Aisha Anwar and Layla Qoran spent much of this semester hearing the stories of Muslims across North Carolina and how they express their faith in their daily lives. The stories they found were complex, inspiring, and represented the incredible diversity of Islam. The project culminated in a multi-media exhibit in the Carolina Union: Passion in Practice.
I spoke to Aisha and Layla about their exhibit, love for the Muslim Students Association, and how non-Muslim students can support the Muslim community.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Siren: There were a lot of ways different people responded to these murders: essays, writing letters… Why did you feel moved to do this project?
Layla: Our first interview was the day before the shooting, and when we started it, really in January, in terms of collecting people and thinking of people to interview, we weren’t at first responding to anything. We did it last year, we had a lot of good feedback… so we wanted to do it again.
Aisha: So in a way we were responding to the good feedback that we got from our first installment, but you also can’t ignore that at this moment there are negative portrayals of Muslims in the media. This inevitably becomes a response to that even though our first installment wasn’t driven by othering depictions . We weren’t trying to counter those narratives. We were just trying to present an embodiment of Islam.
Aisha: One thing we were constantly revisiting in our project that we’re not looking to defend it, we’re not here to counter these other narratives, we’re just here to present our own interest and curiosity in a way that can hopefully intrigue people and get them to think.
Siren: So you started on this new one and then this tragedy occurred. How did this tragedy shift the way you did these interviews and approached the project?
Layla: It’s interesting. We did an interview the morning of the shooting and we went and interviewed Krista Bremer, who is an author. We went to Flyleaf Books, it was just a normal day, and then later that night the shooting happened. I was just shocked for a few days after – it didn’t settle with me. But once we were able to meet again and talk about it more we knew we had to find a way to honor Deah, Yusor, and Razan. We tried to do that in our exhibit. Me, I’ve tried to deal with everything in my life through art, and I’ll write on my own. So this was a way for me to deal with everything too and just having a Muslim community on campus was extremely vital for me. If anyone was the only Muslim on campus and dealing with this it would have been extremely difficult.
Aisha: There was a way in which the community felt really big and really small at the same time – it was very weird. I do a lot of journaling and my research often takes an angle through photography. And this was an expression of that. I remember Krista’s interview from that morning; something she mentioned about tragedy that she had faced in her life – she was talking about the death of a relative, or the murder of a relative – and she was talking about the way in which we aren’t necessarily able to connect to humanity across the world as when we’re in proximity to it. That was still echoing in my head later on that day and continued to after we heard about what happened. This exhibit and the memory of their death became a way to connect humanity across the world, and I hope it achieved that.
Layla: There were people all over the world that heard about it. Obviously it reached global media and there are people all over the world just trying to do something in honor of them. So this is-
Aisha: This feeds their legacy in the way, I think.
Siren: When something like this happens it’s like, how do you memorialize people as more than just what happened to them. The project did that, I think, letting their lives speak for themselves. How did you find the people to interview for this project?
Layla: You know certain people already, they suggest other people. We had to travel a lot, we went to Charlotte. Everyone else was from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, so we did interviews there. There was one weekend when we did seven or eight interviews in one day- when we went to Charlotte. It was fun.
Aisha: All over Charlotte, every other hour!
Layla: I loved meeting all the people, I wouldn’t have met them otherwise.
Aisha: Whenever I think back to it there’s a way in which while talking to these people it [the murders] was always in the back of their head – everyone knew. And also, talking to them and getting to meet them and learn about the amazing things that they were doing also healed my soul. To be able to talk to them and learn about what they do gave me hope. It was beautiful in that way, there are people who are doing just fantastic things and are really dedicated to our community.
Siren: Were there any things people said in the interviews that surprised you or challenged your assumptions about the North Carolina Muslim community?
Aisha: It surprised us definitely. Every time it was like, “Wait! This person is right here and we didn’t even know, they live right around the corner!” They definitely surprised us. We were searching for a certain complexity and these people, they really tap into that on a daily basis with their representation of Islam, their understanding, and the way they embody it every day.
