“Yesterday, one of my lecturers suggested we hold a minute of silence for those who died in the Paris attacks and announced that anyone who is uncomfortable with this may exit the lecture theatre now. I noticed the heads of many students in the room turn as they looked at my hijab-wearing friends and I in some sort of anticipation. I didn’t know how to react to that, so I just smiled. Even though I didn’t want to smile,”. This is just one of many comments an anonymous student shared with me on Tuesday morning, still wearing the same friendly smile on her face but with a lingering sense of confusion. As someone of middle Eastern descent, I have been astounded by the number of friends I have witnessed apologetically defending their religion, I was driven to ask why we feel the need to excuse our heritage in a way that people of other cultures do not. The interviews I conducted with self-identifying Muslim friends here at the university revealed that stories like the one above are not uncommon, they also indicated a fundamental problem in the way people have responded to these attacks.
Beyond the subtle Islamophobia that these students are facing on a daily basis, is an internalized struggle, fuelled by these micro-aggressive looks, judgements, and even stigmatizing vocabulary. As one of the interviewees explained, the mere description of these attacks as “terrorism” instead of as “crimes” changes the way in which they are perceived. As, through the media, “the term terrorism has been given an identity and this identity has been falsely linked with Islam and the stereo-typical Middle Eastern appearances that supposedly come with it.” Thus, the reality is that no matter how shocked, devastated and upset these students feel about the occurrences in Paris, there is still an element of unqualified guilt, finger-pointing and pressure on them to defend themselves and their faith in situations like these. “Saying sorry is saying that this is in Islam, to me it is not. Why would I apologize?”
At the same time, identifying as someone who does not condemn Islam, does not buy into the generalizations about all terrorists being Muslims and does not give hijab-wearing peers unwarranted stares does not equate to making active efforts to establish unity. Though most of the students interviewed agreed that the compassion shown by the general public towards the victims of the Paris attacks was moving, and trends such as #prayforparis and tricolore profile pictures were good-natured gestures, many also felt a tinge of discomfort. “Every time I see a tricolore profile picture it’s like I am being told white lives matter more,” admitted one of the students. Others described the feeling as “selective empathy.” Despite being aware that “no one means to value westerners’ lives more, they just do it without thinking about it,” Several students agreed that the subconscious effects were hurtful. “It makes you feel like a second-class citizen.”
Many of the students thus found themselves in the unfortunate position in which, just as any other human, after the attacks all they wanted to do was mourn for the innocent lives lost. However, they simultaneously felt jolts of “fear and anticipation of the bigotry, racism and discrimination that would ensue for the Muslim community,” frustratingly rendering them unable to fully immerse themselves in the sadness of the situation.
Upon asking the students what their initial reaction to the Paris attacks were, there was one response that stuck with me the most. “After hearing about the attacks I went to the bathroom, when I was washing my hands I looked up in the mirror and noticed the beard growing on my face, for a moment I wasn’t sure whether I should shave before leaving the house or not.”
Image: Shaliz Navab