E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One

Aisha Sharif, poet

“Just, peaceful, joyful, grateful, inclusive, diverse, equitable, pluralistic, empathetic, compassionate, loving, welcoming, accepting, caring, understanding, respectful, connected, open-minded, and genuinely curious about others.” 

How would you like to envision our country to be for generations to come? The words above include some of the responses from participants who attended an event I organized in partnership with the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC). This description is aligned with America’s motto of E Pluribus Unum. 

Though “Out of many, one” may be the country’s motto, much remains to be actualized to make it a reality. One ought to reflect on how we may become united despite our differences and divisions across lines of color, creed, and class. I believe the answer lies in what Eboo Patel, Founder and President of the IFYC, deems “expanding the circle” – which is what each of us are called to do at this moment, given the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recession, and the racial justice uprising. Patel urges us to be “radical in our relationships” and become bridge builders to advance the intersectional, interfaith movement for justice in our communities. This is the kind of work I seek to do in the communities I am rooted in. Whether I am based in Los Angeles, Washington DC, or Kansas City, I remain committed to building bridges of mutual respect and understanding among people of different backgrounds. 

As part of the call to action, I urged the thirty participants who joined us for We Are Each Other's… A Conversation on Faith and Racial Justice, to translate their own faith and convictions into action by working for peace, equity, and justice in our communities. 

When I participated in the inaugural 2010 cohort of the IFYC Interfaith Leadership Institute held at Georgetown University, little did I know that I would continue to remain connected with the IFYC network no matter where life took me. In 2020, I became a recipient of the IFYC racial equity and interfaith cooperation award as part of the We Are Each Other’s Campaign. I had recently moved to the metropolitan Kansas City area and wanted to engage in interfaith and racial justice work through coalition building and uplifting the voices of multi-ethnic and Black/African American progressive leaders, scholars, and activists. 

As part of my IFYC project, I invited the poet Aisha Sharif to share one of her powerful poems with our audience of all different backgrounds. This poem, with layers of meaning intertwined in it, inspires us to reflect on topics of faith, race, justice, forgiveness, intersectionality, and more. The aim was for us to use this specific example of an unjust incident to have a deeper conversation on issues of faith and racial justice. 

To the White Boy Who Pulled Off My Hijab in 7th Grade Gym                       

Every morning you sat on those bleachers, 

dirty brown hair, Green Day t-shirt, 

ripped jeans, so desperate to screw 

your parents’ money.  Poor thing.  

You couldn’t accept Coach Bell yelling at you— 

change into gym shorts, bare your pretty pale legs, 

get in line, run faster, shoot straighter 

stop being a wimp— while I got to run 

in long sleeves, jump hurdles 

in sweat pants, sit out of flag football 

the whole month of Ramadan, 

got to pray in the principal’s office, 

read my Qur’an during study hall. 

I defied rules in plain sight.  In Latin class, 

I emerged as Artemis, virgin goddess 

of the hunt, sacred guard of chastity, 

bow and arrow in hand.  

I couldn’t be grasped.  Sometimes, 

I’d catch you leaning on the goal post, 

arms folded, staring green-eyed right at me. 

  

That Thursday, you decided to figure me out. 

Strolled pass me and my girlfriends on the mats 

and smiled.  You had a chipped tooth. 

I smiled back.  A white boy.  Never knew 

a white boy.   At the Islamic School, boys were black.  

They prayed in front, never talked to girls 

unless they were their sisters, and became men 

we’d grow to marry.   But not you— 

so MTV.  I laid my weapons down. 

You walked behind me, kneeled, 

and set your trap.  Pretended to tie your shoe, 

rose, then grabbed my shoulder.  I was caught. 

Placed your other hand on my head, 

snatched my hijab and ran.  I screamed 

as if someone had just cut me, 

placed my hands on my head 

to stop the bleeding.  

Turned to find you standing stiff,  

grin slowly leaving your face:  my hair, 

pulled into a simple ponytail, bare 

to all – black boys, white boys.  They were pointing, 

ooo-ing at what you revealed.  Me.  

Naked.  I couldn’t breathe.   

 

I ran for the locker room, ashamed, 

collapsed on the shower floor, crying.  

How could I leave 

when everyone had just seen me? 

The Qur’an says, Believers should lower their gaze. 

They should turn from the desire to see 

what shouldn’t be seen.   

I had wanted to see myself 

that entire year, turned away imaginings 

of my hair in your hand, skin 

a shade lighter than my own— 

a white boy, never knew a white boy.  

I tried to keep it under wraps.  

You couldn’t let me, could you? 

  

I wanted revenge like in the Prophet’s day:  

chase you down, grab you 

from behind, tear out your tongue, 

cut off your hands, blind your eyes. 

But what would my father say?  

Away on pilgrimage, he was begging 

forgiveness for what he had seen, pleading God 

forgive those men who, months before, 

let their rage blow up a tower in Manhattan.   

How could I be a believer 

and wish to see that kind of rage? 

I had to forgive you. 

  

After class, I walked out of the locker room 

arms over my head, make-shift scarf. 

Coach Bell handed me my hijab 

and sent us to the Vice Principal’s office 

where you confessed, said you didn’t know 

it was such a big deal.   You were suspended 

then paddled— repeatedly.  I didn’t stay to watch 

but heard you scream through the door, 

grasping hard your punishment. 

I wanted to turn and scream back, 

Stop!  He didn’t know what he was doing. 

But the door’s hard lines reminded me 

this was out of my control.  I couldn’t keep you 

from justice.   

Eboo Patel reminds us that our country is not a melting pot; instead, it is a potluck – in which each member has something unique to offer. One of the ways to make E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One a reality for our nation today and tomorrow is to work on challenging ourselves to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, expand our circles, build radically compassionate relationships, share our interfaith racial justice stories with one another, and continue to come together to build a more racially just society for all.

Saaliha Khan is a passionate bridge builder who seeks to bring people together to foster transformative change. Since 2010, she has experience in facilitating interfaith dialogue initiatives and community-building programs. Saaliha has worked with non-profit organizations in education, healthcare, and politics to advance racial, economic, and social justice through community organizing and advocacy. 

Saaliha is an Angeleno who resides in the greater Kansas City area with her husband, where she currently teaches Arabic to high schoolers. She studied Arabic, government, and justice & peace studies at Georgetown University and completed her master’s in public policy & management at Carnegie Mellon University. Twitter: @SaalihaKhan FB & Instagram: @SaalihaK 

 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.