On Friday, I joined Muslims across the United States and Europe in mosque prayers and listened to an all too familiar sermon by the imam as he struggled to protect both our faith and our safety. I could hear the mix of anger, fear, anxiety, and resistance to resignation in his tone. And the mosque-goers sat there, somehow more quietly than usual, listening to our imam labor to bolster our calloused spirits against the thousands of sound bites weathering away our identities. All of the debates, categorizations, explanations, and accusations induce the same gut-wrenching feeling: there is something wrong with us, and the world hates us for it.
Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, I am not sure that our religious leaders have been able to help us entirely. In their words and voices, you can hear the strain of two seemingly conflicting ideas: that we are not responsible, but we are also responsible. We should not apologize for the acts we have not committed or condoned, but we must look at ourselves. These people were not following the tenets of Islam, but we must question how some of us are interpreting Islam. There is a history of Western imperialism and oppression, but we must not make excuses. Be American, but remember your Islam. Walk proudly as a Muslim, but watch your back. It feels like we are trying to balance ourselves on a knife’s edge, and it is hard not to feel grievously wounded every time we are forced against it.
I could hear this pain in my father’s voice when he asked me, “How do we explain this to people?” Within that question, I know he was asking me a deeper one: “What do we do?” He cursed the murderers and media alike, wishing the former to hell.
As the eldest son in an immigrant Muslim family, I am often looked to for solutions to both the most mundane technological questions, as well as the most ethically complex ones. My head filled with a million different retorts, each one in opposition to the last. “Look at Europe before 1945.” “We should show them what Islam really is by describing how it shapes our daily lives.” “Charlie Hebdo was as racist as it was provocative.” “We must condemn these extremists publicly.” “They were not Muslims.” Despite my best efforts, I struggled to find a true answer.
Muslim public figures seem to fare no better on television, despite their best and most sincere efforts. Submitting themselves to absurd questions, their words dance to familiar choreography as they move in the space between absolute apologetics and categorical criticism of our embarrassingly hypocritical public discourse.
Muslims are forced to defend their commitment to liberal values in an illiberal society. We, who are the sole targets of the recent suspension of civil liberties, are expected to denounce our extremist co-religionists without pointing out that the greatest damage done to American liberty has been committed by mainstream American society. It was not Al-Qaeda who passed the Patriot Act. ISIS did not sign the National Defense Authorization Act. Osama did not open the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Al-Baghdadi did not give the NSA the capacity and approval to spy on American communications at large.
Yet, Muslim-Americans are somehow expected to prove their commitment to “freedom,” even as we are the ones being tortured, renditioned, arrested, entrapped, extra-judicially assassinated, and systematically spied on in our spaces of prayer. I will not even detail the immense suffering the United States has inflicted upon millions of Muslims outside of America through wars, drone strikes, counter-revolutionary activity, and the unflinching support of the longest military occupation in modern history. It would be comical if it were not so depressing.
So how do we young Muslims living in Western societies contend with the fact that many see our faith as “incompatible” with democratic values? How do we create a real sense of belonging in societies when we are pushed to their edges?
These questions, which come up every time we face attacks like this, provoked another in my mind: when was the last time I felt like I belonged? The answer came to me much more quickly than I thought. It was in the streets of New York City, while demonstrating against racism and police brutality in the wake of the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. It was with tens of thousands of people of different colors and creeds, led by young black activists who for different reasons also feel unwelcome in this society.
We as young Muslim living in Western societies can create our own sense of belonging through activism and solidarity work. In fact, this is necessary in order to create a path forward for those who are moved by the injustices around them, so that they do not fall prey to dangerous ideologies. We will make our home in movement and not by catering to the sensibilities of those who seek to preserve an oppressive status quo. This is the true legacy of all our prophets from Moses to Mohamed (PBUT). In doing so, we will build space for our spirits and our faith, not by simply answering questions but by asking them as well. The most important one being: what will Western societies do to live up to the values they claim as their own?