“It’s not a good time to be Muslim, Miss”

One of the many hats I wear is that of religious education instructor for Muslim youth aged 15-17. In addition to discussing the historical aspects of Islam, the overarching goal of the program is to instill a sense of pride and help Muslim youth feel a sense of comfort in articulating their faith to others. So, what happens when we try to cultivate this goal in a world that is increasingly hostile to Islam?

Last week, in the midst of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, one of my students remarked at the beginning of class- “It’s not a good time to be Muslim, Miss.” His classmates all solemnly nodded their agreement. As Canadians, we are still reeling from the 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill, in which an unarmed Canadian soldier was shot dead while on duty. The media immediately deemed this a terrorist attack, focusing on the shooter’s Middle Eastern nationality and recent conversion to Islam. Only two months later, and the Charlie Hedbo attacks bring a new wave of Islamaphobia and xenophobic discourses. Samuel P. Huntington’s now dated thesis of a “Clash of Civilizations” is still being used as a framework to prove that such conflict is inevitable. Everywhere students are confronted with this; in Quebec especially, given our ties to France based on linguistic commonality, the main topic of conversation has been around the attacks and the attackers. Most if not all French newspapers in Quebec re-printed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a sign of “solidarity” with their French counterparts while all English newspapers chose to abstain from such provocations.

“It’s not a good time to be Muslim, miss” is heartbreaking to hear as a teacher. What’s even harder is that I cannot help but sympathize with the young student. Reflecting on this critical classroom incident I find that Muslim youth are presented with two equally detrimental options- either hiding their identity (‘Muslim? Change your name like me’) or veering towards apologetics (Mayor Naheed Nenshi should condemn terrorism because he’s Muslim; Rupert Murdoch tweet ). As educators we are taught to turn critical incidents into teachable moments, yet there are those moments wherein we cannot help but take pause and think about how we balance our hopes and desires for our students (our desire that they find strength in their identity, our hopes that they feel like a part of their society), while validating their lived experiences outside of the classroom. So, how does one respond to a young adolescent who reads the world and decides that their faith is a detriment? Admittedly, I don’t have a response to this question. I bring it up here in this forum in hopes of soliciting discussion around this statement. So, what are your thoughts?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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11 thoughts on ““It’s not a good time to be Muslim, Miss”

  1. Thank you for these insightful comments about the events of the last weeks and months. It is so easy to be swept up in the radio reports and newsfeeds, but you hone in on a really important part of the story that we don’t see in those spaces: the effect this has on young people. Without answering your question, I think that you’re already doing a great job by cultivating a classroom where this kind of dialogue gets to happen. While they may see reasons why it’s not a good time to be a Muslim, I would also encourage your students to consider what are some reasons it *is* good to be a Muslim.

    1. Hi Lauren.

      Thank you for your comment. As educators, it is so important to create spaces of dialogue around such issues. I agree that we can counter these feelings of despair with positive examples. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Arzina. I think you’ve posted a thought-provoking piece. Often, we forget that about the collateral damage that these types of events also cause which is the escalating discomfort that certain Muslims, especially Muslim youths, will have in expressing or finding strength in their identity. I remember being in my teens when the 9/11 attacks took place in NY and at that time I went through a great crisis of faith. I’m not sure how to respond to youth who might be undergoing this type of existential questioning but I think one thing that I would want to impart from my experience is that finding one’s faith is a journey and that these questions/issues are a part of that journey. I think guidance, in any journey, will be necessary however to navigating the perplexities that emerge along the way. Keep up the good work. I hope to see more of your work on this site.

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for reading and sharing your personal experiences. I appreciate what you’ve said about allowing students to take pause and reflect on their own individual journey. Respect for individual experience coupled with spaces for youth to discuss their understanding of faith and identity vis-à-vis current discourse is a great way forward. Thanks for reading!

  3. Hello Arzina,

    I wanted to write and tell you that I really appreciate this article and that I was deeply moved by it. It troubled and saddened me to hear of this reaction from one of your young students, and it troubles and saddens me how the extremists have negatively impacted the Muslim community in general. In my next article for State of Formation, I also plan on talking about the backlash our peace loving Muslim community in Columbus Ohio recently faced as a result of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

    I want to address some of the questions you raised, so please forgive me if this is a longer response…but you have a willing discussion partner in me!

    In the first paragraph, you talk about “the Clash of Civilizations” and how “Most if not all French newspapers in Quebec re-printed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as a sign of “solidarity” with their French counterparts”. You also called this a “provocation.” Arzina, as a Christian, I couldn’t agree with you more. The attacks at Charlie Hebdo were horrible and the loss of life is an unspeakable tragedy.

    It must be noted, however, that I think many people in the west misunderstand what Charlie Hebdo actually represents. What the mainstream media has collectively branded as a “free speech” issue is not entirely accurate, for they are indeed “provacateurs.” Charlie Hebdo promotes a radical brand of secularism that makes religion as a whole out to be the enemy. It could be argued that their agenda is similar to that of the New Atheists; to attack and make a mockery of religious believers and to advocate for wholly humanistic and naturalistic worldviews. In essence, ‘religion is toxic, and the world would be better off without it.’ Thus, Muslims like you and Christians such as myself frequently find ourselves playing “defense” as these winds of secularism begin to reach Typhoon strength. This leads me to my next point.

    You mentioned responding with “two equally detrimental options.” While I agree with you fully that the first choice should never be an option, I am not so sure about the second. Please allow me to explain why.

    As a Christian and a theologian, I cannot help but consider myself to be somewhat of an apologist. I frequently engage in dialogue, discussions and debates with agnostics, atheists and the like; some of whom are receptive to what I have to say and others that are actively hostile to my religion. As a former atheist myself, I can relate to such views, and that is why I think it is important for people of faith like us to be a part of that conversation. Simply put, apologetics are important. It’s never easy, but I take hold of scriptures like 1 Peter 3:15 which says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”

    Such words could be apply to followers of any faith tradition. As Muslims and Christians, we do have a hope that is in us, a hope that so many in the world today do not understand. Apologetics, then, is a chance to dialogue, a chance to educate. My goal in such debates is not to “win converts”, but simply to change the way people think about my religion.

    I think it is important to teach our youth to be able to articulate and defend their faith, because contrary to popular opinion, modernist thinking is NOT dead, for as noted above, people of faith frequently find themselves on the defense against secularism and ‘scientific’ naturalism. As Christians and Muslims we must be able to respond to these challenges in public discourse.

    I have a tremendous amount of respect for Islam, and one thing that I love in particular is your rich tradition IN apologetics. For example, one of the greatest arguments for the existence of God, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, actually originated with the brilliant 11th century thinker Al-Ghazali and his “Ilm Al-Kalam” or “science of discourse.” Muslims stand firmly on a vast treasure trove of apologetical resources; resources that I frequently draw from myself!

    I agree with you Arzina, that we shouldn’t need these frequent “apologies,” but I do think we need more apologetics. For me at least, there is a strong distinction between the two. The unfortunate reality is, is that most people don’t understand Islam; it is tragic that it is probably the most misunderstood religion on earth…and I believe that is evidence of WHY we need stronger apologetics, because as I said, at its core, apologetics is an opportunity to educate. If what most people know of Islam comes only from what they see on the heavily biased news and mainstream media, then it falls to people like us to work hard to change minds.

    This leads me to my final point. You asked “So, how does one respond to a young adolescent who reads the world and decides that their faith is a detriment?” and I would answer by saying, please tell them that they are not alone. You have the support and solidarity of Christians such as myself and also countless members of other faith communities. People of various religious traditions can and should rally around one another, as I hope to demonstrate in my own upcoming article on here. We can and should work together in answering those questions that a secularized society has put to us because while we shouldn’t have to apologize for our beliefs; we will have to defend them none the less, and hopefully we can strive towards doing that….together.

    Thank you again for this article, and I very much look forward to reading more from you!

