Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Muslim American Mom's thoughts on OBL

I remember that day-- the day the world stood still for a few seconds nearly a decade ago.  September 11, 2001—a day marked significant on my calendar as far back as nine months before the devastating tragedy even took place.  9/11/01 was the expected due date for my oldest daughter—just three days before my own birthday.  For nine months, I looked forward to that day, knowing that my life would change completely thereafter.  Little did I know that my life was not the only one that would change so completely… and not nearly for the reasons I expected.

My oldest daughter came a few weeks early and so I found myself uncharacteristically tuned to a morning talk show on 9/11 while cradling my new infant and concentrating on testing out an innovative baby burping technique.  Feeling triumphant within minutes of hearing a hearty belch emerge from my newborn, I recall glancing up at the breaking news on the screen and wondering why a familiar image of the World Trade Center that I used to pass through to get to work years before was flashing behind a myriad of reporters waving away plumes of smoke.  It’s hard to describe the emotions of fear, anger, and consummate sadness that passed through me that day as the towers, so familiar and so symbolic, came crashing down.
It’s even harder to describe the air of apology and constant explanation I felt I had to assume for many weeks, months, and even years afterwards to exonerate myself.  As a Muslim woman I consistently found myself in the position of having to explain away any link, sympathy for, or association with the attackers.  By label, the attackers shared the same ethnicity and religious affiliation as I do; but by action they defied the very ideals they claimed to kill for.  A basic tenet of Islam, as in most spiritual teachings, is that evil is unacceptable and that goodness is encompassed in those who exercise patience and self-restraint—not in those who kill indiscriminately.  (Qur’an 41 34-35)

While normally I wouldn’t care what associations or assumptions others make of me, in the years that followed, I found myself again and again facing questions and a pressing need to prove that I was not connected with nor related to the terrorists in any way, shape, or form.

Fast forward to today… almost ten years later and somehow that heavy feeling of a requisite apology seems to have crept back into the expectations of many.  As the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death swept the world this week, a sudden piercing of old wounds and new hurt came pouring forth at once. 

This past Monday, walking through the supermarket, I got “the look” all over again.  Shaking off my self-consciousness, I leaned over to compare brands of fruit snacks.  An older gentleman leaned in close to me—I assumed he wanted the sticky snacks and wondered momentarily how his sparse set of teeth would allow him to chew the candies disguised as fruit.

He leaned in closer and asked me in barely a whisper “So, we killed Osama… what d’ya think of that?”

Puzzled, I looked over my shoulder; sure his familiar and conspiratorial tone must be intended for someone else.  But, the tween behind me was busy fiddling with her iPod and the flustered mom a few products down looked completely absorbed in calming her screaming child.  I realized he must have been talking to me.  Unsure what to say, I shrugged, but stayed silent in response.

“No English… hunh?  It figures.”  Disgruntled and even more annoyed at me for reasons I couldn’t really fathom, he huffed and puffed and walked away, muttering under his breath.

Finally shaking off my surprise, I stood up, needing to call out after him—wanting to stop him.  Feeling like I should shout, “Hey, I do speak English.  I am an American and if you really want to hear what I have to say about current events, then just ask me nicely and I’d love to chat for awhile.”

Of course the lines sounded great in my head, but never made it onto my lips.  I stopped myself from speaking, sure that he didn’t really want to hear what I had to say.  It’s much more comfortable for him to continue believing his own assumptions rather than challenging his preconceived notions by listening to me speak my mind and possibly say something that would surprise him.

And I…well… I play right into his preconceptions.  My silence confirms his suspicions and implicates me just as much as if I had stood up and said I was a terrorist sympathizer.  I am as much a perpetrator of negative stereotypes as the old man at the supermarket.  Through my silence, I’ve done myself as much a disservice as the man’s accusatory words.
So, what I couldn’t say in the supermarket, I feel determined to say now.  Not an apology for who I am or for my beliefs.  Not an explanation of how or why or what or a dissection of the news reports that would be neither helpful nor satisfactory.  But, instead, I feel like I need to issue a condemnation of negativity, a denunciation of fear and terror, a pronunciation of what I think and who I am.

On vitriolic comment threads, people often ask why Muslims don’t stand strong and criticize terrorism, murder, and senseless death.   The answer is simple… we do.  Sometimes people just need to listen.  The Qur’an is often misquoted and taken out of context to “prove” that Islam teaches and promotes terrorism, which could not be further from the truth.  The overall message of the Qur’an is that humans together can maintain hope, faith, and peace through the strength of community and an unshakeable belief in the power and goodness of God.   Taking any line of the Qur’an out of context to justify murder is completely misguided and manipulative in the worst way.
Thinking back to that day earlier this week, I realize that shrugging might not have been such a bad thing.  My shrug at the supermarket said so much more than the silence it was taken for.  My shrug encompassed respect for the elderly gentleman, it encompassed pride for my Muslim-American-Arab identity, it encompassed an absolute condemnation of all that is inhumane and a resolute rejection of the murder of innocents in all its forms.  What it didn’t include was an apology or my usual over-wrought explanation.  The shrug said what my words probably couldn’t have.

Things left unsaid are often stronger and more powerful than empty statements.  I might be a proud Muslim, but I am also a proud American.  I want the best for my children, my community, and my country.   We are a Muslim family and we love to help at soup kitchens, march in walk-a-thons, and immerse ourselves in the usual girl scouts, gymnastics, soccer, football and baseball activities.

And so, for us at least, our everyday actions are our way of denouncing terrorism.  Simply being who we are is the best way of shrugging to the world and saying more with actions than with blank expressions.
          --Suzy Ismail


  1. great piece... I think a lot of us have those moments of "should have just said it"- we should just be programmed to say "do you have time to talk" when we hear any comments good/bad/middle from someone who isn't like ourselves, that way we wont say anything at the spur of the moment and we get their attention... but I loved your blog post!

  2. Thanks Nadia. Great point about practicing the "do you want to talk" line. :-) How was Paris?