It was about 4:30 a.m. when I arrived at the airport. Still waking myself and silently complaining why I had to get up so early on a weekend. I had a journal, my Qur’an, and a black and white keffiah (a traditional Arab scarf) in my bag that morning.
As I got through airport security, I headed to the nearest coffee stand to try and wake myself up for the day ahead. The empty airport concourse offered nothing but equally tired passengers. I took my seat and glanced at the screen in the waiting area outside my gate: “140+ dead after terror attacks in Paris.”
“Please don’t be a Muslim,” I prayed silently.
When attacks like this happen, many of us feel the same reactions; fear, confusion, a desire to be with our loved ones and keep them safe. But for Muslims, there’s an extra element of concern – we have to go on high alert and start thinking about potential backlash.
I received an email from local community leaders shortly after detailing what actions local communities should take and the potential threats that we might be exposed to: arson, armed protest, physical and verbal harassment, the glares, the extended glances from law enforcement.
I happened to be in New York City that week for a work trip. A few days later, after work I found myself wandering towards the 9/11 memorial. I read each name as I slowly circumambulated the foundation. The foundation of the towers is also the foundation of so many ripple effects that American Muslims still experience each day.
I leaned over the edge of the memorial beside a French flag and white flower. I thought of all of the attacks that I could remember that have occurred since that fateful day: New York, Boston, Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Syria, and countless others.
Every attack (at least on Western soil) is followed by the same questions: “What’s his name?” “What did he worship?” “Where was he radicalized?” “Is Islam inherently violent?”
Every attack leaves the overwhelming feeling of loss. After so many attempts to build bridges, after reaching some sense of stability in our communities, after we think that just maybe this time will be different, the boulder rolls back down the hill and we start over at square one.
The brutalizers that carry out these attacks have a black and white view of the world. People like myself, the thousands of Muslims living in Seattle, the millions of Muslims living in the U.S. and other Western countries are part of what DAESH (aka ISIS) call “the grey zone.”
The black are the members of their order, believing that there’s only one way the world will be at peace — once they’re in total control. The white members are the rest of society, living their lives in the countries deemed as kufar (disbelieving).
And living among those crowds of white are the rest of us. Living between the edge of a blade and a hard place. Between a group of barbarians that value life less than the clothes on their back, and a society that surrounds us in the place we call home, ready to alienates us everytime the opportunity arises.
When I was growing up in the years after 9/11, my father advised me to keep my head down. Don’t say anything that could upset anyone, and avoid wearing or doing things that bring attention to yourself. My friends, my family, and my community grew up with the fear that if you said the wrong thing, or were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be hurt, killed, or disappear to be held indefinitely for a crime that might forever remain a mystery to you.
Many of us were told that we couldn’t report it if we were harassed or abused, or that we couldn’t wear what our religion tells us for fear of becoming targets. We couldn’t express passion about the things we felt were important because nobody would stand by our sides.
“Don’t rock the boat.”
I hopped on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, the symbol of what America stands for. A chill went down my spine, and I set down my bag to grab my black and white keffiah to keep warm. As I bent down, I caught the eye of a park ranger holding a large shotgun and walking toward me.
“Don’t rock the boat.”
I thought better of it, put my bag on my back and instead turned up my collar to shield myself from the wind.
As the rays of sun shined through the remnants of fog onto Lady Liberty, I asked myself a question: Why did I, and the rest of my community, continue pushing that boulder back up the hill, knowing that it always seems to tumble back down?
I guess the answer is that that’s part of the American spirit. We want to be part of this society. We are lawyers, doctors, engineers, imams, community organizers, and, most important of all, humans. We want education for our children. We want a society where we all feel free. We want to leave them something better than what we were given.
As I sit on my flight back home to Seattle, I reflect on this: While pundits and politicians discuss and debate the same way they always do, who do they really speak for? What about the outpouring of support I’ve seen from my non-Muslim friends, both privately and publicly? What about the beautiful expressions of unity over divisiveness: the blindfolded Parisian Muslim offering hugs to passersby, or the four best friends who refused to be divided over fear?
Maybe there’s a way to see a light in a world that too often seems dark.
“Maybe this time,” I say to myself, “it will be different.”