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.

In the wake of the Orlando shootings, there has been a major backlash online and in the US Congress against prayers being uttered for the dead and their grieving families. Expressed as frustration for a lack of action, individuals have taken to calling out the “thoughts and prayers” syndrome that keeps the United States in a perpetual state of inaction on gun control and have further argued that the question is particularly being ignored in the case of Orlando because the victims were Latino, members of the LGBTQ community and killed by a so-called “Islamic” “terrorist”.

As a result, individuals who do feel compelled to pray for a variety of reasons have had to confront themselves and their intentions with regards to their status as allies of the LGBTQ movement. Is it possible to pray for the dead and their families to find peace and safety while still remaining active and vigilant in the struggle for the right to life of those in the community? Of course.

After the shootings happened, I started to see these “Policy, not prayer” posts online but they weren’t emerging from the pages of my queer friends. Rather, they came from the pages of militant atheists – the kind who push for secular homogenization at every single inappropriate turn without really realizing its deeply historically Christian origins. In this case, I became outraged. How dare they take the opportunity to push an anti-prayer agenda? Was I beginning to sound like the “War on Christmas” people?!

Well, after some reflection: no, I don’t think that is the case. I wrote a rant about it on my Facebook and came to realize that it was more about accepting one another and how we grieve in the world:

“Can people stop with the passive aggressive posts telling people to stop praying and instead make policy changes for people in Orlando?

First of all, a lot of people who are praying are abroad and have zero capability to influence American domestic policy.

Secondly, who exactly are you speaking to? Politicians who only offer prayers but don’t change policies? That’s fair enough but then that message needs to actually get to them…not be posted on Facebook as yet another aggressive secular campaign on the uselessness of prayer. We get that you don’t think prayer does anything and that’s fine. Don’t tell believers how to grieve and help, especially when many of them are from within the LGBTQ community and this is how they mourn what happened yesterday.

Lastly, praying and public policy change are not mutually exclusive actions. And I think I am the living embodiment of that principle so it’s fair for me to put that on the line. If you want me to stop praying, you will definitely have me stop public policy work as well. And I’m doing a lot of it, alhamdulilah. Prayer gives me hope that the actions I engage in will be acceptable and successful.

Not everyone exists in this world in the same way you do. As I think Orlando fully exemplifies. If there is a lesson to take from the bloodbath of hatred, it’s that homogenizing narratives of how people should be and what they should do are always harmful and violent.

And I have to say, that given how much of the religious establishment has been cursing the LGBTQ community, well, forever… it is a little refreshing to see people praying for this long-oppressed community many of whose members consider themselves believers too or might have been if they hadn’t been so harshly outcast and demonized. And even if not, it’s still a necessary change in the dynamic between these 2 communities where many individuals live on the ambiguous faultlines between them.

Let’s all engage in some deep acceptance of one another. Division serves no one except those who thrive on hegemony and are served by it.

‪#‎prayersANDchange
‪#‎orjustprayers
‪#‎orjustchange
‪#‎orlandoshooting

I’m done now.”

Immediately after I posted this, a gay friend of mine shared a “Policy, not prayers” image. I felt sick to my stomach and realized that while I had been addressing the militant atheists, I had failed to think about it from the LGBTQ perspective. He later removed it after he saw my rant; however, the conversation that followed was very eye-opening for me and helped me remember that prayers, however well-meaning, may be uncalled for by individuals in the LGBTQ community and may even be received with revulsion as they conjure up remembrances of “pray the gay away” and other traumatic interactions between queers and especially Christian far-right groups. Ultimately, you do not need to make your prayers public.

What you do need to make public, however, is your action. And after Orlando, there is no longer action and inaction. There is only action and tacit acceptance of the systemic oppression and violence against minority groups. If you are against social injustice for some groups, you have to be against social injustice for all. Period. Full stop.

In checking in with my friends in the LGBTQ community, I learned some very important lessons about being an ally and how to make your action meaningful (however local it has to be):

