I think I speak for most American Muslims when I say that déjà vu is not an unfamiliar feeling. After 9/11, we were devastated to know that the perpetrators declared their allegiance to Allah while murdering thousands of people. After the repeated terrorist attacks performed on behalf of ISIS, we have been consistently struck by the same sense of frustration and disgust. And again after last month’s Paris attacks. Now, after last week’s San Bernardino attack, that same feeling has returned, and before the last incident has even had a chance to fade out of news cycles.
One of my friends recently asked me how I feel about the reference to ISIS as the “Islamic State,” and I’d like to answer his question with the following analogy: ISIS is to Islam as the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church are to Christianity. Members of each group identify as followers of a certain faith, but have abandoned religious guidance and replaced it with their own interpretations, thus distorting the peaceful messages of said religions. Any text can be subject to different understandings that depend on the reader’s personal disposition. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and nearly 1.6 billion of these Muslims have never planned, committed, or supported a terrorist attack. As a Muslim, I feel seriously misrepresented by how I am now placed under the same category as a terrorist group like ISIS. Being unjustifiably isolated from the rest of the American population reminds me of an American History lesson that teachers have always been quick to condemn: the discrimination against particular identity groups like Japanese Americans during WWII. Why does it feel as if history is repeating itself?
This year’s republican presidential candidates have taken notice of the fact that denouncing Muslims as terrorists does good things to their poll numbers. Donald Trump, who is currently leading republican polls by over ten points, was quoted in an interview by the New Yorker in saying, “The Quran is very interesting. A lot of people say it teaches love … But there’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe … Now I don’t know if that’s from the Quran. I don’t know if that’s from someplace else. But there’s tremendous hatred out there that I’ve never seen anything like it.” Right wing politicians are now primarily concerned with rallying political support by animating xenophobia against a Muslim other than that which is threatening their civilization and in that effort, they are succeeding.
I believe that the already-widespread fear and distrust towards Muslims that is on the rise is largely due to media irresponsibility. Outlets like Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN have facilitated the release of irresponsible, insistent, and inflammatory coverage of the San Bernardino attack and previous ones, providing first-hand accounts that perpetuate the notion that “no Muslim can be trusted.” In an interview with New York Daily News, the landlord of the couple who carried out the San Bernardino shooting spoke of Syed Farook by saying, “There were no red flags anywhere in his application.” The insinuation that your typical Muslim community members are all capable of successfully hiding such a barbaric side of themselves is being wrongfully emphasized and will, without a doubt, have adverse effects on the inclusive, friendly image of Islam that the majority of Muslims work so hard to project. I myself have already observed these results first-hand.
A few nights ago at the gym, I made eye-contact with a man that I see regularly. He was walking the track, and the woman in front of me had just smiled in his direction, and was immediately smiled back at in return. When I saw his familiar face, I too smiled in his direction, and did not expect to watch his face fall into a disgusted scowl in response. As simple as this exchange was, it confirmed the fact that these misleading accounts are being taken seriously by viewers everywhere, and my town is no different. Furthermore, the effects of Islamophobia are not always as minute as in this scenario, as proven by the Muslim taxi driver that was shot in Pittsburgh, the gun-toting protestors that held a demonstration outside of a mosque in Irving, Texas, and the Muslim high school student who was instructed by her parents to stop wearing the hijab for fear that it would generate possible harassment or attack, all of which have occurred within the past month. The Anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States is real and it is growing, a reality that can no longer be denied or overlooked. Muslims, politicians, and unaffected bystanders alike, all share the responsibility of working towards an inclusive America, an America that recognizes hate speech and bigotry for what they are regardless of who speaks them, an America that gives unbiased media coverage of terrorist attacks despite the identity of whoever stands behind the trigger.
One question I have been asked frequently in recent years seems to stir more emotions and provoke more thoughts than any other. “How do you feel when violent crimes are claimed to be committed in the name of Islam, or carried out by individuals born in the Muslim faith?
In the wake of such tragedies, five distinct feelings seem prominent in the sea of emotions that engulfs my heart: a sense of loss, sadness, gratitude, hope, and resolve.
