Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new photography exhibit shows that being Muslim and being American are not mutually exclusive.
In November, a New York City man was caught on camera ranting against an Arab Uber driver. “You’re a loser. You’re not even from here,” he yelled, punctuating his tirade with expletives and the word “terrorist.” In January, a Trump supporter in Elizabethtown, New York, told NPR: "I feel that if a Muslim woman wants to move into this country, she needs to leave her towel home.” Last week, a Kansas man shot at two Indians at a bar after allegedly shouting, ”Get out of my country.” Apparently, he thought they were Iranian.
This hate crime, ignorant statement, and racist rant all have one thing in common: they assume that Muslims are un-American—at best, strange outsiders; at worst, existential threats. But photographs of Muslim New Yorkers displayed in a new installation at the Museum of the City of New York subvert that notion. The collection includes images by the photographers Alexander Alland, Ed Grazda, Mel Rosenthal, and Robert Gerhardt, who captured the lives of Muslims in the city in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Listening to the political rhetoric today, you wouldn’t know that Muslims were in America long before it was even called “America.” They arrived as slaves in the 16th century (although some accounts go even farther back). In subsequent centuries, they have become a part of the fabric of American society and culture. They’ve built iconic skyscrapers, started billion-dollar business empires from scratch, spearheaded life-saving medical innovations, and released rap albums, among other things. Peter Manseau, author of One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, writes in The New York Times:
Islam is part of our common history—a resilient faith not just of the enslaved, but of Arab immigrants in the late 19th century, and in the 20th century of many African-Americans reclaiming and remaking it as their own. For generations, its adherents have straddled a nation that jolts from promises of religious freedom to events that give the lie to those promises.
In a sense, Islam is as American as the rodeo. It, too, was imported, but is now undeniably part of the culture.
New York City today has one of the the largest Muslim populations in the country. It was home to Muslims as early as the 17th century. With subsequent waves of immigration, this population accrued a critical mass. In the 19th century, enclaves like Little Syria emerged in Lower Manhattan, bustling with traders and artists. Later, Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Albanians claimed a place for themselves in parts of Harlem and Brooklyn, opening up restaurants and corner stores. The presence of the Nation of Islam grew in the city starting in the 1930s.
The city is also, of course, the site of the 9/11 attacks, after which the country’s perception of Muslims shifted. Policies, political rhetoric, and media narratives reinforced stereotypes of Muslims as a primitive, hostile, and monolithic race. Hate crimes peaked after the incident, and recently have climbed back up almost all the way. Studies have shown that many Americans openly consider Muslims to be less than human.
This installation is a reminder of the humanity of this population—and that being Muslim and American aren’t mutually exclusive. The images capture quotidian, even mundane, scenes: police officers pray, school girls play with video cameras, Halal guy push their carts, students pose for graduation photos, kids play basketball. These are just regular people doing regular things, and they happen to be Muslim.
The exhibition runs through July 30, 2017. Check out some of the photographs below: