Ashes On Our Heads: How Far We (Haven’t) Come

There are so many things I could write about today, the anniversary of a day that had a profound impact on my life and the future direction of this country, a profound impact on the lives of people all over the world, thanks to the rather unique position of power on the world stage the United States enjoys at the moment. This day, nine years ago, was a cusp moment for us, and as far as I can see, it’s a cusp that tested us and a test we failed, pretty severely, actually.

We didn’t know a lot of things by the evening of 11 September, nine years ago. One thing people did seem to be pretty sure about, though, was that Muslims were somehow responsible. Islam. The spectre of evil. Hate crimes against Muslims and people believed to be Muslims, like Sikhs, began happening almost immediately and Muslim-owned businesses in the United States immediately began plastering themselves in a defensive layer of US flag stickers. I can’t blame them.

Nine years later, the news swirls with hatred against Muslims. Opposition to construction of mosques across the United States, bigoted statements about women who choose to veil. Bans on the veil. Campaigns urging people to desecrate sacred objects. Utterly misinformed and ignorant statements about Muslims and the culture in predominantly Muslim nations. Islam is blamed for all evils, is treated as a uniform monolith, Muslims as a hivemind.

To be Muslim in this country is to live in a state of fear and in awareness that you are hated by a lot of people because of the god you believe in, because of how you worship, where you worship, which religious texts you read. To wear the veil in this country can be an act of defiance. To be Muslim in this country is to watch people supporting acts of profanity and defamation; to see even liberals getting behind ‘everyone draw Muhammad (peace be upon him) day’ and ‘burn a Qu’ran day.’ It is to see a firestorm of ignorance and hatred whipped up around your faith. It is to know hatred on a highly intimate level.

I often use this day to reflect on how people came together on this day in 2001, how people unexpectedly surpassed expectations and overlooked divides. But on this day nine years ago, people didn’t surpass all expectations, and they didn’t all come together in a spirit of defiance, hope, cooperation, support. Some people came together to perpetrate acts of hatred against Muslim members of their communities, to plan further acts of hatred, and that hatred is only more intense and more entrenched now, nine years later.

My fellow non-Muslim people of the United States, I am telling you today that I am ashamed of you, and I am ashamed of this country. How long are we going to tolerate the oppression of our Muslim brothers and sisters for an act of brutality they weren’t responsible for, an act many of them would not condone, an act many strenuously object to seeing framed as something committed in their names? You may not be throwing stones or applying hateful graffiti to Muslim-owned businesses, but you are just as culpable as I am for the culture of intolerance and vile, vicious, abusive hatred we have created in this country.

We say that hatred of Muslims is radical and extremist, that we cannot be responsible for the fringes of our society. Except that Islamophobia is pretty widespread and pretty mainstream. Ignorance is widespread. The great myth of this country is that it was founded by religious dissidents who wanted to worship in peace. Well, here we are, hundreds of years later, and people who are not dissidents can’t even worship in peace. Mainstream organisations in this country have joined the tide of Islamophobic opposition to mosque-building. Mainstream. Not radical. Not fringe.

We have been using this day for nine years to beat people over the head for something they weren’t responsible for, couldn’t have predicted, couldn’t have known about in advance. We are using a single horrible day in which many, many people died because of extremist political beliefs to act like it’s acceptable to attempt to eradicate an entire religion. These attitudes about Muslims in the United States, what they amount to is ‘you don’t belong here, and you aren’t wanted.’

Muslims, you do belong here. You are wanted. I want you here. I want you to be able to worship in peace, I want you to be able to build spaces to worship, to educate your children, to be active in your communities. In our communities. In my community. I want you to be able to fulfill religious obligations. I want you to be able to have lively debates. I want you to be part of the fabric of our society. I want you to be able to work, go to school, ride the subway, drive a car, take a bus, to live, in safety. I want you to have the same rights everyone else does. I want you to be able to exchange salaams in the street, if that’s your thing, without fear. To be able to pray without fear. I want you to exist. I want you to be.

And I’m not sure that I, and many other non-Muslims in this country, have done enough to ensure that. We talk a lot about how we ‘came together’ nine years ago, but there’s a community we didn’t come together for. There’s a community we left out, that we continue to leave out. There’s an oppression we continue to ignore, or we pay lip service to and then put out of our minds. That’s on our heads and no one else’s.

We can do better than this in the future. But right now would be a better time to start.