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to write such an insightful response. I think you bring up an important and perhaps glossed over distinction within apologetics. I agree that we certainly need people who are well versed in their faith, able to articulate the beauty within it, and to demonstrate to others that faith is not an aberration but a source of strength for many individuals. The apologetics I’m more weary of are those that involve the demand that Muslims “apologize” for the actions of individuals who commit heinous attacks in the name of a religion that they don’t recognize as their own. By way of example, in my post I mentioned how Mayor Nenshi was being asked to condemn terrorism “because he’s a Muslim”. This is the form of apologetics that has me most worried. While I agree that we need to be strong defenders for what we truly believe our faith to mean and to represent, what I find problematic is when Muslims who are not involved in these acts, Muslims that find such actions repulsive, are asked to (or assumed will) apologize for such deeds. But another point that came to my mind with your show of solidarity is the importance of ecumenism and inter-faith dialogue. I agree that faiths are at a crossroads between the impositions that modernity brings with and the truths that religion can also reveal to us. I think what will be important is for those who believe that their faith is a source of guidance to join at these crossroads, regardless of creed, and to say that there is still something of value to be gained from faith. I look forward to future (virtual) discussions with you.

  4. -edit, paragraph 7 should read: “Such words could be applied to followers of any faith tradition.”

  5. Arzina,

    Thank you for the reply; and once again I agree with you. I think you are right on the mark when you say “The apologetics I’m more weary of are those that involve the demand that Muslims “apologize” for the actions of individuals who commit heinous attacks in the name of a religion that they don’t recognize as their own” and the article you linked is most certainly proof of that.

    In fact, even as a Christian, I frequently find myself in situations where I am compelled to “apologize” for Islam in much the same way. Because people know I am very fond of Islam, have Muslim friends, and am heavily involved in interfaith work; people are often asking ME if Muslims are “condemning” terrorist attacks, ISIS, etc. It really bothers me; so I can only imagine the effect this has on peace-loving Muslims everywhere, who are constantly asked to condemn acts that they have absolutely nothing to do with; as if all of it is somehow ‘guilt-by-association.’

    The thing is, I think people are always demanding “apologies” simply because they don’t KNOW any better. As I said in my previous reply, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that so many of us in the west don’t know anything about Islam other than what is shown on the television. What they see is so-and-so was “an Islamic Extremist” or was a “recent convert”….the media always emphasizes and associates “Islam” with the terrorists and the radicals; therefore it’s easy to fall into this trap of thinking ALL Muslims are that way….because it’s all they know. This is what happens when our televisions do the thinking for us. OF COURSE Muslims denounce such attacks….you just don’t see it on the television, so people don’t know about it, and they mistakenly think Muslims are “silent” on the issue. This “silence” is the fault of the mainstream media, not the Muslim community.

    You could sum up my previous reply as: “Apologetics, not Apologies” because I think that is precisely what we need. Media portrayals of Islam only seem to increase the ignorance and bias against the religion, so it is important that we try to educate others and to show them the beauty of Islam.

    Take care and thank you for the discussion!!

  6. Arzina, I really appreciate what you have shared in this piece. There is a great sadness in a young person sharing such a statement and hearing that his classmates all agreed. I think your question about how to balance hopes and desires about nurturing their identity as Muslims with validating their lived experiences of being Muslism in Quebec right now is a really important one. I’m inclined to think that the answer to this question may be that you have to do both. I wonder if a reframing of the statement, it is difficult to be Muslim in this context you are describing, that is a totally valid feeling, but it is also what gives you strength in times like these.

    It’s moments like the one you are describing where I think it’s important to see how messages, like the Islamaphobic messages we are all hearing in light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the shooting in Ottawa, really do have a human impact. As a Unitarian Universalist, I feel we must take a stand in the public sphere to counteract those messages.

  7. Hi Arzina,
    Your post seems more pertinent than ever. I have friends who, in these increasingly intolerant times seek to render their faith as well as themselves invisible and indistinctive in a majoritarian setting yet end up being hyper-visible wherein sporting a beard and consuming beef, as in India for example, come under scrutiny.
    Lately, in such a toxic atmosphere, wherein profession to faith by Muslims especially is seen as an impediment by many to ‘Republican citizenship,’ instances have cropped up wherein the faithful, especially the younger generation, has claimed a right to be invisible and ignored.

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