Ibtihaj Muhammad. You could be seeing her name a lot in the coming months.
Muhammad is a member of the US national fencing team. Already a gold-medal winner at international tournaments, she will be competing in this summer’s Rio Olympics, and hopes to win a medal in sabre.
This picture helps explain why she’s not just another Olympian . . .
That scarf covering her head, my friends, is a hijab. Muhammad is Muslim, and in accordance with her faith wears a hijab at all times (except when confronted by ignorant conference security personnel), even when competing; the fact that fencers are completely covered in safety equipment, making the hijab neither a hindrance nor distraction, is actually one of the reasons fencing initially appealed to her. And this slender Muslim woman, with the thousand-kilowatt smile and fierce competitive desire, will be the first American to compete at the Olympics wearing a hijab — and will likely find herself in the middle of a volatile national conversation.
The United States of America is about to have a fierce, ugly, potentially violent debate about Islam. It will be sadly similar to our past battles over civil rights, communism, and slavery. A response to the massacres at San Bernardino and Fort Hood will be demanded, and the First Amendment of the Constitution will be recited like an ineffectual spell cast against our fears. The person who is likely to become one of just two people with any realistic chance at becoming our Commander in Chief next January has already advocated, without feeling the need for apology, a national register of Muslim Americans and closing our borders to Muslim visitors. We will be reminded of the time United States citizens were imprisoned for the crime of their ancestry, and argue over whether our government was right to apologize forty years later for that act. We will re-learn the definition of habeus corpus while recalling how The Great Emancipator rescinded that right.
And more than once, as our national political conventions close and we turn our attentioned towards the Rio Olympics, Muhammad will likely be asked to remove her hijab, for some bogus reason. We respect your religious practices, but . . . just don’t wear the hijab when you’re competing, or during performances of the Star Spangled Banner. It will prove your loyalty, demonstrate you’re not a threat, show respect for the victims of terrorism. It’s for the good of your religion, and your country — it’s just the right thing to do.
Don’t think those arguments are going to win her over:
I’ve never questioned myself as an American and my position here. This is my home. This is who I am. My family has always been here. We’re American by birth, and it’s a part of who I am and this is all that I know. So when I hear someone say something like, “We’re going to send Muslims back to their country,” it’s like, “Well, where am I going to go? I’m an American.”
Sabre fencers don’t defend, they attack, and I expect Ibtihaj Muhammad will confront our national fear of Islam like the sabre fencer she is. She’ll respond to pleas for “doing the right thing” with two quick steps forward, closing within striking distance before her inquisitors realize she’s even moved, slicing with her silver-thin blade straight to the head (in sabre, hitting the head is not only valid but expected and, judging by the reaction of most sabrists I know, welcomed) and striking with the fury of justice. And I also expect that she, in accordance with section t.87.3.a of the USA Fencing rulebook, will follow each of her upcoming bouts against fear, ignorance and hatred, by stepping back, taking off her mask, and saluting her opponent . . .
And flashing that thousand-kilowatt smile from beneath her red-white-and-blue hijab.