It’s a typical evening. My children are eating dinner and watching something on Netflix when I decide to check Twitter. I scroll through my feed and almost immediately, my blood runs cold. There's news of yet another terrorist attack, this time at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I later learn that 22 innocent people were killed, many of whom were children. I cannot imagine the feelings of horror, shock, and fear running through the hearts of countless mothers and fathers.
As my children get ready for bed, I change the channel to CNN. My son, who is 11, is transfixed by the loud voices of commenters on television. Even though we do not, at this point, know the identity of the attacker (police later identify 22-year-old Salman Abedi as a suspect), commenters are saying words like "Islamic terrorism," "jihadis," "suicide bomber." I can see his eyes hardening, and I know that he is scared. He has faced bullying at school after previous terrorist attacks, and he has memorized his responses to other kids’ taunts: “Islam is a religion of peace.” “Those bad men on television don’t represent my faith.”
As a devout Muslim and the mother of two children, I know as soon as I see the news that I will have to address this attack with my own children. I know that they might have to fend off taunts from Islamophobic bullies, and I want them to be prepared.
When I put my children to bed, my daughter, who is 8, asks about the attacks. She wants to know if Ariana Grande was hurt. I say no. “But other girls were,” I tell her. She also wants to know who was responsible for the attacks.
“They don’t know for sure yet, but they think it may be a Muslim man," I say.
"That's nonsense," she says. "Muslims are good people. They know it’s wrong to hurt anyone.”
At 8 years old, my daughter is not fully aware of the gap between what a religion teaches, and what a small portion of its followers do. She doesn't know that she will face judgment and discrimination from people who do not understand the true tenets of her faith.
I have to smile at this. She's been involved in countless discussions about Islams, both at home and at Sunday school. At 8 years old, she's not fully aware of the gap between what a religion teaches, and what a small portion of its followers do. She doesn't know that she will face judgment and discrimination from people who do not understand the true tenets of her faith.
I’m glad that she knows the true lessons of her faith: that violence is sinful, and that we must act kind to everyone. She settles down to sleep and we say our bedtime prayers, remembering to include all the girls and boys hurt or killed that night.
Next is the more difficult task of talking to my son. He is a few years older than my daughter, and he has been the victim of Islamophobic bullying at school. After the attacks at San Bernardino, the kids in his class called him a terrorist. During the presidential election, they laughed at him and said he would be deported if Trump became president. He retorted that it wasn’t possible because he was born in America, but that didn’t stop them from taunting him.
As Muslims, our hearts ache with every terrorist attack.
The second I enter his room, he gets right to the point. “They were talking about Muslims on the news again, Mom,” he says. He has lots of questions, such as “What do the attackers want?” and “Why do the news people jump to conclusions that he was Muslim, if they don’t know what really happened yet?”
I understand his confusion. As Muslims, our hearts ache with every terrorist attack. We mourn the loss of life while simultaneously fearing the dirty looks and slurs we'll face when we go out to work the next day, or when we stand in line to get a cup of coffee. He is probably thinking of school the next day, and what the teachers will say. He is thinking of how his classmates will react.
My answer is rehearsed, because it’s something I’ve said to him so many times. “The media conflates Islam with terrorism because they don’t bother to ask actual Muslims about what Islam means," I explain. "Hardly any of the experts on television are actual Muslims who can share their views and opinions."
I add that if reporters bothered to interview actual Muslims, they would know that the term "Islamic terrorism" is an oxymoron: "Islam means peace, and it teaches peace, so it shouldn't be inherently connected to violence," I say.
"Why would they call the bad guy a jihadist?" he asks.
My heart fills with pain. “Because they don't understand what jihad means," I say. “They don't know that jihad doesn't just mean 'holy war.' It literally translates to 'struggle,' or the struggle of Muslims to live up to the ideals of their faith and overcome things like anger and greed. Remember how you learned in Sunday school that the best jihad is to improve oneself?”
I tell him that whether we like it or not, we need to show others the true teachings of Islam: that we must act with kindness and stay loving and forgiving, no matter what.
He is silent for a long time. I wonder what is going through his mind. “Mom, it seems like nothing we can do helps," he finally says. I want to hug him, but he’s at that age when he doesn't want a hug from his mom anymore.
I tell him that I disagree. I tell him that we can mourn the cruel and unnecessary loss of life. I tell him that whether we like it or not, we need to show others the true teachings of Islam: that we must act with kindness and stay loving and forgiving, no matter what. I tell him that’s what the world needs right now, and we have to step up. Only then can we fight back against the violent actions of those who have appropriated our religion. I know that it is not fair to give a child this burden, but it is his burden nonetheless.
I give him a hug. To my surprise, he hugs me back, and I take joy in this small victory on a dark evening.