Muslim Identity on U-M Campus: Abraham Ahmed Mustafa Achachi Matsui
On February 18, Ping Chong+Company brings the interview-based theater work Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity to Ann Arbor.
This interview-based theater production, part of Chong’s 25-year series entitled Undesirable Elements, explores the diverse experiences of young Muslim New Yorkers who came of age in post-9/11 New York City at a time of increasing Islamophobia. Participants come from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and include young men and women who reflect a range of Muslim identities: those who converted to Islam, those who were raised Muslim but have since left the faith, those who identify as “secular” or “culturally” Muslim, and those who are observant on a daily basis. Beyond Sacred illuminates the daily lives of Muslim Americans in an effort to work toward greater communication and understanding between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
In this series of posts and interviews curated by Annick Odom, we explore Muslim identity on U-M campus.
In this essay, Abraham Ahmed Mustafa Achachi Matsui reflects on his identity.
My name is Abraham Ahmed Mustafa Achachi Matsui. It’s quite a mouthful. The Ahmed part of my middle name is the part my mom wanted to name me. My mom is from Lebanon and was born a Muslim. It’s traditional to give the name of her father to her son. My father is Japanese, so Achachi is my dad’s first name. And then my parents decided to give me a universal name used across the world — Abraham.
I was raised Muslim, and attended Sunday school, but my dad pushed me to attend Buddhist festivals and services. In a lot of ways I think my personality and reality are more aligned with being Japanese. I participated in Judo club in undergrad, and I’m a wrestler. I have what I consider a Japanese mindset; I take care of myself, remember to be proud but courteous, do the best in everything I can, and work to be logical.
Still, I’m kind of darker-skinned and look like almost any kind of race. Wherever I go in the country, I kind of get pre-set in people’s mind as whatever underclass that is. It’s a harsh word, but it is the reality of things. People see a race and are so conscious in thinking, “That’s the other.” In California, they think I’m Mexican. They approach me and say “¿Qué pasa?” In Detroit and Michigan, I’m often seen as African American. In other areas of the country, I know I’ve been identified as Samoan. I like to joke that I’m the most American you can get. I have grown up feeling Japanese, but people think I’m Mexican. I put down I’m half Caucasian on forms because that’s what Middle Easterners do. I should be the poster child for what an American actually is!
I did an MFA at UC Davis California, and while I was there I joined the Muslim Student Association. I’ve always been politically driven, so I ran for Davis City Council. This was the first time I was publicly attacked based on being a Muslim, because if you look at me, I don’t look like a “stereotypical” Muslim. People said that MSA was a terrorist group, and an article was published saying I had terrorist ties.
You hear people saying how that affects you. I didn’t want to do anything Muslim-related for a year or two afterwards. I didn’t go to a mosque. It was in the wake of all these terrorist activities. I kind of lost it, you know. It wasn’t until I got to law school when I met a couple of my friends who were pretty religious. I hung out because they were really cool people, not because they were Muslim. They revitalized the faith in me. I came into law school with no thought of being in the Muslim Law Student Association. In the end I actually became president!
This pushed me to start to think of the Muslim student experience as a whole. One of the largest challenges we were faced with at U-M was the “American Sniper” debate. Despite many complaints from Muslim students and student organizations on campus, it was still shown. When I first heard it was being shown, honestly, I thought, “You know what, it’s college. We saw way worse things in undergrad. There needs to be things that make people uncomfortable. A college campus should have free, open dialogue.” But then I talked to my members, and found that it made several of my members feel physically unsafe and unsafe in their opinions to glorify this sniper and have a public institution give him credence. After hearing their opinion, I agreed. It made us feel like we were alone, like we were alienated, like we were “the other,” and like we were outsiders.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is to tell my story so people see what it’s like. That’s the biggest step to understanding that Muslims aren’t weird, crazy people and to gaining acceptance. We’re your neighbors and friends. We’re logical people. Right now I’ve hit a nice medium about how I feel to be Muslim. I sometimes feel bitter but I also love my faith.
See Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity in Ann Arbor on February 18, 2017.