Recently there have been a string of terrorist attacks across the globe in places like Lebanon, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Saudi Arabia. The latter country saw three attacks in one day at the end of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar (Ramadan), the most recent of which was a suicide bombing right outside the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) mosque in Medinah. While many have used the occasion to point out how un-Islamic ISIS must be for such an attack, the reality is that Muslims already knew this long ago. And it’s not only ISIS which has it out for us. Only the day before, a bunch of Islamophobic incidences and violence acts against Muslims occurred in the USA and Canada, and the combination has left Muslims around the globe reeling.

As a Muslim, each successive attack has left me at a greater loss for words and full of a deeper, more infinite sorrow. Elsewhere, I have written:

This Ramadan, my heart bled for Orlando, Lebanon and Istanbul. It continued bleeding for Dhaka. And now for Baghdad.

All along, there has been a constant consciousness of the chaos and destruction in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, in Palestine. Of injustice and violence in Burma, China and many other places around the Muslim world.

Hate crimes against Muslims in the West are on the rise.

The prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said that there will come a time when holding onto the religion of Islam will be like holding a hot coal.

I cannot say if that time is now but I will remain holding it, my hands burning, heart bleeding until there is nothing left of me.

They are killing us. What more can we do? There must be more we can do.

This was before the attack in Medina happened. When the news broke, I could barely process it. I still fail to. One scholar has simply stated, “There are no red lines anymore.” Although the loss of life in all cases has been deeply troubling and tragic (particularly in Iraq where it has been so massive and where the international community has utterly failed), there is something I haven’t been able to properly put my finger on about a group attacking the mosque of our beloved Prophet Muhammad. It feels much more personal than ever before.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that victims elsewhere are not necessarily Muslim or that they could be from minority Christian or Jewish groups, just as perpetrators may identify with any and all of us too. We have been the oppressors too, after all. Rigid labels are rarely (if ever) productive or illuminating, however, at this particularly point in history, it is hard not to notice that far-right militant, hate-fuelled Buddhists, white supremacists, atheists, secularists, Christians and Jews all share a common scapegoat in us. I have a hard time identifying myself with an “us” and them with a “them”. I’m uncomfortable with how these attacks have made my own categories more rigid.

Where other attacks might be analyzed as arising from political or social issues that only tangentially refer to religion or use religion conveniently, an attack on one of the most sacred places in Islam truly feels to me like an attack on every single believing Muslim. What was deeply wrong and evil before has reached a level that defies description for those of us that subscribe to a Muslim identity.

And it doesn’t matter where this is all coming from. As I said, similar attacks are happening from many sides via all kinds of perpetrators in numerous areas of the world. As a junior historian, I am deeply uncomfortable with comparing these incidences but I simultaneously cannot look away from them. That our Deen contains prophecies that echo our current moment makes it all the more unnerving.

How can Muslims today feel calm? How can they feel safe?

There are many suggestions from more learned scholars of our Deen for how to do this, so I won’t go into those here, but instead I would like to talk about the other side of things: what others can do to make Muslims feel safe.

When I saw the news that a Muslim man was shot and stabbed on his way to the Houston mosque for sunrise prayers, I immediately thought of a distant acquaintance of mine who also lived there. I thought to send him a message to see if he was alright and warn him to “be careful.” It turns out that it was that very friend who had fallen victim.

It is difficult to describe the sickened feeling that enters your stomach when you realize that someone you know was shot as a possible hate crime. Though police now say it was an attempted robbery, that sickened feeling lingers all the same, rearing its ugly head every time a hijabi appears on the news for being spit on or being called a sand n****r on the train, every time someone spins gravel at you while you cross the street, every time someone tells you how uncomfortable you make them (or just mutters it under their breath).

In the current divided political climate, how helpful is it to tell our friends to “be careful”?
After reflecting, I have to say, not very.

In fact, it might be counterproductive to what they need. Instead of telling them to “be careful” (thereby putting the onus on them to remain safe), you can simply make them feel safe as a non-Muslim ally by checking in with them, letting them know that you love them, and even though you can’t necessarily imagine it, you have an idea of how hard it must be right now and how down-trodden they might be feeling about international events.

An archaeologist friend of mine fills this role flawlessly. Every single time there is a terrorist attack and the news breaks, there is a message from her in my inbox within seconds. Sometimes she expresses dismay without even needing to contextualize it (“I can’t believe it.”) Sometimes it’s just the name of a place. Other times she simply asks if I am alright.

There is always a discussion and space held for me to just feel what I need to feel. After Orlando, when it felt inappropriate for Muslims to express how unsafe they were feeling from the Islamophobic backlash, she listened while I worked through my anger and frustrations with the self-declared daesh shooter, my own community (and its relationship to the LGBTQ community) and the rest of the world. She listened while I went on a hellfire-laden rant (even without her necessarily believing in hellfire) about the Baghdad and Medina perpetrators, praying for God’s curse on their heads.

I don’t know what these exchanges mean.

I just know that if there is a her and there is a me, and both of us can reject hatred and embrace love, and both of us can deeply mourn the loss of life, sobbing at our desks at work or over the dishes in the sink, then there is something comforting in that. Something comforting in the fact that in a world that has gone mad, there are still people who reject madness and who will openly stand with you while they do it.

