Whenever someone used to ask me if I was Muslim, I often gave an evasive answer, something like, “I was born Muslim” or “My parents are Muslim.”
It was a strange way to phrase it. I told myself that the purpose of this hairsplitting was intellectual clarity, despite the fact that I had attended a mosque my entire childhood, that I had read the Quran in both Arabic and English, and that I felt personally connected to the history of Islam. Perhaps this was the natural recourse for someone who came of age after 9/11 and was taught to retreat into invisibility because of the dangers of being Muslim. I knew, in my heart, that I was drawing the distinction only to appear safer to white people, to show that I was one of the good ones, worthy of belonging.
This was not just respectability politics: It was an act of self-erasure.
On Friday, 50 of my fellow Muslims were massacred in cold blood in New Zealand. Not murdered but lynched, their deaths live-streamed to the sound of laughter. I long ago ceased to feel shocked at the violence directed against my community. But the heartbreak still comes.
The killer knew which day to pick. Friday is the Islamic Sabbath, when Muslims gather in the mosque to bow their heads in devotion to the divine. As they prayed, they might have been thinking about their children at school or what to make for dinner, unaware that soon their loved ones would be washing their bodies in accordance with Islamic tradition, preparing for the funeral prayer, the only one in Islam that has no Adhan, or call to prayer, because the Adhan was recited into their ears when they were born. When these Muslims saw the white stranger enter the mosque, they would have had the Islamic greeting on their tongues: “Assalamu alaikum.” Peace be upon you.
We know from the terrorist’s recording that one of his first victims welcomed him with the words “Hello, brother.” Muslims have long been depicted as an uncivilised, warlike people, but the opposite is true. We want to belong, to be good neighbours, to call the white man who enters our place of worship our brother. Instead he turned out to be our executioner.
The Muslims at the two New Zealand mosques were liquidated not just by a man filled with hatred, but by the ideas that he clung to, ideas about racial superiority and who his country belonged to. This was true in Quebec, when Muslims were gunned down in their mosque in 2017. It was true in Pittsburgh, when Jews who had been helping Muslim refugees were murdered in their synagogue in 2018. It was true in Norway, when 77 people were killed by a white bigot. It was true in Charleston, when black churchgoers were mowed down by another radicalised white man. A pathology of hatred has spread around the world, and it has put all our lives at risk.
Islamophobia is not a fringe problem: It is embedded in much of Western society. For over two decades now — the span of an entire generation — the whole Muslim community has been forced to accept collective guilt and punishment for every act of terror or violence committed by one of its members. Never would, or should, this standard be applied to white people, who seem to have kept the privilege of individual differentiation for themselves.
This is what those who are suspicious of Muslims cannot grasp: that the definition of racism is an inability to discriminate between the old man with the skullcap and beard before you and the suicide-bomber you saw on TV.
And yet people with millions of online followers have been incessantly preaching that Islamophobia is not the problem; Islam is. Canadian intellectual Jordan Peterson has said that Islamophobia is a “word created by fascists.” Neuroscientist Sam Harris called it an “intellectual blood libel” that serves only to shield Islam from criticism. After I wrote a series of articles critical of Harris, a young white man from California emailed me to tell me he carried a gun — what kind did I carry? he asked.
If Islam is the problem, perhaps we should keep an eye on these Muslims. Send patrols into their neighbourhoods. Make them prove that they are not terrorists. Ban them, as President Donald Trump wanted. Ideas are not harmless: They are taken seriously by thousands of people. If only one person applies these deranged ideas about the other to the real world, we get a mass-murder like the one we just witnessed.
I greet a neighbour; he smiles and wishes me a good day. How do I know that once he turns on his computer, he isn’t pumping himself full of hatred of me and my people, raging in the dark cesspools of the web, venting his frustration that we even exist, and how dare we try and belong? Racism begins with ideas. It ends with violence.
When I saw the news from New Zealand, and thought of the number of times I have erased my Muslim identity, I shook with anger. When I thought of the number of times I have let casual racism toward Muslims slide, so not to come off as threatening, I shuddered in anguish. There was a time when I was ashamed of my religion, ashamed of my heritage. Now I am ashamed only of having once felt this way.
“If one is attacked as a Jew,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “one must defend oneself as a Jew.” When you are attacked as a Muslim, you must respond as a Muslim. And today, we are all Muslims — all of us who are committed to the light of our civilisation, to peace, to saving our society from the primitive barbarism of such poisoned, inadequate minds.
Omer Aziz is the author of the forthcoming “Brown Boy: A Story of Race, Religion and Inheritance.”