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Raad Rahman: Will I Die a Muslim?

The repercussions of being Muslim after the Paris Attacks.

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Image courtesy of the author.

By Raad Rahman

Sometimes I wonder about dying. If I die on the streets of Bangladesh, it would be called an accident even though it would be an act of institutionalized corruption. Certainly, this was the very first thing that I thought, when 437 concerted bomb blasts exploded simultaneously in every corner of the sub-continental Asian country on August 17, 2005–the announcement that Islamist extremism had arrived in the culturally diverse nation.

If I die in a plane crash over Crimea, countries would be concerned about whether Russia manned down the plane, or if I did, if I were the only Muslim on board. If Malaysian Airlines MH370 could be accused of being downed by its own pilot based on his Muslim identity, even though the pilot held an impressive flying reputation spanning 17 years, what chance do I have of being exonerated?

On my first flight to Prague in 2010, I had a joined itinerary with my college friend, who I shall call Adina. Adina, who currently works for the US Department of Energy as an urban planner, was shocked when we were stopped for questioning at JFK airport. Minutes after the first time we were stopped, we were accosted a second time for “random security screenings.” When we were called up a third time for additional screening, our names were alarmingly blasted over loudspeakers an hour before take off. We were told that there were “special procedures” for those holding Muslim passports, and that because Adina had bought the tickets, these procedures applied to her as well.

Adina admitted readily, “I have never had this happen to me.”

Adina and I looked around, burgers and oily fries still plastered on our hands, while being threatened to have our luggage disembarked unless we explained why she paid for my tickets. JFK’s airport security allowed us to proceed only when I explained that I had taken care of hotel arrangements, in return for the tickets.

I was the only “Muslim” looking person (if there is even such a thing), who flew to Prague that day. The only one, because I counted, and we were (unsurprisingly) two of the last ones allowed to board.

I walked into the flight unsettled that it was Adina’s first time being scrutinized. After our shared experience in a sleepy liberal arts college in upstate New York, I never thought I would feel responsible for Adina being so wrongly probed or harassed by TSA authorities. Shame is profoundly pathetic like this, and my first instinct was to feel deeply ashamed that my name, attached to Adina’s, had caused her to be treated in a manner beyond shocking, bordering humiliation.

“Sorry,” I said to her afterwards, and then I wondered, why am I apologizing? I know she is one of the few who does understand persecution, as her family was driven out of central Europe during the heights of Nazi fascism.

*                      *                     *

I wonder how I will die, because none of this is my Islam. I’ve spent the better part of the years since 9/11 instinctively apologizing for the acts of extremist Muslims who have absolutely nothing to do with me, and everything to do with a brand of Islam that is despicable to all Muslims. I am exorbitantly angry with these extremists for continuing to try to tie my identity with their damnable actions.

One look at my mini-skirts, tube-tops, and swimsuits, and if you’re even the most conservative of Americans, you end up asking me, “But you look so ‘normal.’ What causes you guys to take the step to go over the other side?” This actually happened with a well-meaning white woman from the Midwest on a flight to Chicago, who was shocked to hear there is no other side for us moderates and liberals. Such ignorant Islamophobia is pervasive to many of the encounters I have had over the last decade.

But I am done apologizing for extremist obscenities, because these extremist acts are not occurring in my name, and I have absolutely nothing to do with them.

I have been scrutinized in over 80 flights in the last fourteen years. I try to take it in stride, because I don’t want to die at the hands of these stupid terrorists any more than the next person. None of us do. But I continue to feel violated about what Islamist extremists have done to the implications of my presence on every street, every flight, every city.

What level of daily humiliation do Muslims face? People like my family and friends who pray five times a day, or who practice pacifism because it is part of their moral compass?

An incredible amount.

My father was denied the right to see me walk down the aisle to receive my graduation diploma from college as a result of systematic abuse. The US government conducted secondary checkups on him, stating that my father’s common Muslim name is similar to someone in the Al-Qaeda network. No number of requests to expedite the process of investigation saw fruition. My father paid for my education in a prestigious US institution. Yet he was refused the right to celebrate with me. He was granted a five-year multiple-entry American visa the day after I graduated college, even though he had held several American visas prior to this one.

Hate crimes against Muslims in London have increased by nearly 50% in this past year alone.

