Monday, May 8, 2017

What Didn't Have to Be

As salaam alaikum,

I was going to write about depression and NVC next, but I want to take a break from that to voice my reaction to an article in The Atlantic that I just read about the two young people, now convicted of terrorism, Muhammad "Moe" Dakhlalla and Jaelyn Young.

For as long as I've had this blog, on this site and the previous one on Xanga, I have tried to steer clear of politics. My quest in Islam was personal, and although I did have real opinions on issues across the Muslim world, I felt too poorly read and ill-informed to make this place a platform to voice them. Granted, I know that doesn't stop many other people from sharing their two cents on the internet, but I didn't want to contribute to that pool. So this didn't become the place where I decried wars, crimes against Muslims, Islamophobia or condemned terrorism in its many forms and specifics regularly.

The exception I made a year and a half ago was my entry on the San Bernadino attack, in which I expressed my fear about the rise of ISIS and how Americans seemed to be spontaneously radicalizing to attack such mundane venues as a company Christmas party. I remember as a post-9/11 teenager scoffing at security measures at a college football game. Terrorists weren't going to target Nowheresville, USA. With the rise of IS and its sympathizers, I was wrong.

I know little about IS and their propaganda other than they exist and they are terrorists who primarily target other Muslims in Muslim majority countries but whose sympathizers have carried out attacks in Europe as well. I feel as the majority of Muslims do--that these amoral individuals carrying out monstrosities in the name of Islam do not represent the true nature of our faith and way of life. I remember hearing about these two young people, Muhammad and Jaelyn, in passing a couple of years ago. I read of their arrest and their intent to join ISIS abroad. I looked at their pictures. I wondered how a young, mixed couple, in particular, a young, African American revert to Islam, got mixed up in ISIS. In particular, for Jaelyn, I wondered how a young American woman could aspire to such an existence. What were they telling them?

I read The Atlantic article and it gave me pause for another reason. Jaelyn's story sounded so familiar to me, especially her growing up story. It could have been mine. Smart, nerdy but isolated kid in high school. Very strict parents. Untreated depression. Cluster B tendencies. Increased interest in Islam in college, starting to don hijab then. The only difference is that she bought into ISIS propaganda, and I didn't.

The other difference was that of 10 years.

When I was her age and searching the internet for everything I could about Islam, posting in my blog, trying my best to join the MSA, YouTube was nascent, Facebook was The Facebook and was open to Ivys and specific colleges like the University of Michigan only, and MySpace was hanging on. There was no Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. Message boards were on their way out. My online quest was limited to reading online translations of the Qur'an on the go, browsing Hadith collections and cruising (painfully) through online fatwa banks. Video sermons and online imams were not as ubiquitous as they are now.

No one knows what is in this woman's heart and what was in her intentions but she and God, and I'm not trying to defend her at all. I'm just startled at how much the beginning of her story sounds like the beginning of my own. I don't think it could have been me, but could it have?

It also gives a sinister spin to my novel in progress, A Rose Much Desired, with the two Muslim young adults, Nisreen and Mo, trying to figure out their next steps. Their stories begin separate and as innocently as my story characters. My characters do make a series of mistakes and ultimately crash and burn, but they do not radicalize. Mo and Nisreen's story is entangled in the new world of social media as well. How much of a reality would this be for my characters if they were young 20-somethings now and not in 2007?

I also recognize that for that one Jaelyn, there are hundreds of thousands of other young black women who grew up isolated nerds with strict parents and resultant depression that do not end up attempting to joint ISIS. No one knows what happened there. And given that the FBI were the makers of COINTELPRO, my trust of that institution is thin, if any. We will not know in this life where their influence began with either of these young people.

But what I do know is that this did not have to be. This never has to be. We, as Muslims, have to stop shutting out too many people as other, not of us. At some point, many current day terrorists were one of us, people we wouldn't hesitate to call Muslims. Some of them were once children, and therefore our responsibility to guide. I am not a parent yet and I do not have answers. But saying that these people are not Muslim is not enough. Once they were, and now they are not, and maybe some of us had a hand in that doing. Socially, our religious institutions are not exempt from structural violence, and by belonging to the religion, we are sometimes its agents.

It's hard with social media, though. In its earliest iteration for young people, AIM, I would spend hours at night IMing friends, paragraphs, monologues, soliloquies about our lives. AIM is the reason that I'm able to type so fast today. It was a world we created of our own. My parents barely knew it existed except to comment on the sound of me "raining on the keyboard" when typing to my friends. In a similar way, young people, especially those who have gone off to college, have a world of their own with many more modalities to communicate on, separate from their parents, guardians and mentors, that they can never infiltrate.

I know the answer is love and connection, and we're going to have to figure out all of the essential spaces in which it needs to be placed.

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