Metro area Muslims give Olympic fencer full support

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ibtihaj Muhammad is redefining the image of the American Olympic athlete.

An African-American Muslim, Muhammad is the first American woman to compete in the Games wearing a hijab.

A fencer, she begins her quest for a medal at the Rio Games at 9 this morning in the individual sabre Round of 32.

Growing up in New Jersey, Muhammad gravitated toward fencing because the uniform allowed her to wear the traditional headscarf and adhere to the tenets of her faith. More importantly, it allowed her to be judged based on her skill set, not her skin color, gender or religion.

“I’m hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions people have about the Muslim community,” Muhammad told reporters during a news conference last week in Rio. “A lot of people have this one idea of who Muslims are, what a Muslim woman even looks like.

“I think that who I am just challenges and breaks all those stereotypes and misconceptions just by simply standing in place and being a member of Team USA.”

After qualifying for the Olympics in February, word of Muhammad’s story began to spread throughout the world, including Muslim communities throughout Michigan.

Michigan Muslim Community Council chairman Muzammil Ahmed has been following Muhammad’s career the past several years. Ahmed even met her in 2014 when she helped kick off a 5K run in Detroit sponsored by the MMCC, whose mission is to unify Muslim communities, promote the best Islamic and American values, and pursue social justice in America.

Early during her participation in fencing, she was bullied, and told she didn’t belong because she was African-American, and there were things she couldn’t do because she was Muslim.

Muhammad, 30, faced those adversities head-on and never wavered, winning state titles in high school and earning All-American honors three times at Duke before being recognized as one of the top sabre fencers in the world.

That journey has garnered national attention, and she has used her profile to speak out about Islamophobia and other barriers she has knocked down along the way.

“This is who I am,” Muhammad said. “Being American, being African-American, being Muslim, being a woman. These are all things that I can’t change and I wouldn’t change for anything.

“I love the way that I’ve grown up. Every single obstacle that I’ve come across in my life I feel have been blessings that made me stronger. Being in this moment, I’m just very appreciative and thankful that I get to not just do this for myself because it’s been a lot of hard work but hopefully in turn do this for other people around the world.”

Breaking the mold

Ahmed said that while Muhammad isn’t the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics — a half-dozen women wearing the hijab competed at the 2012 London Games — she’s the latest in a line of prominent Muslim athletes to represent the United States.

Her historic accomplishment is another milestone, akin to when boxing legend Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

“To have a Muslim woman do it is really quite a treat because more than anyone, Muslim women tend to be thought of as people who can’t speak for themselves, who are timid and she totally breaks the mold,” said Ahmed, a physician at Beaumont Health Care System. “This is a great example of Muslim women not just speaking but really excelling in something that they feel passionate about.”

And being that example, Ahmed said, is critical for young Muslim women to believe there’s nothing that can hold them back, and they are just as capable physically and mentally to do what others are able to do.

“This is really important to show you don’t let something like the use of a hijab slow you down because it doesn’t,” Ahmed said. “It’s very much a personal choice whether somebody wears a hijab, but I’m glad that there’s somebody prominent like Ibtihaj to show that just because she has made that decision to wear it, it hasn’t been a detriment to her in any way whatsoever.”

Dr. Jumana Salamey, deputy director of the Arab American National Museum, began to pick up on Muhammad’s story through social media. Salamey said she has witnessed Muhammad’s impact in Dearborn, which has a population roughly a third Arab-American or of Arab descent, when people were paying attention to the the U.S. flag bearer vote. (Muhammad finished a close second in voting behind swimmer Michael Phelps.)

Islamic Center of America executive administrator and Dearborn resident Kassem Ali said the full weight of Muhammad’s influence has yet to hit its peak, but probably will as the Olympics continue to unfold.

“She has proven that with dedication and with perseverance you can achieve a lot,” Ali said. “We are inspired and she’s an inspiration for us and really she has become a point of pride for our community.”

Ali said in the Dearborn community, residents have fully embraced the idea of young Muslim women participating in sports, and numerous female athletes have earned athletic scholarships in recent years.

But it’s not just that Muhammad excels at her sport. She also owns her own clothing line, Louella, and dual bachelor’s degrees in international relations and African studies.

A symbol of America

With an opportunity to inform the national debate, Muhammad hasn’t shied from the public eye in an effort to change the conversation and negative rhetoric about Muslims.

“I think the community here in Dearborn is rallying for her,” Salamey said. “They’re excited, they’re proud.

“People really look up to the fact that she is using this platform to speak about Islam and about what it means to her for being a Muslim in today’s political climate.”

The Olympics have served as a stage to advance political, societal and cultural messages. And at a time where there’s worldwide terrorist attacks and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump calling for a ban on Muslim immigration, Muhammad enters the spotlight at a pivotal point.

Muhammad openly has answered questions about her faith and been outspoken about the issues she’s had to face as an African-American Muslim. She tweeted about an incident in April when a man followed her and asked her if she was going to blow something up. A month later, she was invited to be a guest speaker at the South by Southwest festival and was told to remove her hijab for an ID badge.

“I think this platform, her being in the Olympics and her being interviewed (by media outlets), she’s using this as an opportunity to share that Muslims are like everybody else,” Salamey said. “They’re a part of the American dream.

“She’s a self-made success. She’s worked hard, she’s gotten to where she’s gotten because of her diligence and I think that because of the political climate, it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time that we have somebody that is comfortable speaking about their religion and what the hijab means to them.”

Ali said there likely will be some people who will view Muhammad in a negative light, but they will be far and few between. He also said he doesn’t believe the world will be shocked or surprised by her presence, but rather there will be widespread interest.

And that interest will lead to many paying attention to a sport they may not have otherwise as Muhammad fights not just for Olympic gold, but for change.

“We will be rooting for her not just because she’s a Muslim, but because she represents America and she represents the values of America,” Ali said. “She represents what can be achieved by anyone in the United States regardless of their ethnic background or their faith if they’re willing to put in the work, time and to be dedicated to whatever they do.”