Today, I was fasting. And as is usual during this holy month, my focus is more on prayer and reflection than on my newsfeed and my mobile. I woke up and I spent a little time reading the Quran. A verse I read stuck in my head throughout the morning. It was about the Quran itself, and how some people read it. It says “the perverse at heart eagerly pursue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and to pin down specific meaning of their own.” It made me think of ISIS.
Then I spent a few lovely hours talking about Islam with my brother-in-law, who as a recent Muslim is fasting only his second Ramadan. We talked about the fasting of the body and the fasting of the mind. I am watching a wonderful series of lectures about mindfulness and being in the present, and how ending negative suffering through these means are very much rooted in Islamic thought. We talked about spirituality, and the wonderful universal messages that Islam has to give to the world.
Then I prayed.
Five times a day we call out to “The Lord of mercy, the Giver of mercy.” These are the words we use to describe God in our prayers. We ask him to “guide us to the straight path, the path of those who You have blessed, those who incur no anger, and who have not gone astray.” It is a beautiful and peaceful prayer.
I read some more Quran, and it gave me a sense of peace.
Then I turned on the news.
And to be very honest, then I switched it off. I had seen enough. I had learnt the horrific details. And the context we all know well enough.
There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, we are not all the same and I cannot speak for everyone. But, if I’m honest with you all today, seeing this attack, and knowing what will come, there was just a sense of despondence and fatigue. To be honest, there was a moment of resignation to it all.
I have to tell you, it wasn’t because I didn’t care about the innocent lives that were taken; in fact it was the opposite. Of course that was the foremost thing that was on my mind. More innocent lives taken. Different innocent lives? More important? Because they were American. Because they were Western. Because there were gay. This was a new dynamic. And as tragic as it was, and as awful as I felt to see this senseless loss of life, the honest truth is a part of me also thought, here is a new burden on the plates of ordinary, peace-loving, true Muslims, an even more sensitive and controversial topic that we will have to answer for and address.
Let me make one thing clear, so there is no ambiguity; the loss of innocent human life by terrorist, lunatics is the loss of innocent human life; whether they are gay in Orlando, rockers in Paris, or Muslims in Iraq. If I am being totally honest with you, there is a time when I think it is worse. And that is when children are killed. It doesn't matter where in the world they are but when it is children, there is an additional pang in my heart. So there, that is the whole truth of the matter clearly laid out.
There is another thing. As Western Muslims of Middle Eastern decent, we go through the emotional distress caused by the Orlando shooting many, many more times than your average American citizen. We went through it today with Orlando (believe us we felt just the same as any one else), and our hearts broke for the innocent loss of life. We also went through it yesterday when bombings killed innocent women and children in Iraq. And the day before in Syria. And the day before. And the day before. And the day before.
It is especially painful that in our sacred and blessed month of Ramadan, a time when fighting is banned, every day as we fast and try to get closer to God, the people trying to destroy our religion from the inside out, have spent every day massacring us. "Us" meaning Muslims and "us" meaning all of us, everywhere in the world..
And then Orlando happened. And it’s like only Orlando has happened. Again, do not get me wrong; I am not trying to dismiss, or downplay or say they do not count. They absolutely do. I’m just saying the narrative and the context and everything we know is to come, it just weighs heavy on my heart and soul. I thought about Mohammad Ali’s funeral just a few days earlier, and all of that peace, love and unity that will be wiped out and forgotten because of this one lunatic idiot.
And, honestly, there are moments, when you get to a point, where you think whatever you do, whatever rooftop you shout if from, it is not going to make a difference. Because the machine that has decided against you is far greater than anything you can do individually or combined.
You have those moments, and they are truly deflating and heartbreaking and hard.
It is hard to be the victim and yet be seen as an attacker. It is hard to be demonised in such a systematic and irrational way, constantly and consistently until discrimination becomes normalised in to the every day language of politicians, press and society.
And surely this is an experience that Black people, Jewish people, Gay people, should all understand.
So for the record, no, Muslims don’t want to go around shooting gay people, or any people in cold blood. Muslims living in the West, have integrated and peaceful lives in their communities. Gay, Muslim, Jewish, Atheists, Christians, Buddhists…we all go to school together, work together and live together. We coexist, whatever our differences of opinion. There is no grand conspiracy that we Muslims have against people who may live contrary to the way we see things.
Yes, it is true, that Islam doesn’t believe in homosexuality, it also doesn’t believe in sex outside of marriage, or the consumption of alcohol. I know, presently, this may be a controversial thing to say (I have never talked about homosexuality and Islam until this moment) – I also know these are the reasons some people see Islam as backwards, archaic, wrong. They disagree with it.
I’m not going to deny what Islam does and does not agree with, and I don’t want to simplify Islam either; it is a holistic way of life with a lot to say about how we should behave in society. It is beautiful in that it shows us how to live in peace, not just in an “Islamic State” but in all types of societies, and amongst all types of people. Islam is not defined by it’s point of view on just one thing.
And, all of this said and done, I can promise you this, I spend as little time thinking about gay people, as I do about people who get piss drunk on a Friday night, or teenage mothers out of wedlock, or any of the other things that seem to be attributed to me, as if my whole existence as a Muslim is sitting behind closed doors plotting and planning some Islamic invasion to wipe all these things out of London or Orlando or wherever. Yes, I spend as little time thinking about all of these things…and that time would amount to zero.
What I do spend my time on is building myself to be a better person, to be a better Muslim, to be active in my society that is made up of a plethora of different cultures, religions and peoples. To be respectful and friendly to all I meet (I don’t ask or care whether they are gay, atheist, Buddhist or whatever) I just exist and contribute in society just like everyone else.
But perhaps unlike everyone else, as a Muslim in the West I am facing an unprecedented level of demonisation and discrimination. What I wear is banned, what I do is scrutinised…the man who may very well be the next President of the United States wants to ban me from entering the country. And there is absolutely no real effort to stop the dangerous slide in politics that we are seeing in America and Europe. We are so close to crossing the line that I’m starting to wonder if we have learnt anything from our recent, devastating history.
The facts are these; the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the West condemn terrorism, ISIS, violence against others (including gay people), and extremism both vocally and actively.
It would have been so easy to have disassociated Islam from these isolated incidents of terrorism (yes, in the West they are still isolated) in the same way Christianity is disassociated from White supremacy or I dunno… how hooliganism is isolated from Euro 2016!
But it isn’t disassociated, it is associated; purposefully and through much effort. A few words and events here or there by the press or politicians saying “these terrorists don’t represent Islam” only comes as a drop in an ocean they have already created; one that has painted a picture that true Islam is "ISIS Islam" and all Muslims are in their essence the same way.
As I got home and watched a few snippets of the news, I saw a very well known British political commentator storm off the news set because he was so frustrated that the news anchor was skirting the issue and refusing to describe the attacks in Orlando as hate terrorism targeting gays. He himself happens to be gay, and so there would have been added dimension to how he viewed this attack.
As he stormed off, I wondered, ironically that perhaps in that moment; despite the seemingly vast differences between us and the fact that we were supposedly on opposite sides of this horrific event; we actually shared more in common than at any other time; because in that moment he realised that whatever he said, would be attacked and twisted or dismissed, to fit in to the narrative that the news had decided to spin. And ultimately, that is the life for Muslims every single day.