The Fear And Guilt Of Being A Muslim After A Terror Attack

By Sarah Hagi

EDITOR’S NOTE: Yesterday morning saw the worst terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. After it was revealed that the shooter had pledged allegiance to ISIS, many — including presidential candidate Donald Trump — used the tragedy to attack Muslims and perpetuate dangerous Islamophobic beliefs. In the wake of such toxic reactions to an unimaginable tragedy, The Establishment is reposting this piece — written after the Brussels attack — to highlight the way this violent rhetoric impacts the Muslim community.

When I heard about the terrorist attacks in Brussels, less than two hours from where I live, I was still in bed. Usually, I have hope that a terror attack won’t be related to any so-called “Muslim” group, but by the time I finished lunch, the attack was predictably claimed by ISIS. In the course of a few hours, I went from horror about the explosions to fear for my own safety.

As far as I’m concerned, the most recent European terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris worked. They made me terrified. Not of the attackers — though they’d likely kill me along with anyone else. It’s common knowledge that extremist groups have killed more Muslims in the non-Western world than anywhere else. As a Canadian-born Somali, I’m reminded of this each time Al-Shabbab targets civilians in Mogadishu. But I’m mostly terrified of the equally terrified people who surround me, and who might at any moment decide that I am to blame for their fear. Like many people who are Muslim, wear a headscarf, or are simply brown, I’m afraid that terrorism will hurt or kill me indirectly: not with a bomb, but with xenophobia and hate.

But my reaction is more complicated than fear. Being put on the defensive makes me feel guilty. It’s not the same guilt I know suspicious white people see in me when they look at my hijab: I know that true Islam does not allow for extremist violence. It’s a guilt created from how hard it is to navigate myself as a visible Muslim in the West. How long should I honor the lives of those lost before I begin to distance myself from their killers? How can I distance myself from terrorists without implicating my faith? And will any of it help me survive the rising temperature of anti-Muslim sentiment?

I’m sure this emotional sequence is familiar to North American Muslims who experienced 9/11. I was 10 years old when the planes hit the Twin Towers, too young to fully understand how the event changed the lives of Muslims everywhere. I didn’t know people were actually being killed for being Muslim or Arab or brown. I remember my parents warning my older siblings that crossing the Canadian border to visit family in the United States would be different, though they didn’t say it might be dangerous. I remember lots of denouncing of extremism, from people I knew and Muslim people on TV — it seemed like Muslims everywhere suddenly became aliens who had to declare they came in peace. But I couldn’t understand why. We had nothing to do with it.

Now, as an adult on a continent that has suffered two highly-publicized attacks in the last year, I understand. Almost as soon as I knew of the attacks, I saw that Muslims — regardless of where they were — were expected to partake in a cycle of collective punishment and guilt, and not just at the hands of card-carrying racists. Denouncing extremism is part of the dance; we are called upon to condemn or apologize for the acts of monsters with whom we share nothing but a nominal faith. It makes me wish other Muslims would understand that no amount of denouncing or distancing would spare them another cycle of Islamophobic backlash.

If you’re a Muslim — or even vaguely Muslim-looking — you’re probably afraid to some extent. After the recent terror attacks in Paris, anti-Muslim hate crimes went up by 300%. In the United States and Canada, there have been a steady flow of attacks against Muslims as well. Not all the abuse is physically violent; some is verbally violent or simply confrontational. Recently, a British man boasted on Twitter about how he approached a hijab-wearing woman, demanding that she explain the Brussels attack. He mocked her response: “Nothing to do with me.” That’s where the fear comes from: the recognition that some people believe the terrorist attacks I mourn and condemn have everything to do with me.

My siblings and I stay in touch using a WhatsApp group and, lately, that’s been where we share our fears. We are scattered all over the world — some in Canada, me in Europe, and a sister in the Middle East. We’re all devoted to our religion and visibly Muslim, which makes us a target. We remind each other to stay safe when Islamophobic hate crimes — many of them against veiled Muslim women — crop up all over the news. Because I’m in Western Europe, my siblings at one point have all urged me to stay indoors or at least not go anywhere alone. We all especially feared for my sister in Toronto when, after the Paris attacks, two Muslim women there were attacked in the same week — one while picking up her kid from school and the other on a subway platform. The paranoia that keeps me standing against the wall, as far away from the tracks as possible, isn’t for nothing. If someone approached me either lashing out or asking for my apology, I would fear for my life.

I doubt these fears cross the minds of white men when they hear news of the mass murders that’ve happened in the United States. As has been exhaustively pointed out, most mass murders in the United States are committed by white men. White people are given the luxury of not being treated like a monolith — they aren’t expected to explain, or suffer for, mass killings perpetrated by other white men. Nor are they expected to justify or excuse the drone strikes that have killed thousands of people who share my faith. But those nameless, often blameless people are expected to give up their lives for the wrongs of others.

For years, Muslims have been lumped together with the minority extremist groups who sully our beliefs for their own political gain. We’ve suffered for it, we’ve been interrogated about it, we’ve been hurt or killed because someone assumed all Muslims are alike. So we’re choosing to be seen as a community on our terms, using our own voices. Islam teaches us to see other Muslims as an ummah, a community bound together as brothers and sisters in Islam. In 2016, we have the tools to allow the ummah to connect, organize, and commiserate together in a way Muslims were never able to in 2001. Muslims are joined together. On Twitter, we can make our ignored stories of assault go viral — almost forcing people to listen and open their eyes. I’ve seen it happen when Muslims have been denied services, watching their stories then reach major news outlets.

I’m sure that, for some bigots, seeing Muslims who are proud, love each other, and openly reject blame only infuriates them more. I’m sure other, moderately biased people wish we would wait to talk about Islamophobia until the terrorists have been dealt with. But why should we? The backlash didn’t wait.

Without loud Muslims on social media, would I have known that less than a week after the Paris attacks, an Ontario mosque was burned to the ground? Would the tiny, rural religious community — much smaller than my own community in my hometown of Ottawa — have been able to raise $110,000 on a crowdfunding site to cover the repairs?

It’s just one story. But it makes me think the only solution for Muslims is to try to live without shame.


Lead image: flickr/Ali Em

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