About #JuSuisCharlie, #JuSuisAhmed, and the Attacks on Charlie Hebdo?

The attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in France and the ensuing terror caused by the manhunt for the perpetrators has made for a scary and unsettling week for millions of people around the world.  For most of us this death and violence just seems so senseless and so frightening.  Whatever your politics or beliefs, there is no justification for killing and wounding people in this manner (please read here for more information on the victims).  In my mind, these tragic events highlight the huge disconnect between immigrant populations and the places they relocate to.  We have, thus far, responded to this gap by either doing nothing, proclaiming that our borders should be shut, or responding with violence in the places we think this extremism is coming from.  Very little is being done to actually engage with those who immigrate and those who oppose immigration, but time and again these voices have erupted with a bang in the form of 9/11 in the US, the7/7 bombings in the UK, the far-right gaining more supporters across Europe, and now the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  What I will tell my kids about this latest attack and its implications?

The first thing I will tell them is that the gunmen shot indiscriminately.  They killed people born and raised in France, immigrants, men, women, atheists, Muslims, etc.  They were intent on killing, not on defending their faith.  This was an entirely un-Islamic thing to do and can, in no way, be a reflection of Muslims in France or anywhere else in the world.  It takes more than a few phrases shouted in Arabic to make you a Muslim, just as it takes more than buying presents at Christmas to make you Christian.

Second, this debate is not about free speech.  It’s not about free speech because this magazine pokes fun at everyone from everywhere so who exactly was being defended by these killings and who should be the most offended by what the magazine is publishing?  Our response, however, is also not about the freedom to draw or write without fear of being killed (by a Muslim.  That is what people are both thinking and saying).  Freedom of speech/press could be an entire blog post on its own but just as a summary point, France is one of the numerous countries in which it is a crime to deny that the Holocaust happened.  If that is not a violation of free speech, then what is?  This is an absolutely crucial point that cannot and should not be overlooked.  It’s not about whether or not denying the Holocaust is something that you want to ever do, it’s about defending your right to do so.  Or at least that’s what the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag would proclaim.

Third, I’ll talk to my kids about how we report on this issue being a major part of the problem.  For the first 36 hours of this ordeal, there was much talk of how the gunmen were immigrants (they were in fact born in France to Algerian parents and raised in orphanages and foster homes).  Once their ids had been established they were still referred to as ‘French citizens’ and not just ‘French’ or even ‘French nationals’, hinting at their not-quite-Frenchness.  For those first 36 hours virtually nothing, however, was said about how some of the Charlie Hebdo staff were also immigrants or about the fact that the police officer who was shot was Muslim.  At the end of the day a life is a life regardless of nationality, creed, religion, sexual orientation, etc. BUT you cannot on the one hand treat these extremists as immigrants (read other, different, foreign) and the victims of their crimes as French (or in other words normal and one of us).  This approach is part of the problem of alienation and isolation that immigrant populations feel that then make radical fringe groups more appealing to them.  Please understand that I am no in no way explaining the actions of these men.  I am merely highlighting the very real ‘us vs them’ mentality we have towards immigrants both in the Western media and in our everyday lives.  We want them to be just like us in our society but we look at them differently, we treat them differently, we never truly accept them as part of our social fabric.  As a first generation Brit with immigrant parents, I am speaking from experience.  My children will grow up in the US as first generation Americans with immigrant parents.  They too may feel that sting of rejection when they tell people their Arab-sounding names (wait, you’re not called Steve?) or explain their background.  They will never be quite American or British or Danish enough.

Fourth I will speak to my children about how it’s possible that two men who were French (I cannot find any news reports that state that they ever held any other nationality) grew up to slaughter their own countrymen.  This is terrifying to me.  I lived in Manchester when the 7/7 bombings happened in London and I remember back then thinking to myself ‘these boys grew up like my family, as Asians born and brought up in the UK who were British.  They could be my cousins or my brother.  How did they slip through the cracks?’  Unfortunately we have been so busy fighting violence with more violence (the War on Terror) that we have forgotten to address the social implications of immigration.  How does someone who is born in the UK or the US or France, who grows up there, who goes to school there, and has friends who are the same nationality and part of that culture, how do they feel so isolated and so alone and so detached from their own society that they feel closer to jihadists halfway around the world than their neighbors, teachers, and friends? How does that happen?  France can respond to this latest attack by killing those responsible and possibly breaking up some camps in Syria or Iraq, but that is merely dealing with the manifestation of this social disconnect and not the root cause.  As long as we continue to ignore those root causes, this disconnect will be a problem.  That is a terrifying thought to me but if my generation is not able to look for these answers, it will fall to my children’s generation to do so if they ever hope to live in any kind of peace.

