For most of my life, terrorism and Islam have occupied overlapping spaces in the public consciousness. It goes without saying that the attacks on September 11 dramatically changed the world, and the West’s relationship with Islam took a turn along with it.
I recall the week after 9/11, a boy at school asked me if I was Muslim. It was the first time anyone had asked me; religion never came up in a conversation before then. I was ecstatic about a chance to finally talk about Islam. I abruptly and jubilantly said “yes!” Before I could finish taking a deep breath to start my next sentence, he said with a twisted face and condescending tone, “so just like the terrorists that killed people with planes?” I was never able to muster a response because what does an eleven-year-old say to that? I was too young and oblivious to comprehend his comment. What terrorists? What is a terrorist? What did they have to do with Islam? We had never discussed planes or terrorists during our weekly lessons at the mosque.
Five years later, I wrote a short opinion piece on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 for the local newspaper. I got my own little headline: “Muslim Teen: We Must Stay Together.” I wrote about the need for us to support one another and our similarities as Americans, which should not be invalidated by our religious beliefs. I wanted so desperately to believe that in five years we had overcome this dark period in our collective memories and come together as a country. In hindsight, that was mostly wishful thinking and naiveté on my part. I also mistakenly wrote that the attacks didn’t directly impact my family and I. However, over the years it became apparent to me that, in one way or another, all Muslims were, and continue to be, either directly or indirectly affected.
Terrorist attacks don’t just generate fear on a general level, but evoke terror among Muslims of being targeted, harassed, and blamed as a community for the acts of fringe extremists. One grotesque act and inspired attack after another, the Islamic State’s rise in 2014 helped bring back post-9/11 Islamophobia with vigor. According to the FBI, anti-Muslims hate crimes in 2015 were at their highest level since 2001 and increased 67 percent from 2014. Every time reports emerge of an attack or active shooting, I—along with what I’m certain are hundreds and thousands of other Muslims—anxiously wait for details of the perpetrator’s identity to be released, silently hoping the attacker isn’t Muslim. The reason being is, when the assailant is Muslim we are held collectively accountable and called upon to apologize for acts we didn’t condone and had no part in orchestrating. After each attack, the same question is repeated: “Why aren’t Muslims condemning and apologizing for these heinous attacks?” We are! We shouldn’t have to, but we continue to do so. Muslims worldwide have condemned terrorism and spoken out against every attack. Even more, Muslims are the most horrified, disgusted, and angered by these atrocities. Killing innocent civilians is among the gravest sins, desecrates our religion, and has no place in Islam.
Within the confines of our communities, we discuss how we can no longer say words like Allahu Akbar (God is great) on a plane, or in any public setting for that matter, without prompting uncomfortable glances and nervous whispers from those around us. Allahu Akbar is one of the most common words Muslims recite daily and is repeated throughout all five prayers. It’s on our jewelry, adorns our walls in beautiful golden calligraphy, and elegantly graces our mosques. Beyond that, Allahu Akbar can also be used in more of a colloquial and sarcastic manner. Say for instance I came home one day from high school with a B on my report card (god forbid), my parents would say “Allahu Akbar, a B?” as in “Well, what do we have here, a B?” Unfortunately, Allahu Akbar is also too often hijacked as the final words of terrorists.
As a result of this, and countless other words, actions, and even appearances attributed to extremists, Muslims must exercise caution with the words they speak and actions they take. However, just like everyone else, we occasionally have our bad days. Which begs the question, if one day we’re short with the person at the customer service desk or Mohammed Ahmed is the name of the guy at the other end of the phone yelling because he’s been on hold for 45 minutes, will people say or think we’re dangerous extremists? Will they question why we’re not “moderate Muslims?”
Extremist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda have constructed a binary “us vs them” worldview. They have launched a calculated campaign to eliminate the grey zone and force everyone to make a choice. What has transpired over the past sixteen years is precisely what they have aimed to achieve: create a divide between Muslims and the West to make the two almost irreconcilable. They do this by successfully exploiting ignorance and the differences between us. You’re a Muslim but refuse to join “our” team? Fine! We’ll take away the words and culture you love most and use it to strike fear in others, making it more difficult for you to live among “them.” By allowing this divide to cement itself in our society, we’re playing right into extremist groups’ narrative, handing them a victory. Paradoxically, we’ve been saying for sixteen years that we can’t let the terrorists win. To do this, we need to take definitive action and make a concerted effort.
With the new year upon us, I’d like to challenge you to do something a little different in 2018. If you don’t know any Muslims - haven’t spoken to us (we’re funny, trust me!) - shared a meal with us (you won’t regret it, our food is pretty amazing) - or even watched a football game with us (we’re crazy sports fans too) - why not make an effort to do that this year? It can be easy for all of us to remain in our comfort zones, within our respective community bubbles, afraid of the unknown and afraid of being judged. More importantly, it can be easy to forget that we’re all fellow citizens. So why not share the American experience together and set aside, labels, preconceived notions, and biases? I implore readers to reach out and share their experiences, send me an email or tweet me at @Angieslyst, and don’t be afraid to #AskAMuslimAQuestion.