Neighbors were frightened of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who plowed a truck into a celebratory crowd in Nice, France, killing more than 80 people and injuring over 200. People who knew him explained that he was anything but a devout Muslim. He had a record of petty crime, often displayed unrestrained bouts of anger, drank alcohol, used drugs, and neglected to pray or fast. Bouhlel, in recent times, was convicted of assaulting a motorist, and abused his estranged wife. In fact, he had a history of mental illness documented by visits to psychologists in Tunisia. What remains unclear is whether or not he had any direct links to terrorist networks.
Inflammatory speech invariably has a negative impact on the unity of our nation
Gunman Omar Mateen, who opened fire inside a nightclub in Orlando Florida, had a long history of behavioral problems, documented by school records over the years. He was expelled, arrested and eventually enrolled in an alternative high school after numerous fights in which he injured other students, and what one of his teachers noted as his “inability to show self-control.” According to witness Patience Carter, who survived the Orlando rampage, Mateen announced his motive as he murdered club-goers, saying he wanted “Americans to stop bombing his country.” His parents were originally from Afghanistan.
Richard Reid, also known as “the shoe bomber,” attempted to take down an American Airlines passenger plane in 2001 by igniting explosives contained in his shoes. Upon his arrest, he told officials conducting his interrogation, “Your government has sponsored the torture of Muslims in Iraq and Turkey and Jordan and Syria with their money and weapons. It’s in your hands.” Like the others, Reid had a history of delinquency and criminal offences. When he was born, his father was absent, having been incarcerated for car theft. After dropping out of school at the age of 16, Reid pursued a life of crime, often winding up in prison himself.
“Do you think that you will enter Paradise without such [trials] as came to those who passed away before you? … Yes! Certainly, the Help of God is near!” (Quran 2:214)
ISIS entry form documents of roughly 4,000 foreign recruits recently released to the Associated Press prove what Muslims have been saying for years. In an August 19 article in the Times of Israel, the authors note that the terrorist organization known as ISIS, “preys on those with minimal connection to Islam, because the more they know the less likely they are to endorse its methods.” Recruiting members largely ignorant of Islamic teachings, allows extremist organizations to indoctrinate them with a distorted version of Islam, designed to help advance its aggressive territorial expansion and slaughter of innocent men, women, and children.
Compulsive Use of Misnomer: ‘Islamic’ Terrorism
According to these and many more examples, it appears that an overwhelming number of terrorists display similar characteristics: ignorance and lack of devotion to Islam, mental illness, recurrent criminal behaviors, and violence towards innocent people. They are motivated – not by religion – but by geopolitical grievances and a thirst for vengeance. Despite these glaring facts, and their availability to the public, we continue to witness the term “Islamic” consistently being attached to heinous terrorist crimes and their perpetrators.
Certain politicians, TV personalities, and pundits help form public sentiment surrounding attacks, branding them as “Islamic” while the shock and horror are fresh, and details that undermine the “Islamic terror” narrative are yet unavailable. Information acquired in the investigations following attacks, in most of the cases, tends to paint an entirely different picture: individuals with a criminal history and psychological and behavioral issues, who are motivated by anger and driven by very real and disturbing geopolitics.
The confidence with which the initial speculations were presented, and the subsequent time that elapses in which people return to their daily routines, inevitably renders subsequent investigations and analysis far less newsworthy. The lack of sensation and inconsistency with the favored theme of “Islamic terror” renders almost inconsequential the ensuing findings such as non-existent religiosity, lack of clear ties to terrorist networks, no overtly political motivations, records of criminal activity, and/or histories of mental health problems.
A Tool for Election Hype
While we can’t always assume that the statements made by political candidates are intentionally misleading, this election season is a perfect example of disinformation about Islam and Muslims being used for political gain. From the inflammatory rhetoric of reality star and now presidential candidate, Donald Trump, to the attempts to garner attention by former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, we are seeing a lot of very strong words being thrown around without much concern for the real consequences they have for average Muslim citizens. And inflammatory speech invariably has a negative impact on the unity of our nation. Polarizing rhetoric such as Trump’s infamous call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States, and his blanket (and frequently grammatically challenged) statements like “I think Islam hates us,” have done more than raise eyebrows.
Newt Gingrich, on national television went so far as to say, “Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of Muslim background and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization.” Statements like these have proven to elicit intense levels of bigotry, hatred, and violence that have apparently been pent-up in a portion of the American electorate.
The Pressure of Polarization
These alarmist calls from powerful people to equate Islam with terrorism urge the general populations of Western countries to associate all Muslims with violence and danger, thus engendering distrust and fear of all things Islamic. Consequently, we are seeing an unprecedented rise in crimes against Muslims in the United States and elsewhere ranging from verbal abuse and discrimination to physical assaults, and sadly, hate-motivated murder. We can sense the increasingly negative sentiments in our neighborhoods and communities. Many of us feel awkward, ashamed, and even frightened to go to public places immediately after tragedies such as the recent attacks in France, San Bernardino CA, and Orlando FL. The pressure may be felt even more by those of us who outwardly appear to be Muslim, primarily women who cover and men who choose to wear ethnic clothing and kufis.