I mourn the loss of innocent lives, all lives, and the destruction of property anywhere and everywhere. As an integral part of society, Muslims face as much risk as anyone else but not many people seem aware of that. We suddenly have to be on the defensive as we deal with stereotyping and suspicion. People are not the same after watching havoc and bloodshed. Places are altered, having been marked by painful memories. Peace of mind is replaced with fear, accusatory looks replace casual smiles, and the flow of life is tainted by stress and disrupted by apprehension. A lot of time and energy are also wasted as we attempt to make sense of irrational behavior or understand lunacy.
I pity those who are so consumed by anger that they lash out and harm indiscriminately. They end up hurting the very people they say they are defending. They miss out on the true peace and deep comfort that result from serving the real causes of this great religion which are love, care, and human solidarity. The Quran teaches that “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is as if he has killed all of humanity.” 5:32 Even in warfare, Prophet Mohammad instructs that no harm should extend to civilians or their property, not even plants or livestock. He promotes a level of respect that includes all forms of life. When Muslims have limited knowledge and shallow understanding of their own tradition, they become easy prey to manipulation or brainwashing.
Instead of balanced coverage and accurate portrayal of Muslims, the media machine shamelessly manipulates the public in its wild pursuit of advertising sponsors and competitive ratings. It is sad how ignorance has a way to affirm lies, spread fallacies, and make blind generalizations. It is also unfortunate how a whole industry is blind to the fact that it is dominated by bias and double standards. It is disappointing that some people find professional success or personal satisfaction in telling half-truths, presenting selective information, or making wild accusations and hurtful statements.
I feel grateful for an understanding of Islam that allows me to enjoy every minute of every day in belief and practice. Tragedy reminds me how fortunate they are, those who have the knowledge that separates fact from fib, and the ability to identify credible information and reliable resources. Misguided thoughts and hurtful actions make me think of my social circles and feel grateful for thoughtful questions and purposeful discussions. I feel fortunate for a work environment that is beyond respectful and supportive. I also appreciate how civilized my neighbors are, even the ones who choose not to interact. My life in America has opened my mind and heart to others as we connect through interfaith circles and learn about each other’s traditions.
A tight grip on optimism seems necessary in facing the ugly mix of ignorance and anger. I hope that Muslims will be motivated to learn more about their religion in order to shield themselves from confusion or manipulation. Added knowledge and deeper understanding allow for truthful representation and the sharing of accurate information. The day will come when people realize that no one person or group can represent an entire faith tradition and that individual actions have to ultimately be measured against the standard rather than becoming the standard themselves. Even those who prefer mud-slinging; they will realize that it can happen both ways but would yield no winners. I look forward to a day when the lives of average Muslims like myself, with their hard work and contributions to society, are worthy of valuable airtime. I have no doubt that advocating love and peace will ultimately win over hate and violence.
A sense of duty seems inescapable through all that pain. I feel responsible to represent Islam as I believe it really is, a religion that values all lives and condemns all violence against the innocent. I am on a mission to promote true Islam, a religion where individuals are not supposed to judge others as they know that judgment lies only in the hands of the Creator. “God is the one who knows what is in the hearts” Quran 39:7 I aim to always model the good character and honorable behaviors that Islam promotes. One of my goals is bringing attention to how Islam sometimes gets reduced to checklists of dos and don’ts, and when we do that, we restrict the valuable impact that spiritual experiences can have on our lives and limit their possible manifestations into our actions.
So what is a good resolution? I believe it benefits everyone to learn more about Islam, the context of religious text, the reasoning behind rules, the practical applications of principles, and spiritual value of religious practices. This will safeguard Muslims against manipulation and trickery. They will enjoy the meaningful experience of a comprehensive way of life. Non-Muslims would not be so easily influenced by sensational publicity. They will ask the right questions, make informed decisions, and quickly realize how any text can be taken out of context and that any words can be twisted away from their true meaning. People will connect as humans first, and respect will dominate. Communities will thrive as people trust each other and move forward. Peace will prevail and love will win it all.