Saturday’s attack on the London Bridge was horrific and jarring, especially coming on the heels of the Manchester attack. In the aftermath of such events, we look for people to blame. Shortly afterward, British Prime Minister Theresa May commented that there is “too much tolerance” of Islamist extremism in Britain. Although May did not single out Muslims in her statement, she seems to be implying that people willingly and knowingly tolerate extremists. The rise in hate crimes against Muslims since the Manchester attack reveals a similar sentiment about terrorism and Muslims that often bubbles up to the surface right after such an incident: that all Muslims are somehow responsible for terrorism and that it is our duty to prevent it from happening again.
I wish I could prevent them, because random killings and the fear they invoke are all too familiar. I wish I could, because I long for the Pakistan I knew as a child.
I grew up in a Pakistan where I enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom. During those blistering, scorching, long summer days, the only creatures venturing out were crows and young children. Even the chameleons hid in the thick shade of the mango trees on such days. But we were free to roam. My siblings and I walked unsupervised to our cousins’ house in the neighborhood to play cricket or tag, deliver a message, or just for company.
My memories of elementary school include a kind kindergarten teacher who wore a red coat in the wintertime. She would playfully tuck my hands in her coat pockets to keep them warm when I was cold. I remember learning multiplication tables and learning the words of Pakistan’s national anthem. My fears, the ones I remember, were probably the same as those of kids elsewhere — fear of the dark, forgetting to study for an exam, reptiles.
As a 12-year-old girl in Pakistan, I saw Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship abruptly come to an end and a woman, Benazir Bhutto, elected as our prime minister in 1988. The country seemed to burst into spontaneous and prolonged celebration. We would drive out at night after dinner until we found a street celebration, which never took long. The sound of joyous music and singing, the sight of crowds dancing with abandon on the streets, the reverberations of the pounding hand drums surged through our bodies and our streets. They signaled a new beginning and a bright future.
Nearly two decades later, this feeling is unknown to my nieces and nephews who live there. They don’t know the freedom of walking the streets on their own while the adults take refuge indoors from the afternoon sun. They don’t know what it feels like to dance in the streets with strangers, where your shared optimism for the future and sense of freedom overwhelms any norms of boundaries and caution between them.
In January 2015 and again in 2016, many Pakistani schools had to be shut down for several days because of a Taliban threat against schools and students. When my then-11-year-old niece and 8-year-old niece and nephew returned to school, they saw snipers posted on the roof.
That day — at nearly the same age I was when I celebrated the rebirth of democracy in Pakistan by dancing in the streets — my niece came home and told my sister that she and her friends looked for some hiding places and an escape route in school in case they were attacked by the Taliban while there.
“I don’t want to be killed by the Taliban, mama. I don’t want to die,” she told my sister.
I would like very much to “root out” extremists or to “drive them out,” because my heart breaks for my nieces and nephews and all other children who must grow up fearful and cautious.
But a fundamental point often missed in this conversation is this: To root something out and prevent its return, we must first know where the roots are. What conditions allowed it to propagate and establish itself?
Many people, including President Donald Trump, point to “the Muslim community” as a cause and a solution. Let me say this bluntly: There is no such thing as “the Muslim community,” there is no such thing as “the Muslims” or even “the Muslim man” or “the Muslim woman.”
As a professor of sociology at Connecticut College, this is a lesson I teach my students early, by asking them to finish the sentence: “Muslim women are … ?” which they do readily and predictably (by using words such as “oppressed,” “silenced,” “passive,” “subjugated” and sometimes by using what they consider to be positive words such as “beautiful” or “strong”). I then ask them to imagine instead that the question is “Christian women are … ?” The second question makes no sense, they say. How, they ask, could we speak for all Christian women or make a universal remark about them?
But we have not afforded Islam this understanding. No matter what word we choose (even if it’s a positive one), reducing a group of billions of people with a diverse and complicated history to a unified, ahistorical identity produces a false and reductive image of them. Further, it is one that has no basis in reality.
Edward Said, the famous public intellectual and author of “Orientalism,” once said in an interview: “There’s no such thing as Islam, pure and simple; there are many Muslims and different kinds of interpretations of Islam.” This simple insight is too often lost in our coverage of Islam and terrorism.
It is this falsely constructed singular identity that makes us think that the cause of extremism is somehow inherent in Islam and not a product of specific political, social and economic histories of a region or country. One need only look at the history of Afghanistan and the rise of the mujahideen, funded and trained in part by the United States to fight a proxy war with the Soviet Union, to understand that it was not Afghan culture that gave rise to the Taliban.
We are not the ones who tended the soil for this evil to take root. Nor do we have the power to end it on our own. For like an invasive species, terrorism has grown by choking other lives, as the casualties of these attacks have long been our own societies.
The casualties have been Muslim children who fear walking the streets and know not what freedom means. The casualties have been our children who are killed in school. The casualties have been hope and optimism, long abandoned by the old and unknown to the young.
Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College and a Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project.