Shayan Bawaney: Ending the War with My Identity

I grew used to it. Growing up in a Post 9/11 America, I watched numerous violent terrorists claiming to be the same religion as me all over the media, Arabic speaking “bad guys” in movies, and too many random checks at the airport. Despite my awareness and exposure, I still remember watching the news as a kid and hoping the latest shooting or attack wasn’t orchestrated by a Muslim so I wouldn’t be faced with questions at school the next day.

My first personal encounter with prejudice began in elementary school where a close friend of mine began calling me a terrorist among other names. I was eleven years old. It carried into middle school where it only got worse. “Hey bro is that a bomb in your backpack?!” “Haha is Osama Bin Laden your dad?” “You’re Muslim?! Does that mean you blow things up?”
These comments were made almost every time I mentioned my faith and after a while, I became unphased by them. I was used to it. I began laughing along with my friends at these jokes and ignored the negative image of my religion they portrayed. Instead of educating my peers, I stayed silent and allowed this tattered image of Islam spread.


When I moved to a new high school before freshman year, I decided I wasn’t going to tell people that I was a Muslim. I decided to deny my true identity. Fitting into high school was going to be hard enough being the new kid, much less being so different. As a practicing Muslim, there were some things I just couldn’t do I would always make up excuses instead of making my faith clear. I wasn’t willing to let anyone get to know the real me. This ultimately led to me alienating myself from my peers and I spent my entire freshman year alone, with no close friends.


The summer after my freshman year, everything changed. My dad signed me up for a Muslim Youth of North America (MYNA) week-long summer camp. I did not want to go. It was my last week of summer and the last place I wanted to be was some Islamic camp. The only reason I was remotely excited for that camp was because I had just gotten into photography and the campsite was beautiful with a clear view of the Golden Gate Bridge. While the views were undeniably breathtaking, it became evidently clear that they failed to compare to the words and lessons of the camp which left me more speechless than any picture ever could.


This MYNA camp (along with the next 8 and counting camps I attended after that) showed me the beauty of my religion. Yes, I had knowledge about the Quran and Sunnah from my parents and Sunday School but I always thought of it as just that: facts I needed to memorize. In one week, this camp showed me more than I had known in the last 15 years of my life. I learned how to apply the knowledge I learn, how practical my religion truly was, and most of all learned to become confident in my true identity.


After MYNA, my mindset shifted and I decided to no longer hide this side of me. I wanted to become a walking example of how beautiful my religion was. Three years later, I am now on the national committee for the organization, helping it grow and change lives just as it changed mine.
As high school went on, the more confident I became in my faith and subsequently, my identity. I began to openly talk about Islam and make it clear what my values were. I used every opportunity I could get to clear up any misconceptions people had about my religion. This always led to more questions and amazing discussions. I was fascinated by how curious people were about Islam. Some had truly never seen it beyond their TV screens and were shocked at how similar our beliefs were. People around me were so comfortable with it that my non-Muslim friends would sometimes even remind me to pray Salah when we were out together.

By the end of my senior year, I was no longer an alien and neither was my faith. I saw support in ways I never could have imagined just because I became confident in who I was. More and more opportunities came my way and in the last month of high school, I was asked to give the graduation speech to my senior class, and I did so while fasting in the month of Ramadan.


Throughout my teen years, my identity has evolved in a way I would have never thought possible. A part of me I once hid at all costs has become what I am the happiest with today. By working with organizations such as MYNA and MSA, I hope to empower young minds across the United States to embrace their faith the way I was able to. I love my religion and my faith. I am proud to be a Muslim. I am proud to be an American.These parts of my identity that were once at war with each other now peacefully coexist, inspiring me to strike change in the heart of Muslim youth all across the country.