Layla: [We interviewed] Shamira, who is the MSA president, and she had this idea of a kaleidoscope, how Islam, you look through it and you see so many different ways of how people practice it and how they conceptualize it. What they think of Islam. e had Manzoor Cheema, from Muslims for Social Justice and he was talking about the ways that Islam can be interpreted to build solidarity with other movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights and we have people like Krista Bremer who didn’t grow up Muslim but converted and writes about it and she has a book called My Accidental Jihad that she published. Islam is not, and religion shouldn’t be, this rigid system where you’re just like…wake up, pray, fast, go to sleep.
Aisha: It’s an active part of your identity.
Layla: Yeah, it’s not just something that you check off a list- that’s something that we also saw.
Siren: How can non-Muslim students better support Muslims students and faculty at UNC? And the Muslim community at large.
Layla: We had an interview with Nadeem Iqbal, a community member from Cary and he was saying something that resonated with me: a lot of other groups have dealt with this in American history, you know Italians, Jews, the Irish have all dealt with some kind of discrimination. And from what I’ve studied in media classes those groups have had to struggle against that and one way they’ve done that is through the media. On one hand I think that Muslims shouldn’t constantly be saying “we’re not this” and “we’re not that,” but I think there are a lot of ways that Muslims are showing their real religion and people just need to open their eyes to that.
There are all these Muslims on campus, it’s not that difficult to go out and introduce yourself and say “hi” to someone that’s Muslim in one of your classes, to go to Jumu’ah which is one of the Friday prayers, non-Muslims are welcome to come to those, to come to an MSA (Muslim Students Association) meeting. We’re so bombarded with negativity through portrayals of Muslims through the media and film industry. Any chance a non-Muslim can try to educate themselves and see what’s going on, especially while you’re on a university campus, not only for learning about Muslims, but for learning about other groups. This is your chance to do it! Maybe you won’t have the opportunity to do that in the workforce, this is an opportunity to learn about Muslims through speaking to a Muslim or going to any MSA event, events happen every week.
Aisha: The reason Layla and I really love working in these two mediums is that they capture very directly the essence of humanity – you can just see people doing their thing and connect to them that way. We had a speaker named Wajahat Ali come recently who was saying that there’s this extreme oppression against a number of people, but they’ve been able to tap into these things, like theater and media. They’ve been able to take back the narrative and represent themselves. As someone who loves working with a camera and writing, I wanted to stress that those two can be used to not necessarily defend, but to represent certain things implicitly. They’re really good ways to connect people and humanity. Those mediums are being used by people right now to do that.
A lot of UNC students, in general are in proximity to a diverse group of people. And that’s a prime opportunity to get in touch with people and learn about different groups of people and their struggles. It can be as simple as following one person on Facebook who you know is dedicated to their identity and to the struggles that that identity faces, or actually going on campus and finding out about events and making sure that you’re not just treating people like they’re on the sidelines of your campus, but that they’re really part of it. Make a point of going to those events. College is not just about attending classes – yes, you can learn a lot by sitting in a classroom and listening to a professor, but you have the opportunity to be a very active learner. I urge all UNC students and all students across campuses across the U.S. to do that, to be an active learner.
Siren: What advice would you give to a young Muslim woman who is thinking about applying to UNC or is starting in the fall?
Layla: This is how I view any Muslim student coming in anywhere: we have all these events with MSA, we have all these events and opportunities to meet Muslims, but I think that someone should explore their religious path the way they choose. For a young Muslim woman, particularly one who wears the hijab, you may face certain difficulties. I can’t really speak on this because I don’t wear the hijab, but you may face certain struggles, just from hearing from my friends that have dealt with certain things on campus. Just know that there’s a community that supports you and that includes non-Muslims as well. But at the same time, in terms of religion, however someone wants to explore their religion is up to them, they don’t have to attend MSA meetings or do certain things to be Muslim.
Aisha: I would address the general incoming first years from an academic standpoint in saying that – a lot of students come in just knowing that they, maybe, want to become a doctor. I see some of our peers wanting to do science and math and that’s great, but as someone who advocates for the humanities, I say, when you come in, let that go for your first year, or first semester: explore. Try to find a person from each major if you can, whether they’re Muslim or not. Just explore as much as you can – learn about the different things that you would be able to learn in those majors and fields. Try to find the ways in which you can contribute to and represent in those different areas.
