Ibtihaj Muhammad is one of the best fencers in the world. That makes her unusual. When she rips off her mask to celebrate a victory, you see the hijab she wears underneath. That makes her unique.
Muhammad is from Maplewood, New Jersey. She trains in Manhattan, and is ranked seventh in the world in saber. Last weekend she became an Olympian, qualifying to compete in Brazil this summer. When she steps on the mat, she’ll be the first Muslim American to participate in the Summer Games in a hijab, the head scarf some Muslim women wear in public.
Her athletic accomplishments are impressive. But her greater contribution might be in helping to redefine what it means to be a Muslim in America, and beyond. It’s an important addition to a conversation that has been ugly, fueled by fears of radical Islamic terrorism and a nasty Republican presidential race.
Muhammad, 30, is one of several women literally putting a different face on the conversation, one that defies simplistic labels. She wears her faith for all to see, but on the mat she’s a fencer.
“When most people picture an Olympic fencer, they probably do not imagine a person like me,” she writes on her USA Fencing Web page. As an African-American and a Muslim, she understands the power of her visual presence.
“I want to compete in the Olympics for the United States to prove that nothing should hinder anyone from reaching their goals — not race, religion or gender,” she says. “I want to set an example that anything is possible with perseverance.”
That’s what it will take to reframe the conversation. Last month, a 56-year-old Muslim woman wearing a hijab was escorted out of a Donald Trump rally in South Carolina after simply standing in silent protest as he spoke. His supporters roared as she was led out. Trump, who has called for banning all Muslims from entering the United States, told the crowd, “There is hatred against us that is unbelievable. It’s their hatred, not our hatred.”
That contention, patently absurd in its broad-brush condemnation, visibly crumbles in the face of Muhammad, whose dream is to participate in the world’s biggest athletic festival — as a representative of her country. As she puts it, “I have always believed that . . . I could one day walk with my U.S. teammates into Olympic history.”
There are others. Like Noor Tagouri, 22, a Libyan-American journalist from Maryland, who does radio and community television work and wants to be the first hijab-wearing anchor on U.S. commercial television.
Like Amna Al Haddad, 26, a weightlifter who moved to Ohio from the United Arab Emirates to train, one of a growing number of women competing in the ancient sport while wearing a hijab.
Like Stephanie Kurlow, a 14-year-old Muslim dancer from Australia, who has started a crowdfunding campaign to help her achieve her goal of becoming the world’s first professional hijabi ballerina.
Like Kadra Mohamed, a young Somali-American police officer who wears a hijab on patrol in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Like countless Muslim doctors, teachers, soldiers and others, these women help fill out the Muslim stick figure just as we do without thinking for Christians, for example, and just as we must learn to do with all groups.
President Barack Obama took aim at anti-Muslim bigotry in his visit last week to a Baltimore mosque. Attacking one faith is an attack on all faiths, he said, and he warned against being “bystanders to bigotry.” The admonishment was strong. But sometimes images do speak louder than words.
Imagine the scene in Rio de Janeiro if it’s Muhammad on a medal stand as cheers of “USA! USA! USA!” rain down upon her.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.