“I am mad at you for being Muslim. Don’t you know Muslims kill so many people? I don’t even know if I can be your friend.”
This was the conversation my 8-year-old son recently had with a fellow classmate. Religion is not usually the topic of discussion among his friends, who seem obsessed with basketball and the Avengers. This conversation disturbed my entire family.
I hoped to isolate my children from such hatred. We send my son to an international school in Chicago; I wanted my son’s upbringing to be a sanctuary for him.
How can I explain this hate to my children?
This week marks the end of the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan. Many of the estimated 1.8 billion Muslims around the world have been fasting–abstaining from eating and drinking– from dawn to dusk.
As a means of purifying and transforming, similar to the Christian practice of Lent, Muslims seek inner peace and fellowship, as well as giving back to the community and giving thanks for that which we are blessed.
This week we will celebrate Eid-al-Fitr–which is the celebration to end fasting where we exchange presents, give our “fitrah” which is the money we donate to the less fortunate to be able to celebrate on this day and eat–a lot.
This year I helped to organize an Eid toy drive so my children can participate and give new toys to those who are less fortunate and make their day better.
Earlier this year after the mass shootings at the hands of a white supremacist in the New Zealand mosques, my 6-year-old daughter asked me, “Why do they hate us mommy? Is it because of the color of our skin or do they just hate Muslims?”
This same hate manifested again at a mass shooting at a Jewish temple in San Diego. Very recently a hateful message was found at a Jewish museum in Brooklyn.
How can I explain to my children that hate is taught and learned? If that is the case, how can we unlearn hate?
As a brown Muslim girl who grew up in the South, racism was commonplace. I have experienced everything from a subtle “hey camel jockey” to more verbally abusive comments , like “sand ni**** and terrorist towelhead.”
Despite this, every morning I enthusiastically, “pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,” at a public school in rural North Carolina and as an American born Muslim, whose loyalty is to the U.S. above anywhere else.
For me, egalitarian principles started at my home. My parents emigrated from Pakistan in the late 1960s to rural Mississippi. My father was routinely called derogatory terms as a student in England and continued to hear the same rhetoric in the rural South.
Never did he incite us to hate the white Americans or Europeans who expressed racism. Never did he teach us to hate the African Americans who may have also treated him as an “other.” Never did he instigate animosity toward the South Asian Professor from India who was still getting over the wounds of the partition and treated him as an untouchable.
Instead my father embraced all of these individuals and helped to break down stereotypes enabling them to open their hearts and minds to our family. I had a good teacher who taught me not to hate.
The battle to regain human decency in the United States starts at home, relinquishing the idea that the “other” is the source of society’s problems.
The lesson needs to be to strive to remain open to differences and embrace them, to restore
dignity and the teachings of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have
them do unto you.”
The annual FBI hate crime report states that hate crimes are up 17 percent in 2017, compared to 2016 with over 90 percent of the hate crimes impacting minorities.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the rise of white nationalism has led to an increase in the number of hate crimes and murders. Of the 427 people killed by domestic terrorists from 2009 to 2018, 73 percent were murdered by right-wing terrorists.
The current divisive political climate in the United States is exacerbated by top administrators not only tolerating hate, but initiating with racist ,sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric.
The late Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s president, stated, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Silence is complicity.
Children learn many lessons from their parents. Whether it is the importance of being a global citizen and understanding the differences between us and embracing them, or igniting hateful rhetoric by dividing us through our differences.
After my son pointed out the unacceptable comments to his friend, he did apologize to him.
“Should I forgive him?” my son asked me.
Each of us needs to learn to forgive in order to heal. This has been my Ramadan prayer. Only then can we mend the soul of our nation and progress as a nation.
Sameena A. Rahman, M.D. is a practicing OB/GYN in downtown Chicago, a Clinical Assistant Professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project.