By Ryan Chatelain
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When Ibtihaj Muhammad steps onto the fencing piste at the Rio Games next month, she will become the first U.S. athlete to ever wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics.
And in these times, with the Muslim faith a hot-button political topic, it’s no wonder that Muhammad, a native of Maplewood, New Jersey, is gaining considerable media attention.
However, Muslim activist Linda Sarsour says she wants Americans not to lose sight of one thing: Muhammad is “not representing Muslim Americans. She’s a Muslim representing the United States of America.”
But clearly both Muhammad and Sarsour fully recognize that the timing of the fencer’s arrival on the worldwide stage intersecting with a crescendo of anti-Muslim rhetoric is an opportunity to dispel stereotypes some Americans might have about the Islamic community.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re in this moment, especially during the presidential election, where people feel so comfortable voicing their dislike or the discontent for people of a particular background, a particular race or a particular religion,” Muhammad told reporters in April. “We as Americans have to fight that, because that goes against the very values that we stand for.
“I feel like I’m in this position and I have to use it, and I want to use it well. I don’t want to waste my time as an athlete. I want to reach as many people as I can, just not with my skills within my sport but also with my voice,” added Muhammad, who took up fencing at age 13 because it allowed her to compete in a sport while remaining fully covered, adhering to the tenets of her faith.
Since qualifying for the Olympics, Muhammad’s celebrity has soared. She gave a fencing lesson to first lady Michelle Obama in Times Square, was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and appeared as a guest on “Ellen.”
Those who know Muhammad, 30, say she is an ideal de-facto ambassador for Muslim Americans, someone whose smiling face, intelligence and backstory can potentially leave a lasting impression on those who may have otherwise been quick to associate Muslims with violence.
Peter Westbrook, the 1984 bronze medalist and founder and namesake of the foundation where Muhammad learned to fence as a teen and now teaches, said the Columbia High School state champion and Duke University All-American was “born for this.”
“In this situation, you’re able to be a beacon of light — a beacon of light to Muslims, a beacon of light to people in this country to see there’s a lot of great Muslim women,” Westbrook said.
Added Sarsour: “At a time when the majority of stories about Muslims are connected to terrorism and the vilification of Islam, in our communities to have that ray of sunlight — she demystifies many stereotypes at a time when we need her to do that.”
And as Muhammad reminds people, she, like more than 1 million other Muslims, was born and raised in the United States.
“America is all that I know,” she said. “I feel American down to my bones. For anyone to challenge that idea that I’m not American or that I don’t belong, it’s frustrating.”
There have been times when Muhammad has used social media to expose the struggles Muslims face living in the United States. In March, she tweeted that she was asked to remove her hijab for her photo on an ID badge at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
And in April, she posted a photo of a man in Manhattan who she says asked her if she was planning to blow something up.
Meanwhile, Muhammad, who has her own fashion line selling contemporary, modest clothing, is also serving as a role model for young Muslim women. Last week, Sarsour attended a White House function with Muhammad and saw first-hand how much those women, about 18 to 30 years old, were in awe of the Olympian as they lined up for photos with her.
“She kind of reinstills that hope in us, reinstills that we can still be who we want to be and accomplish many things, even at a time when we think all the odds are against us,” Sarsour said.
Of course, there’s more to Muhammad’s trip to Rio than the symbolism. She’s hoping to return home with a medal in her discipline of sabre.
It’s a goal Westbrook says is within her reach. He said she’s medaled at competitions this year that are actually more challenging than the Olympics because other powerhouse countries can send more than three representatives to them.
“But the pressure and stress of the Olympic Games is more,” Westbrook said. “Can you deal with that type of insurmountable stress and perform? I think she can because she’s done it in a harder arena, and she showed us when the pressure’s on, she still can rise up to be the cream of the crop.”
If Muhammad wins a medal — more specifically a gold medal — it would be an iconic moment, Sarsour said.
“I would love to see a picture of Ibtihaj Muhammad holding up a gold medal, winning on behalf of the United States of America in a hijab in 2016,” said Sarsour, executive director of the Arab Association of New York. “That would be one of the most historic images … in the context of what it means to be a Muslim in 2016. That would be a story told for generations to come, that in the midst of an election where those running for the highest office are talking about ban the Muslims, register the Muslims, deport the Muslims, give them religious tests, and amidst that, a young African-American Muslim woman in a hijab holds up a medal winning on behalf of her country, the United States of America. That would be one of those pictures that we would see 50 years from now.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RyanChatelain