Sadia Jabeen discusses the experiences of being Muslim in the face of rising Islamophobia following terrorist attacks. It was originally published on Make Tea & Cake, Not War.
As events unfolded on Wednesday I felt a real sense of dread. I haven’t felt like this since just over 13 years ago, on September 11th 2001, and I am ashamed to say that I did this week what I did then: I retreated. I did this partly because I am still trying to make sense of this week’s events and partly because I have been so upset by everything that has gone on that I simply didn’t want to deal with it.
In this day and age, with social networks and instant news updates at the touch of a button, retreating can be difficult to do. An event takes place and almost instantly there is analysis and background, opinions have been formed and online arguments have been had before you have even had the chance to look at, take in and digest what has actually happened.
When 9/11 happened I was 19 years old and just about to leave for university. I had been working at my local council that summer and I remember hearing the news from a colleague whose sister was on her honeymoon in New York. In the days before smartphones, Facebook and Twitter it took a little longer than instantly for the news of what had actually gone on to reach us. I remember seeing a group of people in the open plan office sitting around a radio to hear what was going on, as if it were 60 years ago. I then remember hearing a woman in the office start to talk angrily about “these Muslims and their Jihad. They’re all mad…..” and she continued in this fashion, ignoring the fact that there were Muslims sitting nearby, who had nothing to do with what was going on in New York, sinking further into our office chairs, expecting to be blamed, to be told any minute to apologise, for the actions of some people we had never met.
I remember that day and the days that followed well. I remember the sadness I felt whilst watching the events of 9/11 unfold, seeing the death toll of innocent people rise before my eyes. I remember hearing the rhetoric in the news from political leaders and commentators and that’s when I started to feel the sense of dread. The dread about what would happen next. Who was going to pay for the crimes of the people who blew up the WTC?
And then the stories started to come in. Muslim women getting their hijabs ripped off their heads for daring to be walking down the street whilst being a Muslim. Sikh men in turbans being attacked and beaten up because apparently they looked like Osama Bin Laden. Islamophobic and racist attacks were on the rise in a big way. My family members were not immune to this. My sister was abused in the street, my uncle was abused for being brown and having a beard. There are countless examples.
I remember leaving for university a couple of weeks later and worrying about how I would be received by my new housemates and classmates. I remember when people asked me about being a Muslim I felt that I needed to talk about how “all Muslims aren’t like the people who blew up the WTC”, as if to apologise for what had happened. It was my defence mechanism and I am not proud of that, just as I am not proud of what I have done this week.
9/11 did not justify the rising tide of Islamophobia that followed. It did not justify the racism. It did not justify the attacks on random Muslims in the street, or anyone who happened to “look” Muslim. It did not justify the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. It did not justify the attacks on our civil liberties. The same needs to be said following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
When I first heard the news about the events in Paris this week I felt a real sadness at the loss of life. Nobody should expect to be gunned down in their place of work. Again I felt that sense of dread and worry. Who was going to be made to pay for the crimes of the people they had never met or had anything to do with? Were we going to see a further rise of racism and Islamophobia? Where will it end?
Unfortunately I wasn’t wrong, as we have seen attacks on Muslims in the streets once again and attacks on mosques too. We have seen a rise in racism. Someone I know got into an argument with a man in her local shop after she was expected to agree with him when he said “the only good Muslim is a dead one”. Wednesday’s events do not justify this.
The difference that I feel between 9/11 and now is that now I no longer feel that I need to apologise for what has happened. In fact I am sick of Muslims being expected to apologise for the actions of a tiny minority of people they have never met nor ever had anything to do with. Christians have not been expected to apologise for the likes of Anders Breivick or George Bush. Jewish people are not expected to apologise for the oppression of the Palestinian people by Israel. White Americans have not been expected to apologise for the attack on the NAACP on Tuesday Morning (yes that’s right, a terrorist attack took place in America this week too, but the suspect is a little pale in complexion and the targets were not).
There has been a lot said about free speech this week from those on the left and the right. Many have argued that Wednesday’s events were an attack on free speech. This may well be the case and we should stand in solidarity with the journalists who have faced attack. However, it is possible to condemn the attacks and stand in solidarity with the journalists whilst also being critical of the work that the journalists have done. This is not in any way justifying the attack.
I had seen some of the cartoons in Charlie Hebdo before Wednesday and I must say that I didn’t like them. I thought that they were disrespectful, offensive and racist and I also thought that that they were deliberately set out to offend. I did not change my opinion about the cartoons because of what had happened on Wednesday. This does not mean that I think it is right that the journalists who worked for Charlie Hebdo were attacked and killed in the way that they were.
Free speech does not mean that you can say whatever you want to without criticism. I believe that with free speech comes responsibility and that free speech should not be used to justify racism and hatred or used to incite hatred and violence against certain groups. The far right have always used “free speech” to justify their hatred. That does not mean that those of us who are sensible and disagree will quietly stand by and say “I don’t agree with their racism and incitement, but it’s ok, because free speech”. Of course, we would oppose what they are saying and be critical.
French politicians (as well as others from around the world), including fascist leader Marine Le Pen have exploited the situation to fuel Islamophobia, racism and division. They have called it an attack on the “French Values” of freedom of speech and “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”.
They are hypocrites.
Where were these defenders of free speech, of liberty, equality and fraternity when Muslim women were being denied their freedom to wear their religious dress? Where were these defenders of free speech when marches in support of Palestine were banned France in the summer of 2014? Where were these defenders of French values when a friend of mine was threatened with arrest at 2014’s Tour de France because he was simply carrying a Palestine flag? They were the ones taking these rights away.
Where were these defenders of free speech in their condemnation of the man who attempted to bomb the NAACP offices on Tuesday?
And where were these defenders of French values in 2013, when a Muslim woman was viciously attacked in Paris by two far right racist men? She had her hijab ripped from her head and her hair cut off and they then repeatedly kicked in the abdomen until she lost her baby. Where was the condemnation of these men by the hypocritical politicians?
Today in the UK, these so called defenders of free speech have laid out plans to bring in harsher anti trade union laws. This is not defending our free speech, it is taking our freedoms and rights away.
Don’t get drawn into the reactionary hypocrisy of these politicians. No situation is ever black and white, it is always contradictory, so let’s debate the issues with respect for each other and respect for the dead.
In conclusion, what has happened this week is sad. Innocent people have died and more innocent people are paying the price once again. Rest in peace everyone.