And this is a two-way street.  I absolutely do not agree with right-wing policies regarding immigration across Europe and the US.  But there have to be reasons why these parties are gaining support.  In order to combat this radicalization we need to understand why this problem exists and the extent of the problem.  Merely dismissing far-right policies as (insert choice phrase here) because they don’t agree with yours is not helpful, it’s not smart, and it’s not going to fix the problem.  We need to start talking about immigration seriously.  I’m British, of Pakistani descent, my husband is from rural Denmark, and my son is a Muslim, mixed race boy who is American, Danish, and British.  Clearly I believe in the benefits of immigration and the mixing of cultures and races but I also believe that both migrants and the communities receiving them need support in ensuring that the transition is as smooth as possible.

So no, like so many others I am not #JuSuisCharlie.  I will tell my kids that this attack goes way beyond that debate.  Be respectful of those who were killed and acknowledge what a senseless and awful loss their deaths were.  Then look to how two boys who grew up as French nationals in France felt so isolated and so far removed from their own country that they turned to radicalism and slaughter instead.  The chances are if this is their story, it’s about to be someone else’s too.  Maybe instead of fighting guns with more guns, it’s time to start addressing the poverty and isolation many migrants feel.  We have tried being aggressive and it hasn’t worked yet.  Maybe the time has come to start a dialogue with both immigrants and those who oppose them to understand their issues and start to construct homegrown solutions to tackle this extremism on both ends of the spectrum.  Maybe it’s time for us to kill (homegrown extremism) with kindness.  I will tell my kids that engagement, tolerance, and dialogue across the board will go a long way to tackling radicalism around the world and at home.

About the Peshawar School Attack?

As a human being, I was disgusted by the Taliban’s attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.  As someone of Pakistani descent I was so deeply saddened that yet again the country of my heritage was in the news because of violence and death.  As a parent, I was terrified and sickened with grief that this vile act of cowardice was going to change so many lives in so many ways.  I found it difficult to read through news articles on the attack because it was so violent and so utterly devastating for the children who died, those who survived, the families whose children were caught in the attack, and the staff at the school.  I find myself questioning why I would bring children into a world when they are so unsafe and where they may even be targeted.  What do I say to my children about this disgusting act and what we can learn from it?

The first thing I would say to my kids is this: education is an absolute luxury that is never to be squandered or wasted.  And I don’t mean that in the mum sense where ‘you should work hard at school so that you can do well in life.’  I mean this: for hundreds of millions of people in the world, education is not a viable option.  Poverty, a lack of facilities, a lack of access, and gender are all (removable) obstacles to education.  By some ridiculous luck of the draw, you (meaning my child) ended up in a household that could afford to send you to school and in a country that attempts to support you getting an education even if your family is poor.  Understand that although this education is being given to you, you are one of the lucky few that is able to access this resource, from your parents being able to attend parent-teacher conferences to signing you up for afterschool programs.  Take it for granted and I will home school you and be your teacher, your principal, your superintendent, your guidance counselor, AND your friends and trust me Boo, you don’t want that.  Education is one of the few arenas in life that can level the playing field somewhat (harder to do in this country than most though) and so you will always have to work at earning an education because your family background will mean nothing if everyone else is working harder than you.

Second, I will tell my children that this attack stemmed largely from ignorance and the fear that ignorance breeds.  The only thing that can break that cycle is education.  Not allowing people to access knowledge allows you to control them more easily because they are rarely given all the information they need to make informed decisions (hello Fox news).  If you are their only source of information, they will have to do as you tell them.  Attacking these children who were trying to learn and better their lives, then, was the Taliban’s cowardly way of attempting to further their influence and control.  But education and knowledge have the ability to change lives in a single generation in a way that only basic necessities such as clean water and healthcare can.  That speaks volumes about the power and importance of education.  Never forget that.

Third, I will tell my children that, as always, the acts of a few extremists, while deplorable, should never undermine their pride in being of Pakistani descent.  It would be a disservice to all those who died and to each and every Pakistani that works tirelessly to better the lives of their fellow country people if we allow this act to define Pakistan and its people.  There was much media reporting about how maybe Pakistan would now finally start to take the terrorist threat seriously and do something about this problem, as if other nations had nothing to do with the ability of the Taliban and other terrorist groups to grow and gain sympathizers and supporters.  Even if my children weren’t Pakistani I would tell them that this affects them because we are all linked.  Not in some abstract, the universe-loves-us-all kind of way, but in very real terms.  I don’t need to remind you all of how instrumental the West was in bringing the Taliban to power in the region so yes, we are all linked whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  So look at this as a human event and not a national one and in so doing you may be able to reveal what part you (and your friends and your communities) can play in the solution.

