Hundreds of heads at the Texas Tribune Festival turned in my direction as the lights narrowed in on me. Adjusting the mic to accommodate my short stature, I took a deep breath and made eye contact with a politician who may not even appreciate my presence in America.
"Hi, I'm Zoya," I started. "I'm a sophomore at the University of Texas Austin." Texas senator Ted Cruz smiled at me, which sent shivers down my back. "I'm also a Pakistani-American Muslim." He muttered "mhm" and took a sip of water.
"I just wanna know what you think I can expect from a Trump presidency and if Muslims, or how Muslims like me, can feel comfortable in a government that has outwardly been racist and/or xenophobic to Muslims and other minorities."
Somehow, I found a way to translate an overwhelming amount of emotions into a single question.
The audience cheered louder than I expected. I felt the collective support of the communities Cruz has offended and undermined by calling for police to "patrol and secure" their neighborhoods.
"Well, thank you for your question," Cruz began. Members of the audience jeered at this half-hearted statement. I kept my hands behind my back, partly to control myself but also to demonstrate my unwillingness to back down.
"That is a question you are going to have to ask yourself," Cruz continued. He would not criticize Trump, the candidate he's officially endorsing. He wasn’t finished responding, but the audience interrupted him with definitive boos. Cruz glared at the crowd before rambling on for two more minutes.
Rather than addressing my legitimate concerns, Cruz centered the conversation on "the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism." He outlined the importance of using "jihad" and "radical Islam" in the fight against terror. Cruz also mispronounced the words "Muslim" and "Islam."
However, I wasn't asking about foreign policy or violence abroad. I wanted to know how a Trump presidency would impact the 3.3 million Muslims living in America. For Cruz to shift the discussion to ISIS is offensive and indicative of a disappointing reality.
Cruz admitted that "ISIS is murdering fellow Muslims, along with murdering Christians, along with murdering Jews." He's right: Muslims are the largest victims of terrorism.
On the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Mic examined the rise of Islamophobia and found that anti-Muslim sentiment is more easily encountered now. The numbers show that hate crimes, including vandalisms of mosques and physical attacks, continue to alienate Muslim communities.
Fifteen years have passed, but Islamophobia is still maintaining its hold on society. In fact, this year has been particularly difficult for Muslim-Americans. Anti-Islam hate crimes spiked by 1,600% in 2001 with 481 incidents, according to the FBI. Yet, the highest concentration of anti-Islam hate crimes came at the end of 2015.
The Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) released a comprehensive report on Islamophobia this summer. Among other findings, CAIR noted that incidents in 2015 have more than tripled compared to the past two years.
Mosques are vandalized with discriminatory graffiti and even set on fire. In August, an Imam and his friend were killed as they walked home from a Queens, New York mosque. It is no coincidence that the rise in Islamophobia is accompanied by the sudden popularity of Donald Trump.
His anti-immigrant platform and call for a ban on Muslims have attracted a wide audience. His speeches reinforce stereotypes of Muslims as "the enemy" who can provoke acts of violence. Earlier this year, a Trump supporter harassed and assaulted a Muslim woman wearing a hijab.
These incidents put Muslims like me on edge.
I fear for my mom who wears the hijab and for my younger brother and dad. That's why I wanted Cruz to address the rise in hate crimes. Cruz's stance contributes to the rise of Islamophobia in America. By simultaneously identifying Muslims as criminals and victims, he encourages the public to create harmful stereotypes and misconceptions from these negative characterizations.
I wanted him to discuss the alienation of communities in America. Instead, his response barely qualified as an answer.
Cruz wants to hold an entire religion accountable for the actions of deranged individuals. Other political figures like Trump have the same objective.
They claim "Muslims want to kill us" and use fear-mongering tactics. They use the term "radical Islam" to compel the public to demonize Muslims, but terrorism is radical, not a major world religion with 1.6 billion followers.
Scapegoating Islam places Muslims under endless scrutiny. They are expected to apologize for terrorism, even though violence hits their communities too. "Just as I shouldn't have to reassure you each morning that the sky is still blue, Muslims should not have to reassure you that we still condemn terrorism every single time a terrorist attack occurs," Omar Alnatour, a Palestinian-Muslim student, wrote in The Huffington Post.
Muslim youth are even humiliated by Islamophobia.
Fourteen-year-old Ahmed Mohamed assembled a digital clock to show his teacher. Instead of praising his innovation, a police officer handcuffed him for bringing a hoax bomb to school. In another incident, a middle-school teacher told a student, "we all think you're a terrorist."
There's also an underlying fault in Cruz's response.
Even though prominent Muslim-Americans have excelled in fields like boxing and comedy, Muslims are routinely mentioned in the context of terrorism. These stereotypes are used to create characters for TV and movies.
In an article for The Guardian, writer Dave Schilling describes how shows like "Homeland" base their storyline on an inaccurate depiction of Muslims as "duplicitous spies" or "bloodthirsty terrorists." British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed recently recounted his experiences in the media for The Guardian. Ahmed discovered that "there was no clear pathway for an actor of color" to play "just a bloke."
When he visited a Baltimore mosque in February, president Obama said television shows should have Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security.
My interaction with Cruz perpetuates this prejudiced link. Cruz only knew that I'm a Muslim student — and he still transitioned to terrorism, as if the only thing he knows about people like me is the destruction he sees on TV.
To drive this point closer to home, Cruz said his hope is that "we have a president that helps bring people together" to combat terrorism, "including in Muslim nations." He spent the next minute talking about the supposed success of Egyptian president el-Sisi instead of addressing my concerns.
By the end of his response, I felt powerless. His reasoning is embedded in several aspects of society, from politics to television. It will take time to counteract the negative portrayal of Muslims, which is what I aim to do. For now though, I'll stick with what I know: Neither my question nor my identity has anything to do with ISIS.
Cruz's words are still ringing in my ears a week later. It hurt to see a United States senator steer my question in such a negative direction. Though the spotlights at Hogg Memorial Auditorium are no longer shining on me, I feel more exposed than ever before.