When the attacks on Paris took place on November 13, it was as if for a moment part of the world stopped in its tracks. One hundred twenty-nine lives were stolen and countless more were forever altered by acts of violence so ruthless that people were left wondering how anyone could act with such cruelty. And in the midst of the turmoil that followed the attacks, many Muslims shared the same fearful thought: “Please don’t let the attackers be Muslim.”
Within hours, the terrorist group most commonly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attacks. Within this article and on any future occasion I write about ISIS, I will refer to it by the name Daesh – an acronym of the Arabic words for ISIL, ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī ‘l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām. The name “ISIS” grants the group power it does not deserve; referring to the group as an “Islamic” state allows it to function as a representation of all Islam, which it most certainly is not. On the other hand, Daesh closely resembles the Arabic daes, which means “to crush” or “to tread under foot.” The name is meant to be an insult, reducing the group to what it truly is – a destructive, illegitimate force of chaos. The name has sparked such fury in the hearts of these terrorists that they threaten to cut out the tongues of anyone who use it.
With 1.6 billion Muslims currently living on the planet, it seems ridiculous to take the actions of a slim minority of violent extremists to be a representation of the whole religion. And yet, in the aftermath of attacks like the ones that took place in Paris both this month and in January (the Charlie Hebdo attacks), backlash against the Muslim community has been hateful and severe. After news of the Paris attacks spread to the world, many took to Twitter and Facebook to encourage the killing of Muslims and their exile from the Western world. Many blamed Islam as a whole for the attacks, with some advocating for the closing of borders to keep out terrorists “disguised as refugees,” and the banning of mosques.
Why are Muslims who are completely unaffiliated with terrorism required to prove their innocence to the Western world?
Across France, mosques and predominantly Muslim residential areas have been plagued by death threats and racist vandalism. The Deputy Chief Constable of Police in Scotland has warned that Islamophobic violence in the UK has already spiked in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.
Here in Montreal, 24-year-old Jesse Pelletier was arrested on November 18 and charged with inciting hatred and uttering threats after he posted a video of himself wearing a mask of the Joker from Batman, holding a fake gun, and promising to kill “one Arab a week” across Quebec. In Toronto, a woman wearing a hijab was attacked on November 16 outside of her son’s school; her hijab was ripped off and she was physically and verbally assaulted by two men. In Peterborough, Ontario, a mosque was set ablaze on November 14. Authorities are treating both Ontario incidents as hate crimes.
These increasing incidents of Islamophobic and racist violence come at a time when the West is already rife with Islamophobia. An FBI report on the subject revealed that since 9/11, Islamophobic attacks have become five times more frequent. 55 per cent of Americans surveyed reported having “somewhat unfavourable” or “very unfavourable” perceptions of Islam as of March this year – no doubt those numbers will have increased post-Paris. In the UK, a survey of British Muslims indicated that two-thirds of Muslim participants “have been subjected to verbal abuse […] while 82 per cent said they had witnessed Islamophobia being directed at someone else.” These numbers, along with the rates of racially motivated physical assault against Muslims in the U.K., have increased since 2010. Islamophobia has become a normalized, regular occurrence in the West that surges during times of insecurity.
Syrian refugees are as vulnerable to Daesh’s terror agenda as Western citizens are – even more so.
The Western assumption that Daesh’s actions are reflective of the Muslim community puts Muslims in a position where they are forced to prove their own innocence and that of their communities. Social movements like #NotInMyName have been created for Muslim individuals to shout to the world that they neither support Daesh, nor are terrorists themselves. One Muslim man in Paris blindfolded himself and wore a sign that read, “I am Muslim, and I’m told that I’m a terrorist. I trust you, do you trust me? If yes, hug me.” Last week, outside McGill’s Roddick Gates, a Syrian Muslim did the same.
While actions like these do help create solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims in the aftermath of the devastation in Paris, I cannot comprehend why they should be necessary in the first place. Why are Muslims who are completely unaffiliated with terrorism required to prove their innocence to the Western world, as if their claim to their faith is less valid than the skewed version of a violent few? When KKK members rally in America and carry out vicious attack against people of colour, white Christians are not compelled to prove they are all not in fact KKK members. There is no reason why Muslims should have to make similarly ridiculous declarations.
Western leaders often perpetuate this anti-Islam rhetoric which associates Muslims with inherent suspicion. In the wake of Paris, several state governors and Republican leaders in America encouraged Western nations to close their borders to refugees or risk attracting more terrorists; many U.S. states have already voted to shut down their borders to Syrian refugees for the sake of “national security,” while leaders in other countries, such as Poland, have announced intentions to do the same. What these leaders don’t seem to realize is that part of the problem that has forced Syrians to flee their home country is Daesh itself. Syrian refugees are as vulnerable to Daesh’s terror agenda as Western citizens are – even more so, since Daesh has a larger presence in Syria and has killed more Muslims than non-Muslims to date.
Daesh’s efforts have been concentrated on killing Muslims as well as non-Muslims – the insinuation that all Muslims are somehow complicit in this, that they are not also victims, is a dangerous one. In the words of Muslim academic Reza Aslan, “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. […] People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves.”
Enough analogies and apologies have been made; it’s time for all Westerners to realize that the actions of violently extremist individuals do not represent Islam as a whole. In the wake of terror attacks that affect them as much as they affect anybody else, Muslims in the West should not have to compound their trauma with fear of retaliatory Islamophobic and racist violence.
Minority Report is a column that deconstructs racism through an intersectional lens. Inori Roy-Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.