Fourth, I will tell my children about true bravery and courage in the face of unimaginable odds: Malala Yousafzai.  What an impressive and just awe-inspiring person.  I will encourage them to read and watch her speeches, follow her life story up until this point, and keep an eye on what she does in the future because she offers us all an education that cannot be taught in a classroom but that we all can benefit from, regardless of our age, nationality, or gender.

I am finding it impossible to spin anything remotely positive or uplifting out of this school attack.  Rather than being some point of lively debate that we can rally around, this attack just leaves everyone feeling shocked and sickened.  Still, I want my children to know about the world that they’re growing up in and, unfortunately, part of that world is senseless and frightening ignorance and violence.  Just because it happened ‘out there’, however, doesn’t mean that we can’t be part of the solution here.  These children and these families showed and continue to show unwavering bravery in the face of the most terrifying acts all in the name of education.  I will tell my children to keep that with them to remind them how fortunate they are to be able to access education and, whenever possible, to pay that fortune forward.

About Being an American Muslim in 2014 and Beyond?

I am a cultural Muslim.  That is, I grew up with Muslim parents, in a Muslim country, observing Muslim holidays and practices.  I have never eaten pork in my life (and despite the delicious and tempting smell of bacon, I don’t think I will), I have had the great fortune of completing a pilgrimage to Mecca with my family, and yet, as an adult, I don’t practice the religion myself.  I don’t pray, I (somewhat regrettably) don’t fast, I’ve never read the Koran in its entirety, and I don’t give nearly enough of my money to charity.  Although my husband converted to Islam (to appease my family), he practices no religion and believes in no god or higher power.  And yet our son has a Muslim name, doesn’t eat pork, celebrates Eid, and greets his family with the traditional Salaam and Khuda Hafiz.

The best way I can explain this is to restate: I am a cultural Muslim.  Islam is so entrenched in my being that much like an American would find it hard to divorce Thanksgiving from their American identity, I find it impossible to separate Islam from who I am.  It’s of little consequence that I don’t believe in god or the rituals of any religion.  Islam is part of my identity and I’m proud to say that it always will be.

I imagine (and hope) that this is how my children will feel when they’re older.  But I also know that my children will be American first and cultural Muslims second (or maybe third or fourth).  They’ll go to American schools, live in American cities, have many American (read non-Muslim) friends, and be American.  What do I tell them about being an American Muslim when their nation is at the forefront of the ignorance surrounding Islam? How do I ensure they remain proud of every facet of their cultural heritage despite what is said about it?

I’ve decided to approach this first by instilling confidence in my children.  I want them to know they are smart, beautiful, and perfect exactly the way they are.  Even the Muslim part of them.  Even the Arab-looking part of them.  They. Are. Perfect.  Will they believe this when they’re teenagers or young adults? I don’t know but nothing will stop me from telling them this.

Second, I want them to be tolerant of everyone as long as they don’t preach hatred or spread hurt and destruction.  So my kids can be whatever they want and embrace whatever practices they want so long as they don’t try and cause others harm.  This means if they meet people that are religious but they themselves choose not to be, they will be utterly respectful of those people’s choices and their right to choose whatever religion or belief system they want.  My mum, for example, prays 5 times a day, observes Ramadan, and is a practicing Muslim.  She never, however, forces me to follow these same practices.  Would she prefer that I practiced Islam in the same way as her? Of course, but to her the two most important things are her own personal and private relationship with god and that I am kind to those around me.  Giving me the freedom to be the kind of Muslim that was right for me was one of the best gifts my mother ever gave me.

Third, I expect them to take it upon themselves to be well educated when it comes to religion.  We know that IS in no way reflects the views of most Muslims or the principles of the religion so I want my kids to be aware of the same misrepresentations of other religions before they form those opinions.

Fourth I will tell them that they never have to apologize for or justify who they are.  They are Muslims (in whatever capacity) and just because some extremists have hijacked Islam for their own selfish and perverse needs doesn’t mean this is in any way a reflection of Islam, Muslims, or my children.  In my 29 years I have never tried to explain away my Muslim heritage and I never will.  Just like I don’t ask my Jewish friends to justify or explain Zionist ideals or my Christian friends to explain how blowing up an abortion clinic could be right, I expect to be able to practice (or not) my Muslim ideals without fear or judgment or reproach.  We are a prime of example of how millions of Muslims around the world feel; we should embrace that.

