When I was a little boy, I used to dream of being reborn outside the hardship of the Refugee Camp in Gaza, in some other time and place where there were no soldiers, no military occupation, no concentration camps and no daily grind - where my father fought for our very survival, and my mother toiled to balance out the humiliation of life with her enduring love.
When I grew older, and revisited my childhood fantasies, I came to quite a different conclusion: if I had to, I would do it all over again, I would not alter my past, however trying, in any way. I would embrace every moment, relive every tear, every loss, and cherish every triumph, however small.
When we are young, they often fail to tell us that we should not fear pain and dread hardship; that nothing can be as rewarding to the growth of one’s identity, sense of purpose in life and the liberation of the human spirit than the struggle against injustice. True, one should never internalize servitude or wear victimhood as if a badge; for the mere act of resisting poverty, war and injustice of any kind is the first and most essential criterion to prepare one for a more meaningful existence, and a better life.
I say this because I understand what many of you must be going through. My generation of refugee camp dwellers experienced this in the most violent manifestation you can ever imagine. These are difficult and challenging years for most of humanity, but all the more for you, young Muslims, in particular. Between the racism of American and European politicians and parties, the anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping much of the world, propagated by selfish individuals with sinister agendas, playing on people fears and ignorance, and the violence and counter-violence meted out by groups that refer to themselves as ‘Muslims’, you find yourself trapped, confined in a prison of stereotypes, media hate speech and violence; targeted, labeled and, undeservedly, feared.
Most of you were born into, or grew up in that social and political confinement and remember no particular time in your past when life was relatively normal, when you were not the convenient scapegoat to much of what has gone wrong in the world. In fact, wittingly or otherwise, your characters were shaped by this prejudiced reality, where you subsist between bouts of anger at your mistreatment, and desperate attempts at defending yourself, fending for your family, and standing up for your community, for your culture and for your religion.
Most importantly, you continue to struggle, on a daily basis, to develop a sense of belonging, citizenship in societies where you often find yourself rejected and excluded. They demand your ‘assimilation’, yet push you away whenever you draw nearer. It is seemingly an impossible task, I know.
And, it seems that, no matter what you do, you are yet to make a dent in the unfair misrepresentation of who you are and the noble values for which your religion stands. Their racism seems to be growing, and all the arrows of their hatred persistently point at Islam, despite your passionate attempts to convince them otherwise.
In fact, you hardly understand why Islam is, indeed, part of this discussion in the first place. Islam never invited the US to go to war in the Middle East, to tamper with your civilizations and to torment fellow Muslims in other parts of the globe.
Islam was never consulted when Guantanamo was erected to serve as a gulag outside the norms of human rights and international law.
Islam is hardly a topic of discussion as warring parties, with entirely self-interested political agendas, are fighting over the future of Syria or Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Afghanistan, and so on.
Islam was not the problem when Palestine was overrun by Zionist militias, with the help of the British and, later, the Americans, turning the Holy Land into a battlefield for most of the last century. The repercussions of that act has sealed the region’s fate from relative peace into a repugnant and perpetual war and conflict.
The same logic can be applied to everything else that went awry, and you have often wondered that yourself. Islam did not invent colonialism and imperialism, but inspired Asians, Africans and Arabs to fight this crushing evil. Islam did not usher in the age of mass slavery, although millions of American and European slaves were, themselves, Muslim.
You try to tell them all of this, and you insist that the likes of vicious groups like ISIS are not a product of Islam but a by-product of violence, greed and foreign interventions. But they do not listen, countering with selective verses from your Holy Book that were meant for specific historical contexts and circumstances. You even share such verses from the Quran with all of your social media followers: “…if any one killed a person, it would be as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind…” (Chapter 5; Verse 32), hoping to elicit some understanding of the sanctity of human life according to your religion, but a fundamental change in attitude is yet to come.
So you despair, at least some of you do. Some of those who live in western countries cease to share with others the fact that they are Muslim, avoiding any discussion that may result in their being ostracized from increasingly intolerant societies. Some of those who live in Muslim majority countries, sadly, counter hate with hate of their own. Either way, they teeter between hate and self-hate, fear and self-pity, imposed apathy, rage and self-loathing. With time, a sense of belonging has been impossible to achieve and, like me when I was younger, perhaps you wonder what it would have been like if you lived in some other time, in some other place.
But, amid all of this, it is vital that we remember that the burdens of life can offer the best lessons in personal and collective growth.
You must understand that there is yet to exist a group of people that was spared the collective trials of history: that did not suffer persecution, racism, seemingly perpetual war, ethnic cleansing and all the evils that Muslims are contending with right now, from Syria to Palestine to Donald Trump’s America. This does not make it ‘okay’ but it is an important reminder that your hardship is not unique among nations. It just so happens that this could be the time for you to learn some of life’s most valuable lessons.
To surmount this hardship, you must first be decidedly clear on who you are; you must take pride in your values; in your identity; you must never cease to fight hate with love, to reach out, to educate, to belong. Because if you don’t, then racism wins, and you lose this unparalleled opportunity at individual and collective growth.
Sometimes I pity those who are born into privilege: although they have access to money and material opportunities, they can rarely appreciate the kind of experiences that only want and suffering can offer. Nothing even comes close to wisdom born out of pain.
And if you ever weaken, try to remember: God “does not burden a soul beyond that it can bear.” (Quran Chapter 2; Verse 286).