The Lament of an American Muslim

Syrian refugee

© Shutterstock

November 20, 2015 02:38 EDT

An American Muslim reflects on rising Islamophobia in the United States following the attacks in Paris.

My grandfather used to have prayer beads made of sandalwood. I remember him sitting on his prayer mat, murmuring quietly, letting his precocious granddaughter climb on him. The Prophet Muhammad had done the same, he would say, smiling.

Oddly enough, every time I smell sandalwood or think of my grandfather’s whispered prayers, my heart aches. I wonder how horrified he would have been at last December’s Taliban attack that left more than 100 children dead in Pakistan. I wonder what he would have thought of people saying his prayers were frightening.

My odd sense of humor comes from him, too. When I was younger, he used to say I lit up the house with laughter. These days, I have lost count of the number of people who tell me I’m too serious.

I am not serious. I am stricken with grief. I am in a permanent state of mourning and, the thing is, the American media thinks I’m not loud enough in my lamentation.

Shaken to the Core

All I remember is that it began somewhere around Somalia. Then Kosovo. Then 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq. I mourned the lives of those in the towers, those on the planes. I mourned the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in the wars afterward and the deaths of children in Afghanistan. I mourned the students I taught in Houston classrooms who went off to war and never came back. I mourned for Paris and Boston and London.

As a young American Muslim, bred to believe in social justice and courage, I tried to honor my grandfather’s memory and returned to Pakistan. I knew he had believed so strongly in the vision of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Muhammad Iqbal that he had walked across a border in terrifying violence with three sisters, two young children and his wife.

But there, I watched a school principal, polio workers, refugees and a lone school watchman murdered by Taliban extremists in Karachi. I huddled in a classroom during a political uprising among the shaking bodies of children frightened by the sound of machine guns. My grandfather would have wept had he seen the city he loved become “the world’s most dangerous” because of religious extremists and political thugs.

Syrian refugee

© Shutterstock

Being in Pakistan shakes me down to my core.

So do other places. I have walked through the streets of Istanbul and watched Syrian Kurdish children sleep in the sleet and rain. I have also taught in American high schools and watched teenagers break down in tears at their inability to see their fathers because they are in prison. My heart breaks for all of these children.

I do not have a split between the American and the Muslim in my identity. I am not a sleeper cell of a “gutter religion.” I learned at the knee of my grandfather to have courage, faith and kindness. Those are the lessons I have tried to implement in the 13 years since I left my parents’ home in a leafy Chicago suburb and made a path from Paris to Addis Ababa to Istanbul.

I suppose I will have to ask forgiveness from the American public when I say that I will no longer apologize for the violence of the Taliban, of al-Qaeda, of Boko Haram, of al-Shabab militants, of Daesh or the “Islamic State.” I will not because while TV pundits sit on cushioned chairs and comment on how Muslims are not doing enough, American Muslims are in a state of shock and grief so profound that we struggle to get through our days.

Frankenstein Death Cult

The Muslim world, in fact, is in a state of shock and grief. Not the wealthy and powerful countries—not the countries that can participate in the same proxy wars as other nations with guns. It is the rest of us.

We know it is the middle-classes and the poor who suffer—the countries where our history has been systematically destroyed by a Frankenstein death cult and then sold in pieces at auction houses to civilized folks.

We watch the Syrians, who speak a dialect of Arabic so gorgeously pure that people traveled to Damascus to learn it, try to make it to Europe on “paper thin boats.” We watch the Somalis trying to escape from a war that no one even cares about because they are African. We watch Yemen, a country whose beauty breaks the heart, systemically bombed by Saudi Arabia. We watch Pakistani children reduced to “bug splats” in a drone campaign that is nauseating.

It is very clear to us that, in the scheme of the world, Beirut matters less than Paris. Some children matter less than others.

We do stand up to denounce Daesh, just like we denounce the Taliban. Many of us are murdered for doing so—thousands in Pakistan, thousands in Syria, hundreds of thousands in Iraq.

This is the grief we carry every day—the knowledge that Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia are suffering from monsters we have been denouncing for years. Our grief is in the knowledge that our faith has been wrested from us by a perverse group of madmen, and no matter how American we are, it isn’t enough. It is in knowing that American media will not listen to us when we protest that it is our brothers and sisters who are on the frontlines in this particular war.

I will not apologize because it is Muslim countries that suffer the most, globally, from terrorism.

I grieve because I have spent my life trying to live up to the ideals of Islam as I learned them, and yet I still see students I taught in Texas post on social media about how all of the brown Muslims are evil. Islamophobia has been on the rise since 9/11 despite efforts to point out over and over again that there are 1.6 billion of us and, of that number, less than 1% are terrorists.

When America begins refusing to take in refugees despite The Diary of Anne Frank being a standard text taught in high school, we have truly sunk to a new low. Half of the Syrian refugees are children. If these are the rats and refuse of the world, what happens when these children become adults? Even if we have no shred of human decency, how do we hope to deal with an entire traumatized generation? Are we hoping they are Europe’s problem and they drop dead outside the gates of Hungary?

Stallions Fight… Grass Suffers

As the world repeats its mistakes, I can only think of a proverb in Turkish: It is the stallions that fight, but the grass that suffers. While the American media and Donald Trump make money from fear mongering and unsubstantiated claims, US governors refuse to help Syrian refugees while American arms continue to help destroy Syria.

Meanwhile, Muslims must constantly prove we are not violent. Even those of us who teach American children are obviously not saintly enough. Neither are those of us who save lives, are community organizers or who fight for social justice. Some of my contemporaries are strong enough to brush off the prejudice with humor. I cannot.

I taught teenagers who have died from drug overdoses and who came from homes where they couldn’t afford new clothing. I have stood in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. I have held Afghan refugees traumatized by violence. I have bought diapers for Kurdish babies swaddled in blankets against December snow storms.

I know I am not alone in my grief. I know I am not alone in worrying about all of our children, not just the privileged ones.

But I apologize, Fox News, that I was not taught to wail in despair. My post-colonial parents, the German community I grew up in, taught me to keep going, keep engaging. All of us do this—we continue going to work and school and pray that no one harms our children or us. My coping mechanism is to doggedly strive to make this a little better for all of us, although it seems what I should do is hysterically denounce terrorism and string up extremists like a demented Batman.

Or perhaps I should put myself in an internment camp so as to assuage your terror?

It’s increasingly clear: No matter what I do, no matter what we do, we are constantly subject to the ridicule and bigotry of certain newscasters and members of the Republican Party.

I remember my grandfather frequently in moments like these, as he also lived through a troubled time and shouldered it with grace. I find myself on my own prayer rug, murmuring quietly, sandalwood prayer beads in my hands.

In a world that is increasingly trying to tear all of us apart, all we can truly do is attempt to work through this together. I would hope, as a teacher, that history taught us this lesson already. It appears that many of us paid no attention in school, however, and are content with the blood of children on our hands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Thomas Koch / Ververidis Vasilis /

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