It’s my hope that by talking about Islam and Muslim identity with my kids, it will help break down the stigma of identifying as a Muslim (and believe me, there is stigma attached to this identification).  I hope my kids will then take this one step further and think ‘well if people judge me so harshly for identifying as a Muslim, who am I judging prematurely and is that judgment really justified?’

I have a lot to tell my kids about being an American Muslim.  Pride, acceptance, tolerance, knowledge – that is what being an American, a Muslim, and an American Muslim is about.



About Michael Brown, Ferguson, MI, and Justice?

My heart sank last night.  My heart sank and it broke and it ached for Michael Brown, his parents, his community, and fair-minded Americans.  I wanted to believe that Darren Wilson would be held accountable for KILLING ANOTHER HUMAN BEING so that I could tell my son that the country he is from is changing.  I mean, they did vote for a (half) black president twice now, right? Surely this is a sign of progress and growth.  But no.  That’s not what happened and now I need to figure out what to tell my kids…

On November 24th, 2014 the grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson over the fatal shooting of the black, unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th in Ferguson, Missouri.  Citing forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony, the state prosecutor was quick to remind people during his press conference that only the jurors had heard the evidence in its entirety.

The autopsy report commissioned by the state and the private report ordered by Michael Brown’s parents gave two different and conflicting accounts of what happened.  One says he had his hands up as if he were surrendering and the other says the opposite.  What is absolutely clear and irrefutable, however, is that a young man of only 18 lost his life.  And in what has to be the freakiest coincidence ever, he was black, his killer was white, and the state is choosing not to prosecute again.  I say again because, however much we choose to ignore it, we’ve heard this refrain before.  The data on justifiable homicide committed by law enforcement (not including state sanctioned executions) is sketchy at best.  CDC data reveal that between 1968 and 2011, blacks were over 4 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than whites.  According to USA Today, from 2005 to 2012, a white police officer shot and killed a black person almost 2 times a week in the US.  Of the people killed by law enforcement, over 18% were blacks under the age of 21 compared with 8.7% whites in the same age group.  If one turns to look at the data on incarceration in the US, blacks are so highly over represented it’s a wonder we can pass black people on the street without them committing some crime (or so it would seem…).

And Darren Wilson chills me.  I know he’s a police officer (well was I suppose now that he’s decided to retire) and killing when necessary is part of his training (it only took 12 shots…), but how can he say his conscience is clear when he killed an unarmed 18 year-old?  Even if you say you did it in self-defense, what kind of human says their conscience is clear after killing someone? Surely that’s the type of thing that stays with you your whole life and weighs on you whether you were right or wrong?  Maybe I’m just looking for excuses to not like him but I will tell my kids that killing someone, whether it is part of your training or not, is something that will always remain with you because we should never put ourselves (or others) in positions where they decide our fate.

My point in bringing all of this up is that when I speak to my son about Ferguson, I will give him this background to the events that led to Michael Brown’s death.  While Darren Wilson may have acted in self-defense against an unarmed teenager, I will still have to explain to my son that nothing, nothing happens in a vacuum.  This decision to not indict Officer Wilson is compounded by a history of racially skewed police killings and incarceration rates (not to mention higher unemployment and poverty rates among blacks) and try as we might, we can’t pretend this is an isolated event.  Forget the much lauded Arab Spring that the US was so proud to tout as an organic call for democracy and focus on the ‘Black Spring’ happening within your own borders.  Despite the system’s best efforts to hold blacks (and I would say many non-whites) back, people have had enough.  And while I do not believe that violence is the answer (and clearly neither do Michael Brown’s parents), I also imagine many of those rioting feel that they have no other options and that even when the nation and world is focused on them, they are still not receiving justice for their community.  America, your people are crying out for your help, your understanding, and your ability to redress the injustices that they have felt for generations now.  I want my children to hear that call, listen to it, and do whatever they can to respond to this suffering happening in their own country.

My son is many things and of the long list of weird and wonderful things American is one of the most important.  I will tell my son that unfortunately Ferguson will happen again.  I will tell him that in the country of his birth and the country that he represents through his deeds and actions, blacks (and other non-whites) are being denied justice or are being judged prematurely (and in some cases killed) and that, as a socially conscious American citizen, he has the power to change it.  He has the power to make a difference by calling out inequality when he sees it, by taking it upon himself to understand the ways in which the system is flawed, and by working in whatever way possible to change that system of inequality (political activism, volunteering, outreach and education, etc).  Ferguson happened to Michael Brown and his community but injustice touches us all.