David Lisnard, mayor of Cannes in southern France, fueled controversy with incendiary statements regarding Muslim women who choose to go swimming, yet insist on covering their bodies while doing so. Referring to a ban on Muslim swimwear he said, “I simply forbid a uniform that is the symbol of Islamic extremism.” Thierry Migoule, Cannes’ head of municipal services, echoed the mayor’s sentiments, saying, “We are not talking about banning the wearing of religious symbols on the beach… But ostentatious clothing, which refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements which are at war with us.” Yes, they both just said that any Muslim woman who chooses to cover her body while swimming is displaying support for terrorism and extremism. Do they hope to force Muslim women to acquiesce to their standards of fashion and stop standing out so confidently in their voluntary modesty? Whatever it is behind those words, the result is the same: an increasingly polarized population, pitting the general population against Muslims.
These politicians have whitewashed the complexity of reality and presented a simplistic picture to the public: good vs. evil – and they are defining what means good and what means evil. People are afraid for their lives, for their futures. These politicians are capitalizing on that fear and telling all of us: choose a side – or else. This, in turn causes innocent people to appear guilty.
The Heat is On
Being under constant suspicion can cause individuals to feel guilty – even when totally innocent. Dalia Mogahed explained how she felt after 9/11, saying, “Not only had my country been attacked, but in a flash, somebody else’s actions had turned me from a citizen to a suspect… for the first time in my life, [I was] afraid for anyone to know I was a Muslim.” This guilt by association is advanced and reinforced by few, but very loud voices. After the Nice attacks, Kelvin Mackenzie, a columnist from the UK’s Sun newspaper, wrote a controversial column questioning why a “young woman wearing a hijab” had been allowed on television to report on the attack in Nice. He was horrified that the reporter, Fatima Manji, was visibly Muslim. He asked. “Was it appropriate for her to be on camera when there had been yet another shocking slaughter by a Muslim?”
Avoiding the Herd Mentality
More than one-third of those killed by the attacker in Nice were Muslims. According to a report published by the Counter Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy, Al-Qaeda kills over seven times more Muslims than non-Muslims. The majority of ISIS’ victims are Muslims. If it’s offensive for a Muslim to report a terror attack on television, is it also offensive for us to mourn our dead? We have to reject this idea outright and think critically: was it wrong for a Christian to report on the murder of Dr. George Tiller by anti-abortionist terrorist Scott Roeder in 2009, or the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996 by Eric Rudolph who had ties to the white supremacist “Christian Identity” theology and movement? In fact, both Roeder and Rudolph had ties to another Christian terrorist group, The Army of God. To suggest that a Christian reporter should not cover a terror act committed by a fellow Christian is clearly, easily, and immediately recognized as preposterous.
In the face of this monumental and growing problem, I refuse to allow others to determine how I feel about myself. As Muslims, we have to be the masters of our own thoughts and allow no one to convince us we are guilty by association due to our faith. That our modest attire or names or beards are incriminating, that the word “Islamic” must appear next to its antithesis, terrorism… No! The Quran differentiates between human beings who reason and those who follow the crowd without intelligent thought: “Or do you think that most of them listen or use their reason? No, they are but like cattle. Rather, they are even less conscious of the right way” (Quran 25:44).
Prophet Muhammad said, “The people will see a time of [much-needed] patience in which someone adhering to his religion will be as if he were grasping a hot coal” (Tirmidhi). It’s becoming clearer that this applies to our current time. Some of us feel like giving up. Being under constant scrutiny, guilt-tripped, cursed at, ridiculed, and hated – it is exhausting. It might appear easier if we just took our headscarves off, shaved our beards, and changed our names. The thing is, though, the solution is in the same hadith – the heart of the issue — that we adhere to our faith. Letting go of it will never lead us to success or ease.
We’ve Got a Choice to Make
It’s election season. Time to make a decision. And while it’s important to exercise your right at the polls, there’s an even more important choice to make, right now. Allah says, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve” (18:29). Our akhirah is waiting and the choices we make today will be there for us to see, either as witnesses against us or in our favor. It helps to remind ourselves again and again:
“Do you think that you will enter Paradise without such [trials] as came to those who passed away before you? … Yes! Certainly, the help of God is near!” (Quran 2:214). All of this life is intended to be a test. If it weren’t this or that test, it would be something else. So, remember the advice of Jacob to his sons, “Despair not of relief from God. Indeed, no one despairs of relief from God except the disbelieving people” (Quran 12:87).
All the Information We Need
It’s about time that we turn off our TVs, sign out of our social media accounts and turn to the Quran. The Quran provides the bigger picture and lays out a plan for the future – putting everything into proper perspective: “So be patient. Indeed, the promise of God is truth. And ask forgiveness for your sin and exalt with praise of your Lord in the evening and the morning. Indeed, those who dispute concerning God’s signs without authority having come to them – there is not within their hearts except pride, [the extent of] which they cannot reach. So seek refuge in God. Indeed, it is He who is the Hearing, the Seeing” (Quran 40:55-56).
Allah’s plan is geared towards our success, if we choose to follow it. With Allah’s help, we can make our ummah great again. “O you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Quran 3:200).