I am told this is the majority of people and, to keep going emotionally some days, I have to believe that. But I definitely wonder.

On December 13, 2015, I was asked to be the representative of Edmonton’s Muslim community at the Phoenix Society’s Interfaith Celebration. The event took place in Edmonton’s City Hall and featured representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as musical performances related to each faith. It was an honour to be asked to give my thoughts on the theme of “Hope” in Islam, particularly as the last speaker of the day and the first woman to represent Islam in the event’s history. What follows below is the text of my speech.

I want to begin – In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful – with a translation of the meaning of the 35th verse of the 24th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, entitled An Nur, the Light.

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow forth though no fire touched it. Light upon Light! Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is All-Knower of everything.

I stand before you today as a woman, a mother, an academic, an activist, and, above all, a Muslim.

I stand before you today as a Muslim woman and some might note the cruel irony in that, at this particular moment in history, I am supposed to talk to you about hope.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. Even, to fall into despair.

I look around at what is happening in this world, in places like Yemen and Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, in Mali and Tunisia, in Palestine and Israel, in Lebanon and France, in America, in our own backyard in Canada, in my own family.

I look around at what is happening in this world and I have seen it all before. As a historian, I have seen all of this before: all the violence, the hate, the divisive rhetoric, the othering, the anger, the retaliation, the death of so many of our children. And the more I study, it seems the less I can make sense of any of it.

I started my journey in academics as a historian of the Shoah – the Holocaust perpetuated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. And in this example, we find some of the darkest depths of human depravity. The absolute worst of humankind. We find this darkness emulated every day around the world, individually and collectively: in war, in genocide, in terrorism, in racism, in abuse. We find darkness everywhere. We carry it with us like a shroud.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. And I do grieve.

In language, grief almost always involves water, with people drowning in it or passing through life in a fog due to it. In grief, we find the nomads, the memorialists, the normalizers, the activists and the seekers: those who are unresolved, those who seek to preserve memory, those who recreate family and community, and others who turn to prayer for meaning.

Grief occupies a physical space in the phenomenal realm. An immoveable mass. It cannot be perceived by the senses but it’s there, an invisible tunnel entered through the gates of trauma, sometimes narrowing to the point of suffocation, other times widening so that its grasp is forgotten.

Studies of bereaved individuals reveal that grief is not linear – it does not plot itself neatly on a road map from denial to recovery with despair and depression as pit-stops in between. How can grief be linear when there is continuously so much to mourn?

I grieve because grief is part of my hope. In grieving, I mourn the loss of life, the loss of love and the death of morality that has become normalized. In grieving, I know we can be better.

Psychologists suggest that bereavement carries with it one of the greatest qualities of humanity: resilience. From disaster and tragedy, people almost always reflect and rise up stronger than before and the process is so individual that it resembles a fingerprint. It cannot be shaped by others. Our resilience is at once our own and communally, universally shared.

Resilience carries with it the connotations of brilliance, an illumination that, even if small, forbids darkness from taking over completely. There cannot exist total darkness as long as there is a single light and it is this light, this noor, that we must choose. Choosing hope, being resilient does not mean you will never grieve or that you will never fall into despair. In fact, it means that those things will be a necessary part of your hope.

I want to share an important interpretation of a Qur’anic passage with you about the nature of humanity as carriers of both shrouds of darkness and resilient light. This comes to me from a fellow Muslim, brother Aaron, writing in response to the recent terrorist attacks across the globe and the violent backlash felt in Muslim communities everywhere.

The creation of Adam (a.s) is mentioned many times in the Qur’an, but the first time it is mentioned, the angels asked Allah of the earth: “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we praise You and glorify Your Name?” (2:30). Their question was well-founded. Prior to the creation of humans, jinn were constantly fighting and killing and spreading corruption. It got so bad that the angels intervened to stop their constant wars. So when they learned that God was making another creation, they probably had reason to fear that this creation would behave much like the jinn did.

Were the angels right about us? Have we spread corruption and shed blood? Yes. So very often, yes. The earth has been saturated with the blood of humanity. But, when the angels asked why God would create something that would spread corruption and shed blood, Allah responded:

“I know what you do not know.” (2:30)

What does Allah know? Does God know some true potential of humankind?

In this, I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. But, I do hope.

I have seen people change before my very eyes. With consistent patience and compassion, I have seen their hatred give way to understanding and acceptance, seen their fears turn to knowledge and kind action.

The world continues through the walls of grief.

People will fall in love and be married; children will be born; poetry, art and beauty will forever echo our dreams.

History marches on into the future.

A collective loss is a mark in our continuous time – a crack in the sidewalk that some people step over, others stumble past, and still more individuals stop and marvel when tiny, yellow flowers push up through the fracture.

These are the ones, the ever-bereaved, the ever-hopeful, the resilient ones who I emulate and in whose tireless efforts I place my trust to carry the Light into an uncertain future.

Thank you.

Nakita Valerio is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 Under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies. Most recently, she has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and a Director with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.