I found that I really like to write, and I want to work in that way to make sure that my narrative is present. I’m really honored that Siren magazine is interviewing us because when I first came across it last year, I was super excited, but I also realized very quickly that the Muslim female voice wasn’t there. I also knew that it would be up to me or writers, or others like me that are interest in putting that voice forward to make it present. You have to carry the mantle and do it yourself. How long are you going to wait for someone to come up to you? For a female Muslim, it’s sort of the same – making sure that you can find a way to represent because you really have a golden opportunity to do so. That can be on a variety of scenes – it doesn’t have to be publically in a paper, it can be small projects in your classes or amongst your peers. It is a reality that someone who is visibly Muslim will face struggles, but I’d also encourage them not to feel hopeless, they have a community of supporters.
Layla: I’d definitely echo exploring other ways to express yourself in terms of film, photography, writing… There’s a balance between like waiting for people to ask you and putting yourself out there.
Aisha: A lot of people do this, people come in and find “their people” per say, whether that’s major wise or ethnicity wise and they cling to that community. I understand that completely. I do that myself, but find a way to break away from that and make friends with other people. Explore other communities because it’s so important.
Siren: When you come back to UNC in five or ten years what would you like to see? What would a non-oppressive, healthy UNC look like to you?
Layla: I think when things happen at UNC they’re reflective of UNC. When things [happen] towards students, negative things or positive things, on campus, it’s reflective of societal patterns. I think if I come back to UNC I’d like to see a campus where all voices are heard equally, where one voice isn’t equated to be more important than anybody else. I want that to be reflected in society as a whole. Obviously right now that’s definitely not the case. There are some voices that are seen as more important. There are voices that are characterized in certain ways –
Aisha: As “defensive” or not…
Layla: Yeah, and I think that the day that we can see everyone’s voice is looked at with an equal value. I hope to come back to a UNC that can be like that, and I want that to be reflected in society as a whole. I don’t want UNC to be this bubble of something positive whereas everything around it is not characteristic of it.
Aisha: So coming at it from what I want to see for my Muslim community at UNC, I want to see more people in the Arts writing and doing photography. I want to see two or three people at the DTH that can represent that way. And I want people to care more, I want people to make the parallels between different struggles and connect humanity across the world. I want people to be aware of the different things that are happening and not fleetingly be like “oh, that’s sad.” Because a lot of people do that, and I know that as humans we can only care about so many things at once, but if you can make the parallels between different things – that is a huge thing for me. So like, the Black struggle being connected to the Palestine struggle. From an academic standpoint – it’s incredible to learn about the fact that there are comic books like March being created to explain the Black struggle in America that are then being used in Palestine to teach civil disobedience. That is the way this world works and that is beautiful and amazing. I want people to see these connections and that’s one reason I advocate for the humanities because taking a global studies class or humanities class can be illuminating. Take one class, take Global 210. I want every student to be required to take Global 210 because it will open your eyes. That class is all about connecting struggles across the world and seeing how related they are. And it’s so important because that’s the moment where you can sit down and say, I know that my community is struggling with this but this is not isolated and we don’t have to self-isolate. We can find a way to connect to others on this very specific struggle that is very specific to our community but also relevant to other communitites. You can’t mush all struggles together – recognize that – but also know that the struggle is the same in a way too.
Layla: There are all these things about colonialism and imperialism that don’t just affect a certain group of people. There’s a history of colonialism and imperialism, the idea of an empire all over the world and that has historically influence certain groups, especially people of color. What’s happening in Palestine, you can’t just say, we’re suffering so much at the hands of Israel, it’s all about this idea that one group is better than the other and deserves more than the other and that goes not only with the idea of taking land but also with voices and how one voice is seen as more important than the other.
Aisha: I don’t want people to be afraid to talk about race. I feel like even here with the way that we’ve been brought up in the U.S., we’ve learned to talk around the problem a lot and de-racialize issues. Some people feel like they have to de-racialize an issue that is deeply rooted in race before they can enter and feel like they have a right to speak on it. I feel like everyone needs to understand that there are certain things that are just deeply rooted in race issues, and they have to be able to walk into that and talk about it in a nuanced manner. I want more constructive conversation on campus.