
“She’s a mother, in her head something can go wrong,” she said. “(My parents are) just worried in general, but this whole anti-Muslim rhetoric out there gives them a whole bunch of other things to worry about. They’re just worried that we’re putting ourselves out there and it’ll make us more prone as a target.”
Nada Dibas said most Muslims are not radicalized just as most Christians do not belong to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Some Muslims become radicalized but it’s not very common,” she said. “It’s not common at all, it’s just that the media amplifies it. So for us, we have this anger towards radical Muslims because they’re ruining it for the rest of us.”
Muslims are far more often the victims of violence in the U.S. than the perpetrators, Nada Dibas said. Many assaults and hate crimes are downplayed or ignored, she insisted, including the murders of three North Carolina State University Muslim honor students last fall.
“It makes me a little angry to see that,” she said. “A lot of these crimes aren’t even reported as hate crimes, so it’s actually rare that you do see in the media it quoted as a hate crime. I don’t know if you heard about a shooter in North Carolina, three Muslims died. They called them ‘three winners’ (because they were highly regarded in the community). Over a parking spot. That’s what they said, it was over a parking space, (so law enforcement officials said) it wasn’t a hate crime.”
Both sisters said they are optimist that Muslims in America will eventually earn the trust and respect of their countrymen. They want to be role models for other young Muslim-Americans as well as contributing members of the community, especially at Southwestern College. It will, they agreed, require gumption and patience.
Nada said she and Mona are entrenched Americans and in this for the long haul.
“For Muslims that have only known America for their entire lives, it’s like yeah this (hostility) sucks, but this is my country.”