By NABIL SHAIKH
Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017
In the post-9/11 era, a defining moment in every Muslim youth’s childhood or adolescence takes place: it is when they first click on the comments section of a news article related to Islam or Muslims. For me, it was a Yahoo! piece from 2010 on the Park 51 Islamic community center (controversially called the “Ground Zero mosque”). I was only 14, and I had seen something on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart about it. The comments I read included openly racist and xenophobic slurs, demands for all Muslims to leave the country, calls for heightened surveillance of and violence against Muslims both in the country and abroad, and abusive misinterpretations of Qur’anic verses and prophetic sayings.
My face became hot. The Islam I grew up with was the warmth of my grandma’s finger as she prodded my hand when I made a mistake while reading the Qur’an in Arabic. The Islam I grew up with was the century-old schoolhouse next to my hometown’s mosque, where I attended Sunday classes taught in the broken but wholesome English of volunteer immigrant parents from Asia and Africa, whose children were my dear friends. The Islam I grew up with was the smell of old books that contained millennium-old wisdoms from prophets and scholars, made pertinent to our times.
Reading those comments, I immediately felt defensive and began various Google searches to help answer the questions these Islamophobic comments brought to mind. I did not find any satisfactory websites equipped to handle such questions. Since 2010, I have seen major strides made in one particular area of American Muslim community organizations and grassroots leadership: public relations. For some, the harangues of anti-Muslim bloggers and commenters during the Park 51 controversy sparked many within the American Muslim community to begin the struggle to speak about their religion and their community on their own terms. For many young people like me, however, such controversies left us feeling disheartened and ill-equipped to handle a public Muslim identity.
Growing up Muslim in the post-9/11 era sees many familiar scenes like this one. At age 9, you might find yourself in a history class with a teacher nervously glancing at you as she attempts to explain the beginnings of Islamic civilization. At age 12, your friend in the cafeteria might shove a hot pocket in your face while you are fasting. At age 15, your high school debate coach might ask you for your opinion on why women in Saudi Arabia are not legally allowed to drive. At age 18, you might sit in a university lecture hall and hear a distinguished professor lend credence to the theory that all college Muslim Students’ Associations receive funding from the Muslim Brotherhood. At age 21, you might console a friend dealing with workplace harassment due to her decision to wear a headscarf.
Throughout my life, I have struggled with the fact that all too often I find myself in rooms or in casual conversations or on news sites’ comment sections (it’s a bad habit of mine), listening to or reading statements made about my religion, my faith, my heritage—without any attempt made on the part of the statements’ authors to first consult Muslim peers, leaders, intellectuals, or activists. Too often, I have heard people speak in my name.
The reality is that one cannot understand Islam without understanding community. And one cannot comprehend Islam in America without studying and visiting American Muslim communities. It has been demonstrated through various surveys that those who have a Muslim friend or neighbor or coworker are much less likely to fear Islam or to believe in violent conspiracy theories surrounding the Islamic way of life. Communities are the gateways to people and their shared values. The first Muslim community I strongly resonated with was the Muslim community on my college campus, Princeton University. An incredibly multiethnic community, comprising students, staff, faculty, and residents of the local towns, the Princeton Muslim community dishes out American Islam via lecture series, interfaith seminars, English-language Qur’an study circles, open Friday prayer services, spiritual retreats, intercommunity service projects, and more. The leader of the community, Princeton University Muslim chaplain Sohaib Sultan, likes to say that, just as there are seven entrances to the holiest mosque in Mecca, there are numerous doors through which one can enter the Princeton Muslim community. There is a constant influx and efflux of scholars, activists, seekers, students, “cultural Muslims,” “political Muslims,” and others.
The beauty of such a diverse community is that one can receive a plethora of perspectives on both “hot-button” issues and more basic matters of faith, identity, and life more generally. I never grew up thinking that Islam has one thing to say about anything, beyond the core truths of monotheism, the belief in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad, and other central theological beliefs. The word “Shari’ah” alone evokes such controversy in the West, despite the fact that it refers to an incredibly vast and diverse set of evolving opinions within Islamic jurisprudence on how to lead observant and virtuous lives. “Shari’ah” literally means the way—and more specifically, the path to water. There are very few things in Islamic law and sociopolitical modeling for which the jury is closed. This is because the world is constantly changing, and with it, Muslims are encountering new contexts and circumstances.
Yet, again, too often I have heard people speaking in my name: “Muslims __.” What follows is a broad generalization. If anyone were to spend an iota of time in a Muslim congregation or community center, one would discover that religion is defined not only by its scriptures and teachings, but by how communities across nations and oceans implement these wisdoms into their lives and marry these virtues with the realities of today. These are the people to consult when you want to understand what Muslims think—and there should never be just one person whom you consult.
One thing you will discover is the sheer pain that the community experiences each time violence occurs in the name of their religion. Indeed, just as I have always struggled with people of other faiths speaking in my name, I have of course repeatedly been troubled by the violent clerics and extremists who commit the most atrocious crimes against humanity in the name of my religion and in the name of all its adherents.
What follows is the backlash and, with it, the Islamophobia. Muslims immediately have to begin the age-old practice of damage control. We have to achieve the perfect balance of mourning and calling out instances of anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate. Thesensitivity of these times always results in disaster for Muslims, who, like any other people in the country, want nothing more than to mourn in solidarity. Instead, we face the certain onslaught of hate-filled comments claiming that all Muslims care about is self-victimization. It intrigues and bothers me to see the people with the least privilege in society face claims that their attempts to highlight their own suffering are problematic and are a sign that they seek privilege that they do not deserve. In other words, even in moments of collective mourning, I have found that American Muslims cannot win; they cannot both mourn a public tragedy and defend themselves without unwillingly conferring a sense of privilege on themselves—for being alive—that our non-Muslim peers find deplorable.
But if there is one thing of importance I have gained from such a realization, it is that American Muslims like myself must invest time and energy not just into responding to negativity and performing damage control, but also into their own joy. My entire battle as a young American Muslim growing up in the post-9/11 era has been one of reclaiming my own emotions, of realizing that I do not need to read the comments section. If I grew up wanting to see American Muslims speak in their own name; I then came to realize that the only way to achieve this is to begin with myself—to allow myself to feel collective grief without compromising my personal identity, to dare to find joy in the struggles of this world as anyone else does, and to find the courage to challenge those who speak in my name.