Friday, January 9, 2015

Remember Charlie and Don't Forget Ahmed- Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Writing about the Charlie Hebdo attack and the violence that took place in its aftermath is difficult for me. Last night, after I finished eating with my parents, all I could do in my small apartment was think about what happened in France. I spent several hours in my apartment alternating between scanning social media for reactions and watching Al Jazeera's coverage of the standoff with the shooters. 

Yet as mulled over whether to discuss the nature of Islam or the marginalization of European Muslims there was one face and name that kept popping up in my mind. 

The man in this photo is Ahmed Merabet. He was one of two police officers killed by the Kouachi brothers in their attack on Charlie Hebdo's main office which also resulted in the deaths of ten other innocent people. According to the Guardian  and a number of other media outlets, Ahmed was assigned to the area where the building was located. On foot, he went to the scene of the shooting and confronted the attackers in the street as they were fleeing the scene. He was shot during the ensuing engagement and was then executed with a bullet to the head as he lay wounded on the pavement. The scene was captured on amateur video. 

Still shot from the video.

I think there are a few reasons why Ahmed's story in relation to the tragedy of the Hebdo attack has stuck with me. First, he shared much in common with the men who killed him. Like them he was Muslim, like them he was of North African descent, like them he was raised in France and was a member of that country's often marginalized minority community of immigrants and immigrant descendants. Yet on that day when the masked militants and the uniformed officer met each other in the streets of Paris, their ensuing battle represented how despite sharing such similar backgrounds their lives had followed radically different paths. 

With so much media coverage of the attack focusing on free-speech, the nature of Islam as a religion of violence or peace, and the struggle to find an appropriate response to extremism, I think it's important that Ahmed's life and the lives of the many, many Muslims like him are not muffled by calls of outrage, finger pointing and name calling. 

I don't deny that Islam as a faith as a number of issues and problems. I've studied them academically. As someone who has read the Qur'an and the Sunnah, studied Islamic law and the works of Muslim scholars, I know firsthand about the verses, commentaries, fatwas that drive extremist elements in Muslim communities. Extremism is real, repressive practices inspired by religious teachings are real. 

However, in this post this is not what I would like to focus on, even though these are incredibly important topics.

What I would like to focus on is this. There are many Muslims like Ahmed Merabet who follow paths in their own communities that are different from violent Salafis and Jihadis. There are many Muslim voices denouncing religious violence in their communities (Malala Yousafzai for one). There are Muslim organizations who donate generously to charities that benefit many people. And then there are many, many others who simply want to live lives in peace and dignity and who won't decapitate you with a scimitar for sharing a different opinion, or a different faith.

I firmly believe this not just because of what I have read or watched but also because of what I have lived through.

I've spent a lot of time in countries with large Muslim populations. I studied in Egypt for four months in 2009 and traveled for a month through Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. 

Between 2010 and 2012 (two and half years) I lived in Cairo. I worked in an Egyptian graphic design company alongside Egyptian Muslims and Christians. I witnessed the Arab Spring, the first open elections in that country's history, and the rise of Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. 

In my time in the Middle East, I got to know Muslims. I ate with Muslims, drank coffee with Muslims, smoked shisha with Muslims (too many times), fasted with Muslims during Ramadan and occasionally had a beer or two with them. 

Sure, it wasn't all sunshine and exotic joyful dances to Bedouin music in the desert. I saw widespread poverty.  Through female friends I learned of the pain caused by widespread sexual harassment of women. I saw the negative and all consuming power that firebrand imams (preachers) can have over an uneducated and illiterate congregation. I heard tearful stories of persecuted Christians who felt that their grievances were easily dismissed by their Muslim colleagues and peers.  Too many times, Muslim friends I knew and loved would share dark and sinister opinions about Jews and Atheists that would make me cringe. 

And yet, and yet for me to say that these negative aspects are what solely defined the people I know there would be slander. 

Yes they share the same God as ISIL, read the same Qur'an Osama Bin Laden did, read some of the same Hadiths that the Kouachi Brothers read, and no doubt listen to a few very similar sermons delivered at Friday noon prayers in their local mosques or prayer halls. But they are not Bin Laden or the Kouachi Brothers. 

They are Tamer, the aspiring screen writer, Scorsese fan and aspiring author who I shared fantasy and sci-fi story ideas with. 

They are Mohamed, the graphic designer at my company, who despite belonging to the ultraconservative Salafi movement, had no qualms about putting women in bikinis on the covers of our magazines and joking with me (a kafr) over shisha. 

They are Ingy, the aspiring English translator and kindergarten teaching assistant who fell in love with the game Dutch Blitz. 

They are Fatimah, the college student who introduced me to Arab literary giants like Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa al Aswany. 

They are Nada, the sweet veiled woman designer at my company who became one of my closest friends.

They are Bassem, the cycling scrawny artist who loved discussing the merits of his country's Revolution with me. 

They are Ismail, one of the most generous people I've ever met in my entire life. A man from a small and highly conservative oasis in the desert who opened the doors of his house to many of his Western friends allowing me to visit his beautiful hometown.  

They are Ghalis,  The company courier and Islamist who sometimes argued with me over politics but told me that I was 'the best American' he had ever encountered.

They are Mo, a dear but troubled friend who would discuss life and love with me over a few beers at my apartment despite believing that alcohol should be illegal.  

They are the woman in a black face veil who, when my parents were visiting me, warned me about a potentially volatile protest on a day when they were supposed to leave. 

They are doormen at the hotel my mother and father stayed at during the Revolution who courageously guarded them throughout the night of looting. 

They are the cab driver, who on a particularly rough night generously comforted me like an uncle when I inextricably broke into tears over a personal issue. 

I could list many more but twelve his enough. Twelve individuals to match the number of victims killed at Charlie Hebdo, including Ahmed Merabet.

I don't ask that you take these names as atonement for the attack. I don't ask you not to analyze or criticize the teachings of Islam. I don't ask you to believe that all 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet are perfect people. All I ask is that when you think of Charlie Hebdo you don't forget Ahmed or any of the other millions of Muslims across the world like the ones I've listed who live their lives, and are not above helping, befriending and loving one of the non-believers that a pair of brothers would have shot dead. 


Some friends.

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