Being Muslim in a Mad, Sad World

There's Right, There's Wrong, and More Than One Way to See Things

By Sabaa Saleem


Don't Be Sad : Allah Knows

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Since I began working as an editor in The Post's foreign section a year ago, I have come into the office every day hoping only one thing: Please do not let there be another story about a bloody attack perpetrated by extremist Muslims. Not in Iraq, Britain, Egypt, not anywhere.

I'm often disappointed.

Raised in the United States, I have felt fear in my heart as an American treading the vicious new world we all inhabit in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As the daughter of Pakistani-Muslim parents, I have ached at seeing an entire faith -- my faith -- often vilified because of the actions of a few.

The recent bombings in London and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, came as punishing one-two blows to me, pushing me to ask the question that I know many Muslims ask: Why do young people who are supposed to be my brothers or sisters in faith terrorize innocent civilians to make a point I can scarcely fathom?

Perhaps the reason I cannot find the answer to this question is that it is rooted in the non-Muslim American reality, a reality that is categorically rejected by extremist Muslims. This rejection incites an equally vehement condemnation by Americans of the extremist worldview.

Thus, we have an impasse: Two realities sharply separated. No nuances, no gray area.

Or is there?

Growing up in the United States, I have learned that we Americans stride across the world's stage with an assured gait, a confidence born of the belief that we act in the interest of freedom, democracy and an ineffable yet essential goodness. The images that have pulsed through me since my youth are of an ascendant America, an icon of liberty and hope.

These are the reasons my parents immigrated here, the reasons so many Muslims have come here. Rooted in this reality, I reject everything extremists say, every excuse they make, and I see only my reality and their misguided outlook.

But there is some inner voice nagging at me, reminding me that when I speak with peaceful Muslims from America, Australia, England, Pakistan and Scotland, I become aware of their reality, which conflicts on some very deep levels with my own. With fresh eyes, I begin to see their point of view. And I realize that their voices have been adopted and warped by Islamic radicals.

I feel that the concerns of moderate Muslims are legitimate when I read this: According to two British organizations, at least 25,000 Iraqi civilians have died so far in the war, more than one-third of them killed by U.S. troops and their allies and more than 1,000 of them children. Killed in a war that the Muslims I have spoken with found difficult to justify.

And when I read this: Nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995, and callously tossed into mass graves in the surrounding area. They were murdered with U.N. troops standing by, unable to act. Murdered after the world had vowed that genocide would never taint Europe again. And while some implicated in the atrocity have been tried, its two main architects remain at large.

And when I read this: Muslim men, who had not been tried or charged with a crime, were subjected to sickening acts of torture and humiliation. Acts that came at the hands of soldiers from our home, the United States, one of the foremost proponents -- at least publicly -- of human rights and the Geneva Conventions.

And when I read this: U.S. citizens and permanent residents with Middle Eastern ties have been arrested and held without charge or access to lawyers for months at a time, while their families have struggled against an officially imposed wall of silence.

These incidents, and others, loom as large in the minds of moderate Muslims as 9/11 does in the minds of Americans. The Muslims I have spoken with, and many others I know, have stressed that these events contribute to their formulation of history, their sense of what is right with this world, and of what is horribly wrong. It is these incidents, however, that are taken up by extremists and used to justify acts of violence that, by their very nature, are unjustifiable. And thus, the worldview and anxieties of mainstream Muslims are painted with the black brush of extremism.

As a Pakistani relative in Australia said, mainstream Muslims "do not support bloodshed. What they do support is a representation of their concerns."

But representation is often difficult to find, he said, expressing what is becoming a familiar sense of frustration.

Hearing his words, my mind seemed to open, and I realized that perspective is not black and white, defined as "us and them." It is nuanced and multifaceted, and it can be easily skewed to serve the will of whoever has the wiles to use it, including extremists.

As I continued talking to Muslim friends and relatives in Britain after the first London bombing, this point became clearer, as person after person expressed moral repugnance at the attacks in London and Egypt, but still showed concern and frustration about what is happening to Muslims daily.

"Those bombers were brainwashed," a Scottish relative said of the London Underground bombers. "They hear about Muslims dying in Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and emotion takes over." The bombers, she continued, wanted revenge, even if it made no sense, even if it was wrong.

Another Muslim friend, who was minutes away from a blast in London on July 7, put it this way: "Any moderate Muslim would be horrified with this. I could never imagine myself, in the name of my religion and what my religion stands for, killing another innocent human being, never. But we feel so outraged and traumatized by this, even though there are people out there who have been living with this, day in and day out, their whole families wiped out, and where is the shock and horror for them?"

The more information I come across, the more I realize how essential it is to understand the nuances of the Muslim perspective. I also realize that those nuances are present within my own mind.

I am appalled by the bloody-minded terrorists, who spew poison about America and think nothing of taking innocent life. And yet, I have come to understand that my belief in the United States and all it stands for has been shaken, and I am afraid to look at what lies underneath.

With a jolt, I realize I have an insight into the reality of so many Muslims, those familiar and those faceless, and this is what I realize they see: a seemingly endless parade of death and misery; a siege whose innocent victims are mothers, brothers, old men and children; an onslaught often brought on by countries singing of democracy and freedom, but offering neither. An onslaught made all the more horrifying by the searing reality that Muslim extremists continue to befoul the name of Islam with their killing of innocents, their indiscriminate war.

These realizations have not been easy ones. All my life, I have felt torn between my Pakistani-Muslim heritage and my American upbringing. Often, I would grow frustrated with the constant balancing act. Now, I believe this turmoil was preparation for the difficult times ahead, when my dual perspective would coalesce to form an outlook that can bridge two worlds.

I stand with a foot in both of these worlds, not a relativist, not an apologist, but a Muslim American woman hoping that one day Americans and moderate Muslims around the globe will emerge from the ominous shadow of violence, and try to understand each other.

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Sabaa Saleem is a British-born Muslim of Pakistani descent who came to the United States at the age of 1. She has relatives in England, Scotland, Pakistan, Australia, Canada, Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia.