This piece was originally written for Layali Webzine. The original piece can be found here.
I was 7 years old when I first had to defend my religion.
I was 7 years old when my first grade teacher got a phone call that interrupted a spelling test. She gasped — one hand gripping the phone, the other covering her mouth as she floundered to find the words to articulate to a group of small children that the greatest terror attack in our nation’s history, 9/11, had just occurred.
At 7 years old, I failed to realize that living as a millennial in a post-9/11 era meant that I had just become an ambassador for my faith, an obligation that I’m not quite sure, even now, that I will ever be able to live up to.
At 7 years old, never did I think I would be sitting down at my computer, struggling to type the words that describe the dolefulness and indignation I feel as a Muslim woman upon hearing about the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando last week. Because at 7 years old, there is no concept of prejudice toward minorities or an “us vs. them” mentality. All I knew at 7 years old was that a plane had crashed on purpose — and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that grave tragedy marked the beginning of what was to become over a decade of validating myself to the world based on my religion.
The evolution of the validation of my religion started with defending Islam after the plane crash of the Twin Towers, but somehow along the years, it has evolved into so much more than just reminding everyone Islam preaches peace. In the year 2016, validating my religion means understanding the intersectionality of issues like homophobia, crowd-mentality and self-hatred, like in the Orlando incident.
Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, and now Orlando — city after city, headline after headline — Muslims across the globe, but especially in the United States are not only mourning at the death of innocent people, but also cringing at the thought of having to once again face the public outcry of those pointing fingers to Muslims and Islam as an ideology. We once again have to use social media as a tool for broadcasting to the world that we do not condone terrorism. We once again have to face the thousands of people who take verses from the Quran out of context and twist them to fit their own political agendas.
The American Muslim community has been consciously and subconsciously fighting the same fight for over a decade now — the fight that time and time again resurfaces the illegitimacy of the ignorant logic that connects Islam to terrorism and ISIS, but doesn’t connect Christianity to the KKK, Trail of Tears etc. The same logic that considers a shooting by a Muslim to be an act of terrorism, but the Charleston shooting perpetrated by a white supremacist to be a case of “mental illness.”
We as a Muslim community try so hard to “normalize” ourselves — we try to show the world that we do mundane, “American” things like listen to Kanye West and eat pizza and celebrate Father’s Day — anything to remind the rest of the country, “hey, we’re just like you too,” — because that’s the whole problem. We fear what we do not know, and despite Islam being a religion of 1.7 billion people, Western society still hasn’t come to terms with the fact that Islam is the third largest religion in America, consisting of 3.3 million Americans.
Those quick to blame Islam as a religion, and insist that Muslims are the enemy are missing a crucial facet of this issue — the fact that nobody hates terrorism in the name of Islam more than Muslims themselves. Contrary to popular belief, we, Muslims, are the biggest victims of terrorist groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, etc. These groups have victimized and slaughtered more Muslims than any other demographic. Western Muslims are also victims of these terrorist groups, as these attacks are made in the name of our religion, Muslims in America are constantly struggling with the anguish these attacks bring to our own communities. We are constantly the recipients of hate speech and vandalism, glaring looks and ostracism.
As for Orlando, the fight is more so an issue of homophobia than religion. After multiple sources confirmed that gunman Omar Mateen was not only a member of a gay dating site but also a frequent visitor of Pulse, the gay nightclub where the shooting took place — the story becomes clear to me. This is nothing more than a tragedy perpetrated by a man whose self-loathing was manifested through the trigger of a gun, and justified with religion to facade the reality that he couldn’t come to terms with his own sexuality. Mateen wasn’t in control of his sexuality, but he was in control when he held a gun in his hand and pulled a trigger — he yearned for that control, and his inability to accept himself led to his own demise, not as a martyr, but as a self-loathing terrorist.
Mateen was undoubtedly a product of a culture of homophobia — an issue that admittedly, the Muslim community struggles with. Many in the Muslim community are completely oblivious to the gay community, and reject the idea that people can be gay and Muslim. As a community, we cannot ostracize or invalidate Muslims who question their sexuality. Hate has never been a part of Islam, and the more we demonize those seeking a safe space to voice their issues, the more we run into the problem of ignorance and self-loathing.
As Muslims line up to donate blood to Orlando victims and the LGBTQ community reaches out to Muslims in solidarity, I am comforted in knowing that while we may look different, have different ideologies, different lifestyles — we all mourn as one. While many will continue to use this incident as an attempt to put two currently vulnerable communities, the LGBTQ community and the Muslim community, against each other, we will continue to show them time and time again that our love and sense of community is stronger than hateful intentions will ever be.