The News and The Body — The Muslim Heart is at Risk

In the last two days, I have followed my Facebook feed on the latest terror attacks on Beirut, Paris and the world. Because I keep my community closed, connecting with like-minded people, who share my political and moral beliefs, many articles from the Arab world, from Muslims, progressives and those invested in peace-seeking, come onto my screen.

Among the items on the feed are articles that show Gazans lighting candles for Paris and Beirut, Muslim video clips condemning the attacks, other Americans pointing out the ignorance of wide sweeping Islamophobia, and threats to turn the US into a Christians-only nation (re: Jeb Bush).

Most dominant and striking among those this morning was a British campaign by Muslims #Notinmyname

What immediately struck me was the screen grab — the veiled woman holding a placard disassociating herself from the attacks. After a muslim woman is pushed onto the train tracks in London, even before, when the media pointed to Islam, Muslims in the west had to scramble to defend themselves.

They were quick to illustrate that DAESH (Isis) was targeting them as well (Beirut, Syria), that they were fleeing this fundamentalism, just like they fear Boko Haram, just like I fear other kinds of fundamentalists. Muslims know they are under attack, that they will be blamed. Just like the 9/11 attacks, when Arab Americans like myself prayed “don’t let them look like me.” As Suheir Hammad’s poem, First Writing Since…expressed

first, please god, let it be a mistake, the pilot’s heart failed, the
plane’s engine died.
then please god, let it be a nightmare, wake me now.
please god, after the second plane, please, don’t let it be anyone
who looks like my brothers….

The face of the woman in the #Notinmyname campaign had that same look — the impassive face that underneath twitched with a rumble of self-protection, hope and fear. And I asked myself, since while I am Arab-American, I am neither Muslim or veiled, what that kind of fear feels like — how the constant positioning of defensiveness, the need for humanity, and understanding…what does this do to the body.

One thing that I do know is that many Muslims lay low, they don’t speak too loudly, they don’t put themselves out there — like post-9/11 store owners, they put the flag in the window and smile at the customers. The physical release of the fear doesn’t get to purge the body, so what happens?

A state of fear. Knowing that whoever sees you will question your right: to be in the country, to be alive, to practice your religion. The judgement of how you worship and what you worship will eventually turn you into a terrorist or a beheader or a radical. What does that do to the body? And if it’s daily, like in Palestine and Gaza, what does that mean for you quality of life?

We know fear can be debilitating physically and morally. The constant censorship, the careful examination of your own language and presence is an kind of erasure of the self. But fear is much bigger. According to Taking Charge of Health, “Fear can impair formation of long-term memories and cause damage to certain parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can make it even more difficult to regulate fear and can leave a person anxious most of the time. To someone in chronic fear, the world looks scary and their memories confirm that.”

Chronic fear is different from sudden fear, or being afraid — it’s a constant application of these conditions on the body as if one is smoking packs of cigarettes every day. Like worrying, but worse, it heightens every interaction, not allowing the body the peacefulness of recovery and rest.

Very often the face of fear is still, unmoving, unable to express because the repressing of this very active feeling is paralyzing — overworking the heart and the nervous system.

Retaliation is but one negative aspect upon the world’s Muslim population. There is a damage that is more personal and is life-threatening. When the media (or military or police) put a population on alert, much like being an African-American man (and woman) in the US, the body takes a beating.

Like many Americans and many Arab-Americans, I am feeling grief, sadness and outrage, but I don’t have to hold my body in constant fear. It’s unlikely that I will feel the retaliation in the same way as the woman in the #Notinmyname campaign fears.

We who are physically safe need to use our powers to keep each of us as healthy as possible. And recognize that the physical damage is deeper than we can see.