Space For Rent

Space For Rent
Monday, January 12, 2015, Poush 29, 1421, Robiul Awal 20, 1436 Hijr

My inability to mourn for Charlie Hebdo
Published : Monday, 12 January, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM,  View Count : 105
Rummana Chowdhury
I have lost my ability to mourn. And I am sad about it. I do not know when it happened or how exactly, but if I am honest with myself, I will have to admit that I have lost a piece of the humanity that is supposed to exist at the centre of my beating heart. I hate that every time some radical act of violence or terror happens in the Western world, be it in Ottawa, London, Boston, New York or Sydney. I read the news and find myself increasingly unable to mourn and reflect on the senseless avoidable tragedy that has just taken place. Instead, something nags me in the back of my mind as I read about the next senseless tragedy, and that nag just continues to grow and grow, begging, pleading, "Please don't let the killers be Muslims, please God, don't let the killers be Muslims. Because if they are Muslims, the rest of us (Muslims) won't be able to handle the inevitable backlash that will fall onto our innocent bodies."
And then I grab the first newspaper that I can rummage through so that I can learn about the tragedy. But I find myself skipping over all the details of the tragic story. Who died? What were their names? Were they married? Did they have children? What were their dreams and aspirations? And instead, I find myself skimming over the story as quickly as possible to find the names of the perpetrators. I need to know if the perpetrators have Muslim sounding names. I need to know if they come from Muslim sounding countries. I need to know if they can be mistakenly associated with Islam by the ignorant Western public. I need to know because I know that if the radicals who decided to shoot or bomb needlessly happen to be associated with Islam, then my community will suffer. This is no way to mourn the loss of an innocent life. But I have lost my ability to mourn. Because I am too busy being afraid. Because I am too busy mustering up the courage to defend the 1.6 billion innocent Muslims in the world who should not have to be defended but who will be scapegoated any way.
When these kinds of tragedies strike, I suddenly become overwhelmingly occupied and busy because I have to be on the defence. I need to be able to explain why the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh), Allah or the Quran were words used before a trigger was pulled on not-so-innocent people who did not, regardless of their actions, deserve to die. I have to be able to explain things that I myself do not genuinely understand, but have to pretend to be an expert about, because my colleagues, neighbours and friends will otherwise have no choice but to accept the chaos that the mainstream media will irresponsibly present. And I have to figure out what the reaction will be by the media, the general public and government pundits because I know they will all homogenize a certain group of people around the world in ways that make us vulnerable to collective attack and scrutiny. No matter they are brown, light or dark, black or yellow, Asian, Mediterranean, Middle or Far Eastern.
Instead of mourning for the loss of innocent people, I start strategizing on how I will brace myself for the backlash that is to come. I have to brace myself to think about how many apologies people will expect from all of us for something carried out by people who are total strangers to us. I will remind people about Ahmed, the murdered Muslim police officer whose religion, faith and culture was ridiculed by Charlie Hedbo, but who defended their right to do so anyway, and literally died trying, shot by the very terrorists who claim to be fighting for Islam.
Then I have to prepare to walk the fine line between free speech and hate speech. Indignant people will be rushing to say that this was an attack on free speech because all Muslims hate free speech. And I will be forced to find myself explaining that Charlie Hedbo cartoons were not about free speech but rather were about hate speech on all the major religions of the world. But then I will be told that ideas can be mocked but that no one deserves to die for their ideas or actions, and I will have to agree because it is simply true. And then I will have to keep the following thoughts to myself. That free speech, much like the free market, appears to be an ideological tool to secure the freedom of those with social and economic power to brutalise, disempower and oppress others. And now, people are supporting hate speech by posting cartoons of a racist bigot (or cartoons in support of him). But that is what liberal progressives are all about --- living within this comforting soothing fairy tale of equality that must not be disrupted, with no comprehension of social, political and economic power imbalances in this world.
When I am not busy becoming a de facto public relations representative for 'good Muslims' around the world, I will be forced to think about which countries of the world will now be invaded by a Western military because of the latest tragedy. Does a tragedy justify a response of more tragedy? Which parts of the world will now enforce more stringent immigration policies, which parts of the world will launch drone strikes on newer cities in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq or Palestine? Which of the people in power will start saying that multiculturalism doesn't work, and that people like me shouldn't be allowed in this country because these few angry men shooting people is somehow a reflection of my entire existence? I will have to spend my time researching that much larger list of white Christian people who blew things up and start 'teaching' people about them just so they can see this is not just about 'us'. I will need to share a Wikipedia page about all of those mass murders and attacks that took place in movie theatres, shopping malls, university campuses and schools in the past that failed to ignite any national conversation about whether white people should even be allowed in x country to begin with.
And after listening to and engaging with people's reactions over and over and over again, trying to anticipate which angle I am supposed to take this time, which imperial war or racist state policy or drone bombing I should bring up so that people understand that this type of tragedy happens in other parts of the world all the time, when I finally have a moment to breathe, really breathe, and when I allow myself a moment of genuine reflection without feeling the pressure of needing to educate, teach, represent and explain all the feelings away, I will realize that I did not have a chance to truly mourn. Because I have lost my ability to do so. My body, exhausted from years of experiencing this same cycle again and again, of trying to get people to see multiple sides of the story, to see a bigger picture than the one they are starring in, will not be able to read the story, pause, breathe, cry and feel for the innocent dead. Not wholly. Not as fully as I need to. My heart will lose its ability to mourn the souls of the innocent because I have been pushed into seeing people as potential pawns in a political game that is controlled by an incredibly greedy elite.
I want to be able to just be sad, instead of having to gather my list of 'progressive Muslim leaders' who condemn ISIS and Al-Qaida and all other terror attacks. But I have lost my ability to mourn. And I want it back because what happened in France deserves mourning. I want to mourn and I do not want to lose the ability to do so.

Rummana Chowdhury, essayist, poet, columnist and critic, writes from Toronto, Canada

Editor : Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury
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