As I sit on a crowded bus on my way to give a talk at the University of Illinois, my seat-mate turns to me and we exchange some basic niceties. He introduces himself as a French physicist who has just flown in from Paris to give his first international lecture on science and faith at a conference being held at the university. Our conversation shifts from astrophysics to the meaning of the universe to more imminent matters such as the current state of American politics. Haltingly, the physicist asks me with some concern, “So, how has it been for you here in the US with the Muslim headscarf?”
I hesitate for a moment as I weigh the best dawah approach. I decide to share my own reservations about his country’s restrictive legislation instead. “It’s not nearly as suffocating dealing with insults, stares, and thinly veiled threats here in the US, as it must be for Muslim women in your native Paris battling burqini bans and modest dress restrictions.”
He pauses for a moment and shakes his head sadly, “Well, you know, it is your country that has caused this to happen in France.”
I’m taken aback by his response. How can MY country be responsible for HIS country’s ridiculous restrictions?
He elaborates, “Your Donald Trump has done a very good job of planting the seeds of fear and leading the world towards a scapegoat. You will find many countries that will take secularism to an intense level of hatred and discrimination because Trump has opened that door.”
The door for the bus opened at that moment as well and I stepped out at my stop. I couldn’t stop shaking my head in disbelief. “My Trump?” What was Timothy, the French physicist and my co-conversationalist, trying to say?
As I walked distractedly across the campus, I realized that sometimes we need someone outside our country to hold up a mirror of truth to reveal our own messes. Timothy’s statement of ownership rang in my ears. This is MY America and like it or not, to the outside world as a presidential candidate, he is MY Trump. Regardless of who wins this election, the damage has already been done and the floodgates sanctioning hate have been thrown wide open. In the past several months, we have cultivated an atmosphere of unprecedented fear towards a collective group of people where bullying and intimidation are commonplace and even normalized in many cases. Amidst this type of atmosphere, we have allowed our children to grow up wondering why their names, their families, their beliefs, and their actions are ridiculed in the country we call our home.
At our Cornerstone counseling centers, we listen to the heart-wrenching tales of children who question their identity every day. There has been a marked increase in the number of youth who come to our centers questioning their faith. They question the way they have been treated in school. They question how they are perceived by a world that has chosen to unabashedly show them hate rather than love and acceptance. They question who they are and what their future holds.
On any given week, we see several middle-schoolers and high-schoolers brought into one of our centers by their distraught parents because the school has complained about misbehavior or the parents have noticed that the child is sullen and more withdrawn than ever before. Many times in our conversations with these youth, questions about identity and how they view themselves surface rather quickly. We can no longer ignore the child who is bullied in school to the point where the family decides to leave the country or the child who commits suicide because he cannot handle the stigmas society has attached to his name and faith. These are not just distant, nameless children in the news. These are not strangers far removed from our experiences in our ‘tolerant’ country. These could be our children who refuse to bring juice boxes to school because other kids will push on the straw and pretend to wait for the box to detonate as they shout mangled versions of Allahu Akbar! These could be our children who feel ostracized and left out because their peers relegate them to the sidelines based on their names, their families, and their faith. These could be our children silently struggling to cope and to find someone who can understand and guide them.
This is the time when we must help our children wear thicker gloves when holding the hot coal of faith. This is the time when teaching our children to find the purity in their own hearts will help them in dealing with the diseases in the hearts of others. This is the time when our children need to learn how to be kind and loving and unapologetically who they are in terms of their faith, their race, and their culture. This is the time when our children should feel empowered knowing how our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) reacted to the hate and fear he was greeted with in Taif. This is the time that our children need us to be strong for them.
In our roles as Muslim mothers, fathers, teachers, leaders, counselors and many others, we worry. We worry about our children, our students, and all the young people already struggling in a world that tells them they are not wanted, not loved, not good enough, not American enough. We worry that every child who has a name like the names plastered on our cell alerts, blaring angrily on the nightly news, and popping up incessantly on our newsfeeds will be taunted-- not just by other children, but by adults who spew out hate in the name of politics and a supposed thirst for justice. We worry about that twisted sense of justice and we ask where the justice is for a child who fears leaving his home because of the names he will be called for a hatred he can't even comprehend. We ask where that justice is for the young woman who is afraid to wear her hijab today on the subway or on her walk to school. We ask where that justice is for the elderly couple who stares silently at the television screen trying hard to fathom the words that condemn their faith rather than the acts that do not represent their faith. The question continues to ring in our hearts, our minds, and our ears, ‘Where is that justice?’
In holding up the metaphoric mirror on the bus ride and reminding me of the importance of taking ownership, the French physicist inadvertently helped me answer the question of where that justice is. It's in the kind hearts of so many fellow Americans who will reach out today, tomorrow, and long after the elections are over. It’s in their kind smiles and their loud declarations that the hurtful actions of a few do not define an entire people. It is in the friendships that our children will make as they disarm unfounded fear and allow their actions to speak louder than any media words. That justice will continue to exist in the minds and hearts of our people. It will continue to exist regardless of who our next president will be. It will continue to exist because this is OUR America.
By Suzy Ismail , 01 Nov 2016