“Please, God, don’t let them be Muslims.”
This is the prayer of the American Muslim in 2015. The prayer we recited in our heads — and perhaps even on our prayer rugs — on December 2, 2015, when two shooters dressed in fatigues with faces covered stormed a social services center in San Bernardino, California, killing 14 and wounding more. Alas, it was revealed hours later that this prayer went unanswered.
When a nation faces mass shootings as often as the United States does, we can almost classify them as commonplace. As horrific and corrosive to the human psyche and spirit as these events are, they enter our national consciousness for a few dramatic moments and then are often chased off by another incident of incomprehensible violence. This will not be so with the San Bernardino shootings. If we know anything in the wake of the massacre, it is that this will have lasting repercussions on the American Muslim community.
After the November attacks in Paris, many American Muslims said that things just “feel different” this time. The hate is more palpable. For the first time, some feel real fear when they move about in public. While Daesh and Boko Haram wreak havoc on mostly Muslim victims overseas, hitting a cosmopolitan European city that is the stuff of many people’s dreams was unprecedented. Attacks on Muslims in the West are slowly increasing in frequency and as is the degree of malice in Europe and the United States.
However jarring it is to hear about a woman in hijab beaten close to her children’s elementary school near Toronto in the days after the Paris attacks, the looming threat that so many American Muslims feel isn’t limited to the physical. The maligned minority is working hard to build its collective and individual identities. Its noble story is a work in progress, from Brother Malcolm to the countless young activists today using social and alternative media to spread Muslim voices (plural, for who really represents 1.7 billion people?).
But each Muslim name linked to violence in the news in effect quiets those voices. It is an insidious and increasingly frustrating process to watch, with the faith being discredited in the mainstream. See the recent debacle that is the New York Post cover about San Bernardino for evidence of this.
Countless thinkers and writers within the American Muslim sphere have contemplated the question “why now?” Why, 14 years after the most significant incident of violence in the name of Islam ever, is the vitriol against Islam reaching a pinnacle (or rather, a nadir)? As counterintuitive as it seems, perceptions of Islam today are worse than they were in the immediate wake of 9/11. Dean Obeidallah broached this topic in a Daily Beast article in 2014, and it is worth reading.
Since the “why now” question is being puzzled out, I won’t go into it. In the aftermath of yet another violent act perpetrated by those who claim to follow Islam, perhaps it is time to stop reacting and start reflecting. No, we should not reflect on whether Islam sanctions this violence, for it clearly and unequivocally condemns it (Qur’an, 5:32). Instead, our reflection should center on individual and communal reactions to these events and their aftermaths. We know a mass shooting will likely happen again. And again.
So today, some perspective is in order.
When it comes to the San Bernardino shootings, most of us reacted primarily as humans. We are horrified and saddened by the carnage, the loss of life, the coldness around which we cannot wrap our minds. Fourteen human beings — people with families and livelihoods and dreams and aspirations like the rest of us — are dead. And that is what should affect us first and foremost. It should not be the religion of the assailants. Never mind that our unbalanced mainstream media focuses on the killers; the innocent should be our ultimate concern. (Incidentally, I am ashamed to say that I can name Robert Lewis Dear and Dylann Roof and Adam Lanza off the top of my head, but I cannot name one of their victims without Google’s help.) Let’s not let these people steal our humanity.
That being said, living on the defensive is awful. It twists our minds and hearts, embittering us, making us paranoid and angry. In the end, we are only human, and no one should have to constantly defend or justify their faith. If armchair revolutionaries on Facebook and Twitter sling verbal arrows, Muslims should shield themselves with the beauty of their religion. One-fourth of humanity adheres to Islam, so while there are those who will paint Muslims with a broad brush, remember that they are likely bigoted and most certainly illogical, and Muslims need not get caught up in the defense. Sometimes, when inner-peace is at stake, a person just shouldn’t engage.
Finally, remember what is at the core of all this: Islam. The faith that brings so many of people comfort and solace in a world that is so difficult to navigate. Hatred and violence are not of Islam; its creed is hope. Muslims follow a man who truly and deeply loved every single human being he encountered. The path of Muhammad is the path of not merely praying for one’s enemies, but also loving them because every human is, in some way, a manifestation of God’s mercy. Recall the story of the Jewish woman who heaped trash at his door, and for whom he later cared when she was ill. This is the Islam we know and need to practice.
With the rise of American imperial interests, a lazy mainstream media, increasingly vitriolic rhetoric from an insane political right and the unparalleled evil that is Daesh, American Muslims seem to be caught in a perfect storm. But by being constantly reactive to incidents of Muslim-perpetrated violence, Islam is being reduced into something base and ugly, and we are in danger of tainting our own individual lenses of this religion that is everything beautiful.
So when Muslims prostrate in prayer, or whisper to God in their hearts, let it not be about people who bring violence unto others. Let it not be to say, “Please, God, don’t let them be Muslims,” for killers have no religion. Instead, let it be for the victims and for our increasingly violent world.