When freshman Amber Bhutta watched the 2010 Bollywood thriller “My Name is Khan” (a movie focused on an Indian Muslim man living in the U.S. who embarks on a cross-country journey to speak directly with the President), as a 6th grader, one line resonated with her and has remained close to her heart ever since: “I am not a terrorist.” That’s why, when presented with the opportunity to enter the Facing History Together essay contest, she knew exactly what she was going to write. Titled “I am not a terrorist,” after the line from the movie, Bhutta’s essay won her a $500 Upstander Award in the contest.
The essay contest, run by the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves and titled “‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in Today’s Society”, asked students across the country to respond to the following prompt:
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout Finch, a young white girl growing up in Alabama in the 1930s, is forced to question her community’s spoken and unspoken rules when her father agrees to defend a black man falsely accused of a crime. She and her brother, Jem, struggle to define their identities in relationship to the values of their small, segregated Southern town. Like other coming-of-age stories, “To Kill a Mockingbird” invites readers to reflect on our own experiences, examining the forces that have shaped our identities as well as those of the characters. How has the community you’ve grown up in influenced the person you are today? Has there been a moment when your sense of self has come into conflict with the norms in your community?
Over 4,000 high school students entered the contest, their essays discussing such things as LGBT experiences, racism, and anti-Semitism.
Bhutta, who found out about the contest through English teacher Mrs. Maryanne Hurtado, discussed her experiences as a Muslim living in post-9/11 America.
“There’s all these issues about villainizing Muslims and it’s an issue I feel really, really passionately about. Even when people don’t realize they’re doing it, there’s always extra scrutiny upon Muslims,” Bhutta said.
Islamophobia is a major issue in today’s society, and so she felt it the perfect topic for her essay. She used the repetition of the phrase “I am not a terrorist” in between each paragraph of her essay to truly drive her point home: that not all Muslims are terrorists.
“It [the line from the movie] really spoke to me,” Bhutta said.
According to her, Bhutta had almost no trouble at all writing her essay. “It wasn’t really hard to think of what to write – everything just came really fast. Instantly I knew what I was going to write about it and how I was going to organize it. It came naturally.”
She said her favorite part of her essay is the last line. After finishing up the explanation of her and her parents’ experiences as Muslim Americans, she repeated the iconic movie line once more, and then added, “Do you believe me yet?” Bhutta said, “My mom started crying when she read it.”
To read Bhutta’s essay, visit contest.facinghistory.org/mockingbird/voting/amber-bhutta. To read other award-winning essays, visit contest.facinghistory.org/mockingbird/winners.