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With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, all the big news networks, papers and magazines are commemorating the event with specials focusing on the families of victims, the wars that followed, the political fallout and the impact on Muslim communities around the world. 

Most people probably don’t think of places like Montgomery, Alabama, or Hattiesburg, Mississippi, when they hear the words Muslim community. 

But they’re here, and they’re thriving.

So let’s meet a few of them — one for whom 9/11 was central to her spiritual awakening and another who’s just a fabulous self-styled Muslim fashionista out here living her best life. 

Inshallah, Starr’s back next week.

–R.L.

She’s a gun-toting, patriotic Black Muslim woman

Before 2001, Shay Stinson was a young, single mom going through a divorce. Raised Southern Baptist, she says she “got heavy in religion, trying to straighten my life out” but Christianity didn’t offer her the answers she sought. 

Instead, after talking to friends, she began learning more about Islam. After 9/11 and the anti-Muslim vitriol that ensued and infected our politics, Stinson wanted to learn even more. 

“The more I researched the faith, the more I’m like, you know what, this is not what y’all are saying that it is. I guess at that point, it became a quest to prove to myself (that) y’all have got it wrong. So the more I uncovered, the more I began to have an understanding of a higher power, or what guided me to Islam,” Stinson said. 

Stinson attributes her decision to revert to Islam to her Aries nature of “wanting to prove people wrong” and in some ways an act of defiance and liberation amid the xenophobia aimed at Muslims after 9-11. (Muslims avoid the term convert, as they believe all people are born Muslim).

“Growing up in the South, in Alabama, label it whatever you want to call it — Taliban, Osama bin Laden — it wasn’t that they were responsible (for 9/11). What I heard was Muslims and Islam were responsible. So me attaching myself to Islam as a Muslim was my way of saying, I know for a fact that Islam is not responsible,” Stinson said.

When she attended church as a Christian, Stinson said was often deeply moved during services but that connection ended when the service ended. In Islam, she says feels connected even the services end. She also has a deeper understanding and appreciation for Christianity. 

As a Muslim, she covered, wearing hijab and other religious garments. In 2016, she stopped covering when Islamophobia again surged after Donald Trump implemented his Muslim travel ban. 

“It got real tense in my part of town,” said Stinson, who lives in Mobile, Alabama. 

Around that time, Stinson had another child. And, for the first time, she picked up several hobbies to ease the aforementioned tension. She got into arts and crafts, listened to classical music, journaled, got man pedis and spent a lot of time playing with her new baby. 

She also quit smoking and started coloring, using old fashioned coloring books you might find in the children’s section, not those boring adult color books that have recently come into vogue. And she started collecting guns and going to the gun range. 

“It felt good, I gotta be honest, to be a Muslim woman who could protect myself. Because what inspired me to get my first handgun was my safety,” she said. “I started hearing people threaten to snatch off the hijab. The (Muslim) women started being told don’t go out at night alone. Be mindful of your environment. So that’s why I went to the gun range. And I felt empowered. And I felt safe.”

Stinson loves the film “Steel Magnolias,” is obsessed with country music and has “an American flag flying beautifully on my porch.” At the end of the day, the fact that she considers herself a proud gun-toting, country-music-loving American patriot shouldn’t be in conflict with her identity as a Black Muslim woman from Alabama, she says. 

On the anniversary of 9/11, Stinson will help recruit foster parents and thinking about the lives lost and how the events of that day put her on a path to embracing Islam.

For Muslims, it’s customary to always be reminded of death, she says: “Islam has really taught me to honor life and death.”

Giving halal looks

Growing up in Mobile, the only Muslims Shay Stinson knew were her uncle and cousins in Montgomery, Alabama. 

One of them is Intisar Seraaj, who has been a fashion icon since she was a wee babe. She started wearing a hijab in 5th grade. Being the baddie she is, she was looking for looks that were both stylish and halal, meaning permissible under Islamic customs. 

“I’ve just always been interested in fashion, especially because I am such a freakin diva. Like, I know it. We all know it, you know?,” Seraaj, a Georgia State University alumna, told me in a recent phone interview.  

“But the fact that I was also hijabi is like, ‘Okay, how can I halal-ify this, you feel me? How can I wear a crop top? Oh, I’ll put a button-up long-sleeve shirt that covers my abs underneath so, off the top, boom. How can I rock these jeans with holes in them? I’ll put some stockings or tights under them. Boom.”

She added: “Having to remix stuff pushes the envelope.”

Here are a few more of those iconic looks.

Go deeper into Islam in the South

Our colleague John Hammontree recently examined what it’s like to be Muslim in the South, and offered up a few resources.

See y’all next week!