My Name is Tahera Ahmad, and I am not a Terrorist

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Tahera Ahmad
Tahera Ahmad, Director of Interfaith Engagement/Associate Chaplain · Evanston, Illinois, speaking at an event.

“Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda. Our mission, therefore, is to confront ignorance with knowledge, bigotry with tolerance, and isolation with the outstretched hand of generosity. Racism can, will, and must be defeated.” ~Kofi Annan~

The only mistake that Tahera Ahmad committed on that fateful United Airlines, Shuttle America Flight 3504, was that she had the unique identity target marker – Her hijab. The events and circumstances that led to the final confrontation,  racist comments and prejudice based behaviour on the part of the cabin crew as well as a fellow passenger, was  a direct result of that. #IslamophobiaISREAL posted, a visibly distressed Tahera on her facebook page from 30,000 ft, with no one to turn to, except the online world for moral support. And support they did. In no time, Tahera’s update went viral and thousands took to the social media in support using  #unitedfortahera hashtag; many even pledging to boycott United Airlines.

It’s a sad paradox the fact that despite being the Director of an interfaith organization promoting religious harmony and improving relations between different faiths in the US, could not insulate Tahera from the wretchedness of vengeful prejudice. Ironically, Ms. Ahmad was on her way  to speak at a conference “Children For Peace”, a joint Palestinian-Jewish Project; that was promoting dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian youth in Washington DC.

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Global emergence of Islamophobia

Tahera is not alone in her circumstance. Thousands of law abiding muslim immigrants/citizens find themselves in similar , sometimes more violent situations by the virtue of their appearance. A hijab here, a Niqab there, a distinctive beard, or a skull cap –  are all dead give aways as an identity marker. Across nations, Islamophobia as  a global phenomenon is here to stay. In some countries it is  in the form of overt discrimination as Tahera’s, and in others it takes a more violent form – of genocides and communal violence .

Read: And What About the Hundreds of Muslims Martyred Every Day?

Denying its existence or air brushing for diplomatic reasons, will not make it go away. It’s happening right here, right now, and in turn the stark divide between the Muslims Vs the rest of the world is gaining momentum. This sadly is what terrorist organizations like the ISIS, Taliban ,Alqaeda et al wanted all along, whose very agenda has been this: To create a blanket terror situation in nation states. Antagonize societies. Provoke majoritarian civilians to turn against Muslim minorities in retaliation. Thus forcing Muslim minorities, who are consistently victimized, to turn to these organizations as means of support and belongingness and in extreme cases – voluntary recruitment.

Read: ISIS – Another Resurgence of Radical Islamists

The Anatomy of  Islamophobia :

According to a Gallup report, “Research shows that the U.S. identified more than 160 Muslim-American terrorist suspects and perpetrators in the decade since 9/11, just a percentage of the thousands of acts of violence that occur in the United States each year. It is from this overall collection of violence that “an efficient system of government prosecution and media coverage brings Muslim-American terrorism suspects to national attention, creating the impression – perhaps unintentionally – that Muslim-American terrorism is more prevalent than it really is.”

“Never mind that since 9/11, the Muslim-American community has helped security and law enforcement officials prevent nearly two of every five al Qaeda terrorist plots threatening the United States and that tips from the Muslim-American community are the largest single source of initial information to authorities about these few plots.”

Islamophobia & The Far Right - An Infographic
Islamophobia- An Infographic

A systematic pattern to Islamophobia is thus emerging. The Jihadi organizational agenda has been well orchestrated. It has been at the heart of liberal societies, that the terrorists have always struck – UK, France, Sweden, Germany, United States and the Netherlands. All these nations have been attacked, in most instances, by their own immigrant Muslim citizens. These countries and others continue to be vulnerable . Threat levels are  still high. If in US, the rise in Islamophobia was attributed to 9/11, In the UK it was post 7/7.

According to the National Observatory against Islamophobia, France saw a sixfold rise in anti-Muslim acts in the first quarter of the year, fueled by the Paris jihadist attacks. The clear and present threat levels persisting in Europe has had nations like Belgium with its 11 million Muslim population take pre-emptive measures to counter this threat.  Fear, though not entirely unfounded, has been central to the emergence of this unconscious bias.

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One of the core agenda of the Jihadi Terrorist network, is to isolate  Islamic population in the West, and use these aggrieved victims, to strike at the heart of their homeland. And as long as the Israeli – Palestine stand off persists; the anarchist scenario in Iraq & Afghanistan and post Arab Spring countries of Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Syria & Tunisia continues; the funding of jihadi organizations by affluent Middle Eastern countries goes unchecked;  the fuel for terrorism will go on. The US and its allies (perceived as the influencers of these conflicts by the victims ),will remain under threat. The obscene savagery of the Jihadists in the name of religion, thus  confirms the belief  of non-Muslims, that this  violence to be inherent in all Muslims perpetuated by their faith.  The scapegoats sadly amidst this stand off are the millions of law abiding Immigrant Muslims and minority citizens, who would lay down their lives for their adopted country than harm it.