I am done apologizing for extremist obscenities, because these terrorist acts have never occurred in my name, and I have absolutely nothing to do with them.

Ladies and gentlemen, no one is ever capable of forcing me to wear any veil, to become a suicide bomber, to attack in the name of a “nation of God.” This is an absurd concept. “Righteous” action to attack others, when conflated with religiosity, when applied to nationalist philosophy, imagines boundaries as limited and absolute- erroneously decreeing homogeneity as the norm. This is actually self-righteousness, even when the assumption is there is a divine power decreeing one’s actions on a spectrum of good and evil, devoid of rational consciousness. As a result, extremists are just as bad as nationalists, in that they decree that some lives are worth mourning more than others.

As a teenager, while studying in an international boarding school in the Indian Himalayas, I was on a school trip to Nainital with friends. Our bus was stopped and held at gunpoint by right wing Hindu nationalists, just after the communal Gujurat riots. We were asked if there were any Muslims on board. Our supervisor said no as I shrank back in the bus seat.

I spent the next few months wondering if I should have spoken up. Now, I know I would have been shot had I said anything, so I am glad I didn’t. I will never sacrifice my life for any religion. Between that event and four years of missionary school and constant proselytizing by teachers about how I’m going to hell if I don’t convert to Christianity, and “friends” who prayed for my soul to be “saved,” I gave up religion altogether.

I find religiosity mostly promotes difference. The truth is, a bombing in Beirut is just as significant as one in Baghdad, or planes being downed in Sharm-Al-Sheikh and New York, subway bombings in Madrid and London, Bangladesh in 2005, and now Paris.

When a city like Paris is attacked, such an attack is definitely an attack on all of humanity, just as it is with all these other cities. The acute mourning for Paris perhaps stems from the fact that many of us dream of wandering through Paris’s side streets, eating fromage and sharing a bottle of Bordeaux wine, while sitting at the steps leading up the Sacre Coeur and looking down at the arrondisements scaling away in the valley towards the Eiffel tower. What underlies our affiliation with Paris, hence, is that this could have easily been any of us on a much-anticipated trip to France.

*                      *                     *

I wonder about the way I will die, as this violence is scaled up, and binaries are formed about my identity without my consent.

I’m culturally a Muslim, even if I don’t believe in religion. Yes, there is such a thing, and it is significantly different from being a practicing Muslim. Because I was born Muslim, it will always remain a part of my identity. Regardless of being secular, I have met hundreds of practicing Muslims who continue to inspire me with their grace and kindness. Some of them continue to be my closest friends despite my agnosticism. They respect my point of view, just as I respect that these Muslims have a right to practice Islam peacefully, without harassment, just as much as ISIS deserves universal condemnation from all of us.

Religious holidays see me celebrating with kebabs, dressed up in saris, and relaxing with close friends or family. The closest analogy would be that I’m just as Muslim as my secular Christian friends are Christian only when celebrating Christmas. I continue to be impressed by philosophers of Islam, such as Rumi and Hafiz, whose poetry and prose promote universal themes of grace, dignity, hope, and love. My most favorite architectural monument continues to be the Al Hambra palace complex in Granada, built during the Moorish occupation of Andalusia. Medieval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta’s travels inspired me from a young age.

The biggest targets of Islamist terrorist cells have always been Muslims, such as myself.

I am the kind of Muslim who stargazes on beaches in Jamaica, who lies awake for hours exploring ideas and books and art, who goes horseback riding, snorkeling in search of turtles, who dances away at nightclubs and enjoys the Beatles and Daft Punk equally. I crave sushi, crepes, pizza, and bulgogi, just as readily as I enjoy arepas, arroz con pollo, and pad thai.

I’m not afraid to travel alone, which further explodes the stereotype of the sheltered Muslim woman with little personal agency.

In short, I am the kind of Muslim ISIS hates.

ISIS and the Al Qaeda stand for nothing except for death. They wish to annihilate culture, to decree and restrict human expression. I know many practicing Muslims who are as interested in Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as they are in Van Gogh’s Montmartre paintings, Dali’s surrealist portraits, writer Chinua Achebe’s ruminations, and Egyptian singer Umm Khaltoum’s soulful melodies. Religion and cultural appreciation are not mutually exclusive for them. Hence, ISIS and other extremist cells are not Muslims.

