On Finding Strength in Solidarity After the Chapel Hill Shootings

I was taught that every person I met would be one more person I taught about true Islam, without ever having to speak about my religion directly.
Publish date:
February 19, 2015
hate crimes, islam, #muslimlivesmatter, Chapel Hill

Last week, I was awakened before dawn by my vibrating phone. It was too early for the alarm I set for my pre-dawn prayers, and too early to attend grand rounds at the hospital where I study medicine. As I scrolled through my text messages, I learned of the tragic and senseless murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha.

In Islam, when a person dies, we are taught to say “innalilahi wainna ilayhi rajiun.” To God we belong and to Him we return. This phrase is meant to bring solace to those of us still on Earth, to remind us that this life eventually ends, and in the span of things is quite short.

I share this not to give you a lesson in theology, but to give some perspective to the loss of three young lives taken last week. While I did not know them personally, I wept alongside many other Muslims, attended their vigil at UNC, and their funeral in Raleigh.

The prophet Mohammed (pbuh) said, “The eye weeps, and the heart grieves, but we say only what pleases our Lord.”

I felt the weight of this tragedy on my shoulders. I grieved, but felt that I had no right to this pain. I was neither family, nor friend to any of these exceptional young people. Yet somehow I felt that I knew them. I wept because I saw myself in them. They were much like all of us, dedicated to service, kind, and compassionate. They represented so much of America, and of Islam.

As an American Muslim woman in hijab, I am conscious of my place in the world, and the weight of representing much more than myself. Growing up, especially after 9/11, I was taught, like many American Muslims, to let my character speak for itself — that a righteous life, a commitment to justice, a profession of service, a dedication to love and kindness and compassion would serve to render stereotypes for what they are: falsities that can never speak for billions of people. I was taught that every person I met would be one more person I taught about true Islam, without ever having to speak about my religion directly.

With this in mind, I chose to attend a prestigious university, pursued my career in medicine, married an exceptional young man serving in the U.S. Army, and shared my Islam with those around me in the way that my parents and my community taught me. I believed that this would ensure my safety, that this would emphasize the value of my life to those who might otherwise not understand me.

Last week Muslims across the country, including me, were shaken because this illusion had been taken from us. We as a community grieved the loss of three brilliant Americans, but too the loss of our humanity in the eyes of others. We saw firsthand the impact of the media, through which terrorists like ISIS terrorized us at home by falsely representing us, by giving us an identity that we have so openly rejected, resulting in misunderstanding with devastating outcomes. We felt let down by America, which for so long seemed to offer us hope as our home.

Truthfully, I have felt this disillusion for a long time. I felt it over and over again with the portrayal of Muslims across the world, but also with the wrongful deaths of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and countless others. Their deaths brought to light the deep prejudice that still exists within our society, and that continues to manifest itself in horrifying ways. I felt the difference in how a life was valued in America based on a person’s identity.

I used to be silent, observing the world around me, while constantly reassuring myself that it was best to stay quiet. It was easy to pretend that what happens today does not affect tomorrow, and to believe that my voice matters little in the scheme of things.

I now know, however, that it is foolish to pretend that such acts of injustice — that our struggles — are unrelated. While our struggles are not the same, and certainly should not be co-opted, they are, sadly, a part of the fabric of our society. We do not lead single issue lives.

I quote Audre Lorde, who said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

While one voice may be small, together our voices have more power than we can imagine. So I ask you, all of us, to stand up for what’s right, to speak out when someone invokes a stereotype, or misrepresents a culture or people. There is strength in solidarity, in truth, in being more than bystanders. In the long run, it will matter, and perhaps one day we will have far less suffering and far more understanding than exists today.

Let us do so in honor of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, who contributed so much positivity to humanity in their short lives, but also for the countless innocent people who have been persecuted and killed merely for being who they are.

As one of my friends recently said, “Some days people use all their strength to stand up and speak the truth when power is being exerted to keep them silent, and others watch them with interest, but without compassion. Some days people stand up, and others stand with them. I hope today is that kind of day.”