By Daniel Burke
(CNN)With Adele’s song “All I Ask” playing in the background, a Maryland teenager opened her computer and wrote an emotional letter to President Barack Obama.
“I am an American, I grew up here. I say the Pledge of Allegiance every day,” Aleena Khan told the President. “And yet, I am a Muslim.”
Which one, she asked, is she allowed to be?
Aleena is 17, with a bright smile and dark hair that sweeps across her shoulders. Her mother is Indian-American, her father emigrated from Pakistan. Aleena and her two sisters have lived in Maryland their whole lives.
Last year, as part of an honors research project on identity crises among Muslim-American teenagers, Aleena spent hours online combing through public comments on news articles about Muslims. What she read shocked her.
“Kick them all out and put the rest in detainment camps. Enough with the PC feces,” said one commenter.
“The only peaceful and moderate Muslims are the dead ones,” said another.
The tweet from the man wearing military camouflage was the worst, Aleena said.“Hard to tell what we should build first. A border wall or a gas chamber for Muslims.”
Aleena sat on the floor of her room, stunned. These people were talking about her mother, her father, her sisters, her cousins, her friends. They were talking about her. If it were just one comment, she could ignore it. But there were so many.
“This is what people think about me?” she wondered. “If I go out and say I’m Muslim will my friends still be my friends? Will people like me anymore?”
She texted her best friend, Haley, telling her what people were saying about Muslims. People are ignorant, Haley answered.
It’s difficult to measure a sentiment such as Islamophobia, the word for hatred and fear of Muslims. But it’s also hard to escape the idea that living in America today is like watching comment sections spring to lurid life. The anti-Muslim rallies, the vicious hate crimes, the racial profiling, the threats and taunts and questions about divided loyalties.
Scholars say Islamophobia seems to surge after attacks by Muslim extremists and during presidential campaigns, when candidates pledge to get tough on terrorists, often by singling out Muslims. This week, a Muslim man was charged with detonating bombs in New York and New Jersey and another was accused ofstabbing 10 people in Minnesota. Shortly after, GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump urged local police officers to profile “suspicious” people, “like they do in Israel.”
“Do we really have a choice?” Trump said. “We’re trying to be so politically correct in our country, and this is only going to get worse.”
Even before the recent attacks, American Muslims say they live under a dark cloud of suspicion. In 2014, they surpassed atheists as the country’s “least accepted” religious group.
An estimated 3.3 million Muslims live in the United States, and between September 11, 2001 and the end of last year, 344 have been involved in violent extremism, according to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. That number does not include attacks from this year, such as the shooting at an Orlando nightclub by Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people.
Still, violent extremists are outnumbered nearly 10,000 to 1 in the United States, which means that Omar Mateen is not the norm. Aleena Khan is.
Aleena graduated from Northwest High School in Germantown, where she gave tours to guests, was a member of four honor societies and ran the Green Club with her friend Haley, helping the school earn Green Ribbon environmental status — “a nationally recognized thing,” she says with a smidge of satisfaction. One of the few clubs she didn’t join is the Muslim Student Association, though she regularly reads the Quran and attends religious classes and Friday prayers at a local mosque. “I didn’t want to separate myself from the rest of my classmates,” she said.
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