I’m the kind of Muslim who cried for the Parisians who died. ISIS has declared war on all of us.

I was with my mother at my sister’s house in North London when the news on Paris broke. BBC coverage involved a manic repetition of dealings with Jihadi John. My family’s main fear was that I was supposed to take the tube to get to my friends in Piccadilly afterwards. According to the International Business Times, hate crimes against Muslims in London have increased by nearly 50% in this past year alone.

The fear is pervasive.

The BBC didn’t even bother to call ISIS by their acronym. By situating ISIS by their expanded identification as “Islamic State,” the commentators were validating ISIS’s belief that the terror group is indeed a legitimate brand of Islam, and as such encapsulates a wider group that can and does include all Muslims.

This is incorrect, for the biggest targets of Islamist terror cells have always been Muslims such as myself. ISIS, Taliban, and Al-Qaeda are interchangeable in my mind. They represent the world’s common enemy, just as much as white supremacists do. For these groups, the rest of us are vilified, targeted, ridiculed, terrorized. The Taliban shot 145 children in cold blood in Pakistan in 2014. According to a comprehensive study conducted by the United Nations, ISIS shot 9,347 civilians in Iraq in the first eight months of 2014.

These groups are the Muslim version of the Ku Klux Klan in their supremacist ideals.

Yes, sometimes I wonder about the way I will die, and what my identity as a fledgling Muslim will do to my legacy.

The subtle difference between BBC’s usage of “Islamic” and “Islamist,” post 9/11, is crucial when speaking of ISIS. Calling the group ISIS, or “Islamist,” is encapsulating that the organization is limited in its affiliations with Muslims and is a terrorist branch of Islam. Calling ISIS the Islamic State they claim to be, on the other hand, is suggesting that the group is expansive- that every Muslim can and wants to be a part of this horrifying network. None of us do. Syrian Muslim refugees are running away in scores just to get away from ISIS, if there is any room for doubt.

In the aftermath of the Parisian chaos, a close friend who is a top-level French national security personnel, was one of the first responders on the ground. I spent the night frightened about his safety.

A Pakistani-American operations manager at a downtown Manhattan non-profit, which promotes technological education in under-resourced schools, happened to be the one who comforted me as the night wore on. We spoke about our shared anger and concern that ISIS and extremists have center stage in media representations of Muslims, in a manner that nobody in our worlds agrees with. He confessed that he often feels like a second-class citizen in the US, despite being secular.

I identify acutely with this sentiment. Even though I’m not American, I’ve spent ten years of my life in New York. On the streets and borders of the US, having a Muslim last name automatically causes authority figures to assume one is guilty of extremism. Yet, it is true that our experiences would have been even more abhorrent if we were elsewhere in the US, outside New York.

This makes me wonder, if I die as a result of an ISIS or a white supremacist attack, will people forget the human rights work I have done? The photos of blatant bacchanalia? The encounters I have had with friends and strangers while merrymaking? Would these steps to sustain mirth and chase light, to continue to find wonder, be nullified if I happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Would people forget the fact that I don’t even believe in religion despite being continually identified as Muslim, and suddenly call me a terrorist? Or call my death a parking dispute as the media did with dentists earlier this year in North Carolina?

Yes, sometimes I wonder about the way I will die, and what my identity as a fledgling Muslim will do to my legacy.

Raad Rahman is a novelist and a communications specialist on children’s rights issues. Her human rights experience spans six countries and three continents. Her work has appeared on UNICEF, Global Voices Online, Al Jazeera, as well as several international publications. She is the author of Framed Butterflies, and is currently completing a crime investigation novel. She oscillates between New York, London, and Dhaka, and writes about art, politics, and human rights on her blog, Wonder Sonder. Harvard’s Kennedy School named her an Emerging Leader in 2013. Rahman is the recipient of residencies, fellowships, and awards from the OMI International Arts Center, Open Society Foundation, and Bard College.

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9 comments for Raad Rahman: Will I Die a Muslim?

  1. Comment by Shaila on November 20, 2015 at 11:37 am

    This is a wonderful read. Thank you for writing things that so many of us around the world are thinking of.