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13 Point Proposal to Counteract Islamophobia :

I am no social scientist nor a political analyst. But as a Muslim woman living in these challenging times, this is my 13 point proposal  to counteract/ placate Islamophobia.

  • Order can never rise from chaos. All Arab and Muslim nations must make a concerted effort to work together to realize a semblance of peace in the Middle East. Affluent Arab countries must promote dialogue and diplomacy rather than sanctions and war. Geo-political power games have stoked the wheel of anarchy and decadence. Millions have lost their lives, and million more displaced. People in these war torn areas deserve a  normal life. The more wars that are fought, the more refugees it creates. This furthers breeding ground for further discrimination and ghettoization. The cycle thus becomes a vicious one.
  • The UN ought to have a deadline for the Israel Palestinian peace process with penalty points if either side do not comply. Both parties should put history aside and start thinking on workable options. Israel cannot live on fear forever and Palestinians deserve a semblance of peace and economic prosperity.
  • Stop  funding terrorist organizations,which comes primarily from affluent Middle Eastern nations. It is as simple as that .
  • Islamic nations along with the rest of the world should have a definite plan for relocation and affirmitive rehabilitation of displaced refugees of war, genocides and civil conflicts. The plight of the Rohingyas  is a case in point.
  • The West ought to realize that a liberal democratic system is not the panacea for all nation states. There is a larger socio-political system that have existed in these regions since centuries. The anarchism that exists in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria & Yemen, due to  negation of an existing system, no matter how flawed and its leaders; is a direct result of that fallacy. These regions have now become the ultimate breeding ground for ISIS recruitment and barbaric hegemony.
  • Moderate Muslim leaders, scholars and intellectuals have an obligation to speak out vehemently against terrorist networks and acts of terrorism. Let the world know that we are not one of them. One of the biggest grievances that Islamophobics have is that mainstream liberal Muslims & Islamic leaders don’t voice enough against Terrorists and acts of terrorism.
  • Local government bodies must partner with moderate Muslim leaders and scholars to gain deeper insight into the heart of the Islamic faith & the ways of its community; than put them under 24×7 surveillance. This generates a degree of trust on both sides.
  • Move out from the ghettoization of immigrant population. For this education is a necessity. It is not easy, but with a strong will and support of other affluent Islamic nations for sponsoring education, muslims in these areas must aspire to change their destinies by the power of education.
  • Muslims should make an effort to integrate into the community they have adopted as their own. Be involved in community services and activities. Being islands in multi ethnic cities, will only further fuel suspicion and Islamophobia. Robert Putnam, a Harvard sociologist, argues in “American Grace” that education about religion is less important for lessening prejudice than is fostering personal relationships.
  • Be vigilant at all times. If you get to know or see anything unusual, be unafraid to report to authorities. Your allegiance to the safety and security of your countrymen must supersede all else.
  • Shariah laws are fine but also know that there are laws of the land too. If there are genuine security reasons that entails one to perhaps remove the Abaya  or a Hijab (Face veil also known as Niqab or mounted large head scarves) , try not to take it personally.
  • If one needs to be accepted; one has to make a genuine effort to naturalize  to the country one has chosen to immigrate. It is unfair of us to think that we can take all that we can from one’s adopted nation and not integrate ourselves, culturally, socially and politically to its’ sensitivities. In this day and age, with intolerance running high, it has become more relevant than ever to have neutral public identities and blend into the system and culture.
  • If you have been a victim of discrimination reach out and raise your voice, make your stand clear that you have as much rights as a citizen than the rest. Tahera Ahmed used the power of social media to make herself heard.
  • The media has a huge role to play in the perpetuation or placation of Islamophobia. It can choose to stoke the fire or douse it. Sometimes it becomes a matter of national policy, and yet unwavering media houses have stuck to responsible and factual reporting and help foster calm and inter faith harmony.

It’s not a great place to be – this being on defensive at all times to bias. The chances are if you look the stereotype or have a name that is a dead give away of your faith, bullying and abuse may come your way. We are fast moving towards creation of societies that are insecure themselves, societies fragmented by acts and threats of terrorism and as a result, deeply entrenched in Islamophobic prejudices. The kind of hate that comes from such conscious bias is hard to fight. Will deconstructing that stereotype identity –aka removing that head gear, shaving the beard, walking the talk, integrating into the adopted  culture et al; that I have mentioned in my proposal ensure love and harmony? It would still be an uphill task.

Darwanian survival theory promulgates the fight or flight reactions to threat perception. So in view of this; soft targets as women and children, will be the preferred victim of choice for an Islamophobic. “Statistics collected by the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, a watchdog group, show that in the last two years 80 percent of the anti-Muslim acts involving violence and assault were directed at women, most of them veiled.”

So haters by logic will always find a reason to hate. Religion, colour, caste, ethnicity, political affiliation not withstanding. There are plenty of choices. At this point in time however, Islamophobia is the easiest option with a barrage of reasons. And Tahera just happened to be another statistic. A generic name and stereotype symbol of a collective conscious bias.

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