On the morning of Saturday July 23, I was on a bus to Washington DC to attend the American Muslim March, organized by Florida-based group American Islam. A friend had told me about the event, and I decided to go because I wanted to stand for peace and in solidarity with the brothers and sisters of my faith. Wherever I stood was witness to heartbreaking times. I remember almost feeling like I needed to be around my fellow Muslims for comfort in such a troubling period in humanity’s history.
We were in the summer of 2016. The earth trembled with tragedy and the air smelled of fear. The sort of fear that manifested itself in walls built to keep each other out, and in words slung and seeped in ruthless hate. The man who proposed a complete shutdown of Muslims — many fleeing war and persecution — entering the United States held a chance of becoming the next American president. African-American men were being killed unjustly in front of children, in their own country. The ugly racism underlying Britain’s exit from the European Union was unearthed as hate crimes swelled in the heat of June. The worst refugee crisis since World War II had faded away as last year’s summer trending topic. Around me, people were playing Pokemon Go while Syrian children who lived in constant fear for their lives were holding pictures of Pokemon to get the world’s attention.
Almost 34 000 people a day are forced to leave their homes because of conflict and persecution. More than half of the world’s refugees come from the Muslim-majority lands of Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria. Let me repeat. The Republican nominee for president has called for a total ban on Muslims entering the United States.
On the day of the march, twin suicide blasts killed 80 people and wounded 231 oceans away in Kabul. The 80 people who died in the deadliest attack in Afghanistan’s capital since 2001 were Muslim. They were Hazaras, a Shiite ethnic minority, that have been oppressed and marginalized in their own country for years. That day’s attack was claimed by ISIS.
My ears burn at the acronym for this heinous group that has slandered my faith, who have killed wickedly and indiscriminately. So much blood has been shed in the name of my religion it makes me sick to know that so many innocent lives have been taken so brutally. I constantly fear that more people will associate my religion with this unspeakable violence. How many people know that Muslims everywhere greet with Assalamualaikum (peace be upon you)? The first thing we do is wish peace upon another.
My second Eid-ul Fitr in the United States saw the seeds of fear that were lingering in my mind a month before take root in my heart. A joyous morning signaling an end to the holy month of Ramadan wilted at the utterance of a hateful comment by a passer-by. My first direct experience with Islamophobia enforced the reminder that one person’s actions do not speak for the majority and ultimately, fear undergirds this hate. It is important to recognize that we are scared of the same thing, more so now than ever before. As we share similar hopes for the preservation of the dignity, safety and liberty of our loved ones, we all fear assaults to those very same things. And in too many places in the world right now, people live under such threat every single day. In lands that seem worlds away from us, people are fleeing for their lives.
With every attack that happens, I and every other Muslim pray with closed eyes that the words Islamic or Muslim do not turn up on front-page news. With every attack that happens, many of us pray for the victims and the aching lands they come from — Muslim or non-Muslim. Most of the time it is the best I can do.
I sat on the grass of the National Mall, the site of many historic demonstrations. In close distance, the Capitol Hill loomed over us in all its symbolic glory. Many people around me were carrying placards with phrases such as “Muslims Against ISIS”, “Islamophobia is Unamerican” and my favourite, “Not in Our Name”. At the corner of my eye I saw a man and his daughter pose for a photograph. They were carrying the sign “We Stand For Peace”. The sight made me tear up. Muslims now have to prove our non-allegiance to the terror perpetrated by a group of monsters. The same monsters who are killing our brothers and sisters whom we feel powerless to save, who carried out an attack in one of our holiest sites in Medina during Ramadan. We were gathered together on this day because it has become necessary to publicly denounce actions that are the furthest thing from the true teachings of our faith. This hurt.
In D.C., I asked 20-year-old Faraj Chaaban what it means to be an American Muslim.
“You have to hold yourself to a higher standard, so people get an accurate representation of Muslims. If you slip up as a Muslim here, everyone will notice. That’s why I try to be better. I want people to think I’m a good person because of my religion.”
His words serve as inspiration to us all. Islam taught me to love every human — regardless of faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, color and creed. How I carry myself and treat others speaks volumes of my faith. I am now trying my best to act in a way that reflects Islam.