Je Suis Humain: A Plea to Embrace Our Humanity

Jan 17

For the first time since World War II, the Grand Synagogue in Paris did not host its normal Shabbat services on Friday, in the wake of terrorist attacks that started with Charlie Hebdo and ended in a bloody standoff at a Jewish kosher shop in Paris. This hostage taking at a Jewish business is one of many indicators suggesting a rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, France in particular. Long before Charlie HebdoDer Spiegel reported about Germany’s new Islamophobia boom. Anti-Islam rallies are quite common across Germany. A recent one was attended by 40,000. As a Muslim, I am horrified at the anti-Semitism among some of my co-religionist. Although not all anti-Semitic incidents in France are being perpetrated by Muslims or Arabs, disproportionately large numbers are. I am also alarmed at hearing the echoes of Nazism intermingled among the rising Islamophobia in Germany. In France, nearly 50 anti-Muslim incidents were reported in the five days since the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Both trends, if left unaddressed, can easily contagion to other parts of the globe. Confronting anti-Semitism and Islamophobia requires resisting stereotypes.

The lack of a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often used as a pretext for anti-Jewish backlash. In the same vein, violence in the name of Islam is often used as a justification for the anti-Muslim backlash. Just as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nuanced, with Jews expressing a variety opinions spanning from the far left to the far right, violence in the name of Islam is also caused by a multiplicity of factors; religion could be one of many but is certainly not an exclusive factor. A study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point suggests that terrorism in the name of Islam kills more Muslims than non-Muslims. This alone ought to suggest that terrorism has little to do with Islam. The terrorist narrative that they are some vanguard protecting Muslims against Western aggression holds no credence. Victims of terrorism in the name of Islam are 38 times more likely to be non-Westerners and eight times more likely to be Muslims.

Often lost in all the attention-grabbing headlines about violence and hatred are the many quiet acts of heroism. One of the policemen killed during the attack on Charlie Hebdo was Muslim, Ahmed Merabet. The hashtag #JeSuisAhmed was trending on Twitter because Ahmed died defending the right of others to express their opinion, no matter how abhorrent those opinions were to him. Ahmed’s brother Malek spoke out, saying, “I address myself now to all the racists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites. One must not confuse extremists with Muslims. Mad people have neither color or religion. … [D]on’t tar everybody with the same brush, don’t burn mosques or synagogues. You are attacking people. It won’t bring our dead back and it won’t appease the families.” The hostage taking at the josher shop, which prompted the Grand Synagogue in Paris to close, also had a Muslim hero. Lassana Bathily, described in media reports as a practicing Muslim, was credited for saving the lives of seven Jewish shoppers by hiding them in a freezer, switching it off along with the lights, before risking his life by exiting the shop to alert policemen about the location of the hostages.

Ahmed Merabet and Lassana Bathily are not isolated names. Preceding them in France are other Muslim heroes who have also shown uncommon courage to reject the forces of evil. One name that comes to mind, now more than ever, is Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan. She was the daughter of an Indian Sufi master and his American wife. Noor was recruited by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in 1942 to serve as radio operator in France. She was the first female wireless operator sent to Nazi-occupied France during World War II. She resisted numerous opportunities to escape to safety and has been credited with saving numerous lives while bravely sacrificing her own. Just before being gunned down by a German firing squad, she cried out, “Liberté.” She acted out of her deep aversion to fascism and her deep attachment to her faith. Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross in Britain and the Croix de Guerre in France. During troubled times like ours, we should remember Ahmed, Noor and Lassana. Their heroism should give us hope and inspire us to work towards overcoming hatred and bigotry.

In America we have a strong tradition of interfaith dialogue that helps us transcend our religious differences when radicals threaten to drive a wedge between faith groups to usher in their messianic vision of apocalyptic end of times. And yet it is not easy, because the propensity to stereotype is ingrained in our human character. It takes courage to understand and dialogue with those we view as the “other.” Through dialogue and discussions, Germany overcame its anti-Semitism. It can do the same with its Islamophobia. France’s prime minister rightfully feels that a flight of Jews will be a great loss to the French Republic. To translate this concern into action, France must reengineer social policies that will help address the rising anti-Semitism, particularly among its poorer immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Muslim leaders and imams, while speaking out loudly against Islamophobia, must also unequivocally denounce anti-Semitism. “Je suis humain” should be the battle cry against those who want to divide us on the basis of our nationality, race or religion.