Amani Al-Khatahtbeh was in the 4th grade at Bowne-Munro Elementary School in East Brunswick when the news broke that two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. After that tragic day, she tried to hide her Muslim identity. But after visiting Jordan, where her family is from, she gained a renewed sense of pride in her heritage and felt a need to be a voice for her faith.
New Jersey Monthly: What is the most troubling stereotype about Muslims?
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh: The correlation between Muslims and terrorism. There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. To put that into perspective, there are 2.2 billion Christians, and to categorize them all as one stereotype would be offensive and ridiculous. But Western media has managed to make Muslims one homogeneous group, disintegrating our individuality. This rhetoric we have to endure has a harmful effect on us as we navigate our lives day to day and leads to horrific policies that allow government to be capable of talking about a Muslim registry.
NJM: What inspired you to launch your website?
AAK: What I was seeing in the news and learning in the classroom were inaccurate, and if I’m in the room, I feel it is my responsibility to speak up. I stood up to a teacher once and he dismissed me, even when I came in with research to back up my point. Young minds are impressionable, and I wanted to provide an alternative perspective.
NJM: How have those outside the Muslim community responded to your site?
AAK: Muslimgirl.com helps humanize Muslims. I hate that I even have to say that. It’s a testament to how far we’ve been disconnected from society. One mother who is Hindu told me she prints out an article each day from the website and reads it with her daughter at night as a self-esteem building exercise. Women of color, regardless of religion, face similar issues.
NJM: Would you say the experience growing up a Muslim in New Jersey is different from other states?
AAK: Living here is safer. However, I still felt like a lone voice and experienced prejudices. After my trip to Jordan at the age of 13, I decided to start wearing a headscarf. Across the street from my middle school, a police officer looked at me and asked my mom if we speak English. It wasn’t until I got to Rutgers that I met many other Muslims who I could bond with.
NJM: You do a lot of public speaking. What messages do you share?
AAK: One of the things I speak about is my name and the pressure I felt to Americanize it. I was on the track team, and my last name was too long to fit on the back of my shirt, so I figured out an “American” way to spell it. The principal’s secretary called me out on it—said I should be proud of my name and every letter in it. That changed how I thought about it. This anecdote reinforces my message to be true to oneself, which has led me to publish a best-selling book with my full name on the cover, in all its glory.
NJM: What would you like readers to get from your new book?
AAK: My goal is to make a feminist statement—shatter stereotypes, open minds, and impact our generation. For Muslim girls, they may see themselves in the stories I’ve written. I hope the next generation will not have to endure what we went through.