Amid N.Y. inquiry, Muslims try to counter stereotypes

Young Pakistanis in Mass. face curiosity, racism

By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / May 16, 2010

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WAYLAND — Noorjehan Khan is a regular teenager. The 18-year-old loves music and has been busy with finals and club activities at Northeastern University, where she just wrapped up her freshman year.

She is also a Muslim of Pakistani descent, and she would like to be able to say so without people asking her about terrorism or whether she is related to one of the men arrested by federal agents on Thursday in Watertown and Brookline. (She is not.)

“People are often like, ‘Where are you from?’ and I’m like, ‘Boxborough,’ ’’ she said. “I’m kind of glad I’m out of school at this point, so that I don’t have to deal with questions from students and other peers, which I know sometimes can be well intentioned, but it’s a lot. I didn’t ask to be the representative for my entire nation.’’

Noorjehan Khan is the daughter of Malik Khan, president of the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, which commemorated its 30th anniversary yesterday with an open house and an invitation for anyone to come by and ask questions about Islam. The open house was planned before the attempted bombing in Times Square in New York City.

“The most important thing at this juncture for people to understand is it’s a peaceful religion,’’ Malik Khan said. “Islam means ‘peace and submission.’ So the basic message of Islam is peace, recognition of the diversity that exists in it, and live and let live.’’

Still, Malik Khan said, it can be tough to deal with the negatives.

“Just like all communities in the world, Islam has people who you would call nut cases,’’ he said. “But the vast majority of people, they take their religion seriously.’’

John Penrose, 48, of Wayland, visited the Islamic Center yesterday with his wife and two children. His daughter is studying in the Middle East next year for school and is seeking Arabic lessons.

“I feel like we have a pretty good understanding’’ of Islam, he said. “But I think you can always learn more. This is a helpful event.’’

Noorjehan Khan said she is used to curiosity from friends, who ask her all the time about terrorism, problems in Pakistan, and the rules of her religion. She was not, however, ready for what happened when she arrived at Northeastern in the fall, where she eventually learned that one of her roommates was referring to her as “towelhead’’ behind her back. Then, one time, the roommate said it to her face.

“A part of me had been like, ‘People aren’t really that racist,’’ and then I got to school and was like, ‘Oh my God, they are,’’ she said. “That was especially hard for me.’’

Her childhood friend Beejul Khatri, also 18, has faced bigotry, too. Khatri, who plays the double bass, was loading music equipment into a van after a concert in Cambridge recently when someone drove by, hurled a glass bottle at him, and yelled racial epithets.

“Music, I feel, is something that connects people at a level that’s above all that drama, all the politics. So when stuff like that happens, it’s a real downer,’’ Khatri said.

About 500,000 people of Pakistani descent, including children born to Pakistani immigrants and those who come here for college, live in the United States, according to Pakistan’s embassy in Washington.

As she interacted with visitors yesterday, Noorjehan Khan said she wants people to understand that while Islam is a very important part of her life, it is not all that she is.

“I am a Muslim, but it’s not the only thing that identifies me,’’ she said. “You can be a Muslim and also be an artist. You can be a Muslim and also be a student. You can be all these other things at the same time.’’

Globe correspondent Maria Chutchian contributed to this report. John M. Guilfoil can be reached at

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