  1. You need to be quiet and listen. This might be hard for you. I will admit it is hard for me because I’m used to talking a lot. But you have to do it. The best way to learn something about a group that you do not belong to is to listen to the people who do belong to it. You might be surprised to find that they actually belong to your group and to the other group – something you may not have conceived of before. Being quiet means quieting your mind too: don’t be waiting to respond. Don’t be editing what they say. Hear them out. Hear their perspective. You don’t have a right to tell them if their experience with oppression is genuine or not. If you haven’t changed by the end of the conversation(s), you aren’t doing it right.
  2. You need to recognize your privilege. That’s right. Have you felt like shutting off your Facebook and telling the evil world to go away? Must be nice to just shut it all off without having to live the reality of discrimination every day of your life. Yup, I said it. While I’m all for self-preservation and activists taking periodic breaks from action and social media to replenish themselves, you can’t totally tune out. People who are discriminated against do not have the luxury of just turning the violence in the media off – they live it. Also: if you are a religious person and you are thinking, “Well, I’m not gay and I don’t know anyone who is, so I’m really lucky I don’t even have to think about what I would do or how I would deal with this” then you seriously have an entitlement problem. Since when is the fact that something “doesn’t affect you” a justified reason for not giving af while people are suffering? Eat your privilege. Eat every last bite of it and get to work.
  3. You can share ways that you understand their pain, but know that you do not fully understand their struggle. In a conversation with a trans friend of mine, I was giving examples of ways that Islamophobia and Queerphobia are similar: people hate us so much they want to kill us, we never know when we will be the victims of verbal or physical assault, our oppression is compounded by factors like what socio-economic strata we live in, our declared gender, what we wear and the colour of our skin. While this relatability brings us closer together, these experiences do not dovetail perfectly. Recognize that their experience is unique. If you add the fact that a queer person is also a Muslim or Christian, you have an intersection of possible discrimination which makes them far more likely to be lashed out at.
  4. This is not about you (at least not right now). Similar to number 3, remember that it is not.about.you. Way too many Muslims I know were crying foul at the media trying to portray the Orlando shooter as an “Islamic” “terrorist.” This includes hundreds of prominent Islamic scholars who took the time to issue a formal statement on the shootings but spent more than half of it defending the fact that this lunatic idiot didn’t represent Islam. Why in the hell are we pandering to Islamophobes when anyone with half a brain in their heads knows that OF COURSE HE DOESN’T REPRESENT ISLAM. This happens every single time a shooter has an Arab-sounding name. Every. Single. Time. And while that sucks and is worthy of both future action in the form of education initiatives and some condemnation (especially when so-called “political hopefuls” stand to capitalize on it to the detriment of everyone else), recognize that your condolences for the lives lost should come first. Yes, even if you are Muslim. Especially if you are Muslim. As a colleague of mine put it: the life of a child is like a universe to its family and on that horrible Sunday in Orlando, 49 of those universes were extinguished. If the first thought in your mind is to be defensive about how the media portrays Islam, you are not doing this step correctly.
  5. You need to speak the hell up. This is the final step and the most important. To illustrate how important this is, I first need to tell an anecdotal and seemingly unrelated story. Back in December, just after the height of the Islamophobia of the Conservative Party federal election campaign died down with their total decimation at the polls, I organized a Women’s Safety Class at a local mosque to give Muslim women the tools they need to de-escalate violence and remain safe. Rachael Heffernan – a four stripe black belt – taught the class and among many memorable things everyone came away with was a very important point about what your job is as a victim of harassment and possible violence.

Someone in the crowd mentioned that when someone harasses them, they are worried about freaking out because they don’t want to portray Islam improperly and they don’t want to incite the other person to violence against them. Throughout the class, Rachael had been pointing out that more often than not, acting crazy (“like a cat in a pillowcase”) or being unafraid to scream GET AWAY FROM ME as loud as possible usually does the trick against perpetrators because they are looking for passive individuals to bully. Now, if you are concerned about doing that and then having that person extrapolate your self-preserving behaviour to mean that all 1.7 billion Muslims act like cats in a pillowcase…well, as Rachael put it: you can’t cure stupid.

A harasser is a harasser. They are going out of their way to make life difficult and uncomfortable and even hurt you. You owe them absolutely nothing. In this instance, your only job is to GET HOME SAFE. That might mean being the cat in the pillowcase or it might mean remaining silent. Whatever you have to do, do it guilt-free: Just get home. Throughout the rest of the safety class, Rachael shared inspirational stories with us (like the one about a woman who beat her attacker while shouting “I have three kids and I am going home!”) as we continued to chant I’M GOING HOME as our safety mantra.

The same idea can easily be applied to members of the LGBTQ community who face harassment, discrimination and violence with alarming frequency. Just get home. Lobby and be an activist when violence is not a very real possibility. But getting home? That’s your only job when facing an attacker.

But that’s not the job of the people around you, your allies. Their silence is not permissible in my view. Collectively, they have no right to just stand on by. It doesn’t even have to be a situation in which they witness violence against you. It can be (and should be) standing up to everyday micro-aggressions like calling someone a faggot or making gay jokes or using gay as an insult – whether or not an LGBTQ person is even in the room. If you aren’t doing this, you are not an ally. It doesn’t matter if conversations at work or at home become uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you lose friends. Who wants to be friends with someone who hates and condones aggression against oppressed minority groups anyway?

You don’t have to attend Pride to support your friends, just like they don’t have to come to the mosque or wear hijab to support you. You don’t even have to agree with each other on anything but you do have to respect each other’s dignity and right to safety. It says a lot about the ally-status LGBTQ community that my gay and trans friends have been the biggest supporters of Muslims as we continue to be scapegoated in Canadian and American elections and, most poignantly, that one of the first things to come out of the Orlando shootings was the “Queers against Islamophobia” campaign. They stood up for you. Will you stand up for them?