After New York City attack, ‘let us not fall into their trap of fear and terror’

New York just experienced its worst terrorist attack since 9/11, an occasion that is causing a tense mix of emotions for Muslim-Americans

Flowers placed at a barricade where the northern entrance to a bicycle path remains closed off a day after a driver in pickup truck plowed through it, killing eight people and injuring 11, along the Hudson River in Manhattan, Nov. 1, 2017. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

I am a New Yorker who takes my bike through Chambers Street to the bike path by the Hudson River at least four to five times a week and on October 31st, I was about to jump on my bike and make that same ride just before, authorities say, 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove his rented truck down the bike path, plowing into pedestrians and bikers, leaving a path of destruction and at least eight people dead and another 11 injured, before he was shot and apprehended by police. Sirens overwhelmed my apartment, the news came out, I was stunned and I found myself praying, “please God, I hope there are no casualties, and please God, I hope the man is not a Muslim.”

I am also an American Muslim who is outraged at any terrorist attack. And outraged when the terrorist claims he is doing that in the name of Islam. I am not unique in my views. The vast majority of Muslim-Americans are terrified when crimes are committed in the name of the religion. I assure you the prayer “please God, I hope the terrorist is not a Muslim,” is repeated in the hearts of most American Muslims.

“This man is a criminal. These terrorists are liars. They have nothing to do with Islam,” my father repeats as he calls me to check on my safety. Ahmer, another New Yorker who happens to be Muslim, reiterates my father’s cries. “There is a lot of crazy people in the world. People take advantage of the outcome to serve their purpose. The people who want to insight fear, insight fear. People who insight unity insight unity. The intent of what is happening is terrible. I know so many Muslims. There are a lot of good ones and some not so good ones. But the targeting of ‘faith’ makes me sad.”

There are indeed 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 3.3 million of which are living in the U.S. The vast majority do not condone terrorism and violence, and spend more of their time trying to be good citizens and simply living a decent life. Yet often when the terrorist screams “God is great” and ISIS claims credit for the attack, a gross generalization of an entire religion with the different cultures, different countries, different socio-economic backgrounds, different life stories, get grouped into one simple identity: Muslims are equated with fear and terror.

Daisy Khan, executive director of Women Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), pictured here in 2010. (REUTERS/Frank Franklin II/Pool)

Daisy Khan, executive director of Women Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) recently published a report analyzing ISIS strategy, how they recruit people, and how to prevent such actions by involving Muslim communities in the prevention process. Yet Khan is frustrated. “When I hosted a summit about how knowledge can end extremism, how ISIS is recruiting people using religious terms, and how we can do something to stop, no politicians in D.C. nor any media showed up,” Khan said. “I feel despair as a Muslim who is trying to do something to stop these crimes. People are not taking prevention seriously and only are analyzing the problem. So the frustration is Muslims are doing something and need to be more engaged in the prevention but no one is talking about that.”

Ahmer articulates the issue from an American values perspective. “The values of this country where a person is proven guilty is not applied nowadays to Muslims.”  Ahmer is talking about the generalization Muslims feel about their religion and their own identity when such attack happens. It is leaving many with the despair Khan is talking about manifests in the tension between being outraged at the attack and the crime itself, and balancing that with the sadness that its claim by ISIS is seen as representing all Muslims. “Nowadays every Muslim is labeled guilty in a country that stands for the opposite value. It is fear primarily that drives people to actions like this. And it is the values of this country that we need to withstand more than ever before.”

Khan, whose report is available for to all to read, is worried about more repeated attacks in the future. “It frightens me when our research shows that we can face more attacks in the future. We have to take action at the community level to stop all extremism.” Many have asked in the past years why Muslims are not showing up in clear condemnation of such attacks. Khan’s efforts and research show that many are trying, but they need to be heard and they need to be part of the solution to stop such terror from taking over our lives.

The saying “God is great” — which officials have said Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov repeated in his attack — is indeed an essential phrase in Islam. It is heard five times a day as the call for prayer is announced, a call that constantly reminds people to “do good” and to be on the “right path” in life. It is used in daily expressions as one expresses awe at something beautiful as in, “WOW at this beauty. God is great.”

It is also used as part of expression at a shock as something awful. The tone changes but the expression is used as a reminder of the beauty and the awe and the greatness of God. Terrorists’ usage of this phrase is an essential corruption of its meaning — one they are trying to manipulate to  legitimize their claim that what they are doing is in the name of the religion. Let us not fall into their trap of fear and terror. May we all rise above that in unity and solidarity to stop all terror — Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com

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