In a post-9/11 world, Islam and Muslims are the hottest topic that every “intellectual” wants to discuss. Everyone has an opinion, each pulling from their own political theories and vested interests to prove that Muslims and Islam are either good or evil. The jury yells amongst itself, fighting for, or against, our sentence, and we, standing as prisoners at the bar of the courtroom, are unable to plead our innocence; when we speak, we are never given as much attention or taken as seriously as when an “intellectual” speaks for us.

As such, there are preconceived notions about who a Muslim is and how they should act — Muslim women are oppressed and cannot think for themselves; Muslim men are angry terrorists who want to take over with Sharia law. When a Muslim acts in accordance with these stereotypes, they are used as proof by the Islamophobes to support their ignorant arguments. When a Muslim does not live by these molded personas, they are considered to be making a political statement by breaking the status quo.

For example, when a Muslim does a mundane action, it has deeper connotation and meaning than if anyone else were to do it.  If a Muslim woman gets an education, or has a successful career — something that can be expected from any Canadian — she is not only following a regular life path, but also proving herself against the stereotype that Muslim women do not have agency over their own lives. If a Non-Muslim woman gets an education, however, she is just going to school.

When there are atrocities committed around the world in the name of Islam and we speak against them, we are put under the spotlight. People everywhere use us as an example that not all Muslims are evil. If a person of a different identity were to speak against the same violence, it would not mean anything other than the fact that a human being is outraged for violence against another human being.  Our humanity is doubted so much that we are expected, needed, to prove that we do not support the brutal torture and oppression of innocent people. Nothing we do or say can simply be interpreted at face-value; it is always more profound and politicized if a Muslim does it.

In this way, our identity becomes a blanket over our words and actions. Everything we, as politicized people, do is tainted, viewed through the lens of our identity. If we speak in a discussion, the Muslim is expressing their opinion through their Islam, but Becky just made an innocuous comment.

This is problematic because our every success and every failure is given deeper meaning. If a hijab-wearing Muslim woman is successful in her career, whether it be as an athlete, a researcher, or a journalist, her community excessively praises her for being “a Muslim woman who is successful in X!”, supporters and allies quote her as an example of the humanness of Muslim women. Essentially, the work she produced, the effort she put in, and the nature of the work itself will be overlooked.

When our identities are politicized, it means that everything we do or say becomes an argument for or against someone’s agenda. Our personal efforts, our ideas, and the work that we produce and put forth matters less than the fact that we, a politicized people, are doing them. We are assigned stereotypes and expected to abide by them; when we do embody the stereotypes – when there are Muslim women who are oppressed, Muslim men who are angry – then it’s see, we were right, this is what Muslims are like! If we do not, which is true for the vast majority of instances, then it’s look, a Muslim proving the Islamophobes wrong! Our every action, every word, every step becomes a political statement, proving someone wrong, someone else right, proving ourselves worthy or unworthy.

How can we reclaim our narrative? There is no definitive answer to this question, but we need to begin to live with the awareness of the politicization of our identities so that we do not become complicit in the “I’m not your stereotypical Muslim, I’m different and empowered” narrative. How can we take action to change the dominant narrative about Muslims, so that our actions are only representative of us as individuals, not millions of other people?

At the same time, we should acknowledge we are not completely autonomous either. If we identify as Muslims, we are part of a bigger ummah, and this is personified by the analogy of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) of Muslims being a single body. We do have a responsibility to represent Islam through our actions as a form of dawah, but this must be on our own terms, not based on labels assigned to us.  Canada prides itself on being a cultural mosaic, allowing for individuality and diversity to thrive despite our unity as Canadians. Similarly, we must acknowledge that as Muslims, though we are united in our deen, we are also unique, complex individuals. More importantly, we are “Muslims” in the true definition of the word: those that submit to Allah, not whatever definition of the day caters to someone’s political agenda.