  2. Comment by Helen on November 23, 2015 at 7:59 am

    Good read. And how does She feel about the daily stabbing say lunatics in Israel. Why do I sende “that’s different” – because Israeli victims are not mentioned? Wonder if those attacks – random ones – on babies, teens and elderly – are justified in her view

  3. Comment by A Latif Lone on November 23, 2015 at 11:06 am

    Well written and probably reflecting the inner sentiments of Muslims in general, who get choked while explaining that they don`t subscribe to ISIS. Because ISIS is using the word Islam…….and the effect and controversy it generates is their success and our loss.
    Thanks to Raad for having given me enough words to EXPLAIN myself when I have to.

  4. Comment by Saaniya on November 24, 2015 at 12:57 am

    Your article encapsulates exactly how I feel, being an agnostic yet culturally a Muslim (and coincidently having studied in a boarding school in Mussoorie as well). I gave up religion after 9/11, but Islam is and always will be a big part of my identity as I come from a practising family.

    I think the most difficult part is that I understand the anger, fear and pain behind the ignorant accusations being made towards all Muslims. It’s hard to see straight when things like this happen and it’s even harder to think about the majority of Muslims who are peaceful when the minority can turn the world upside down on such a scale with their violence.

    Thank you so much for writing this. It has really struck a chord with me.

  5. Comment by Nnamdi on November 24, 2015 at 3:42 am

    Wonderful writeup. I grew up in Nigeria, and I have amazing Muslim friends. I feel so bad when they suddenly become withdrawn and speak with carefully selected words after every Boko Haram attack. It is beyond pathetic, bearing the brunt of another person’s crimes. I also feel bad that they somehow think I see them as others do. I see them differently; I know they can never be stupid enough to blow up themselves in a crowded market or a busy motor park.

  6. Comment by Arnab Wahid on November 24, 2015 at 11:20 am

    This is why I am an avid fan of your writing. It helps me express my thoughts in words. I am an apatheist, come from a non-practicing family, studied in a catholic school, yet I have been selected for random screenings so many times as a frequent traveler based on my name alone that I do not bother to explain anything anymore. I am fed up of being a victim of such stereotype.

    Lastly, I am going to say it again, you should write more often.

  7. Comment by Sarah on November 25, 2015 at 1:34 am

    Thank you for this graceful, gracious, and heartfelt essay. Two things that particularly struck me:
    – I loved your comment about being “exorbitantly angry” with the extremists – that is exactly how I feel about George W Bush and the despicable decision to make wars after 9/11 – that his choices soiled my identity as an American.
    – Although it seems illogical, it doesn’t surprise me that you felt shame about the way you were treated at JFK, because it is a very common response to mistreatment. Who is more blameless than a young child? Yet children who’ve been abused are frequently (almost always?) ashamed of the abuse. It is the same with an adult who is sexually assaulted – the victim may be too ashamed even to tell anyone what happened, even though she or he is precisely the person in that situation who *didn’t* do something wrong. We are social creatures, and when another person treats us in a way that shits upon our humanity, it is very difficult not to be affected by the message sent by such mistreatment: ‘I don’t have to treat you with respect because you are dirt’. I think that is where the shame comes from: I don’t want to let other people know that, at least according to the abuser, I’m worthless. (I know you know this, but for the record, since we’re on the subject, you are a person and an individual and you deserve to be recognized as such, even by airport security personnel.)

  8. Comment by eero iloniemi on November 25, 2015 at 4:22 am

    Whatever prejudices there are, airport security is a poor measure. Last time I visited New York I was stopped and searched at JFK four times and interviewed three times.
    I am a lily white middle aged Christian male.

  9. Comment by ANUBHAV RAO on November 25, 2015 at 8:05 am

    This is very heartbreaking and very true. i would not refuse to say that i am an indian and we feel that all muslims are our enemy pakistanis. This is not my mindset, it is the world’s. i will fight with you raad. we will show the world that their mindsets are wrong. i would like to hear some things from you at my email id related to the same topic.
    anubhavmaster1999@gmail.com

    YOU ARE NOT ONE RAAD, THERE ARE MANY BEHIND YOU.
    I M BEHIND U

    YOUR TRUE FRIEND,
    ANUBHAV

    #FIGHT_FOR_A_ CAUSE

    P.S. I WOULD LIKE A REPLY FROM YOU. IT WOULD CHANGE MY OPINIONS AND LIFE.
    -A TRUE FOLLOWER.

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