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.