By Rachel Pieh Jones
Three days after terrorists killed seventeen people in Paris my daughter said at lunch, “Muslims can kill anyone they want, right?”
Terrorism and religious extremism is not hypothetical for my family. A week after suicide bombers blew up a restaurant in Djibouti my daughter asked how we could be sure the Somalia-based terror group al-Shabaab wouldn’t blow up our airplane. My kids go to school behind barbed wire, the walls guarded by armed soldiers and policemen. Sometimes a tank shows up to guard the entrance. We’ve received death threats and people have made throat-cutting motions at us. A man on a bus once shouted that I would be the first person he would kill.
This child asking about al-Shabaab and Muslims killing people? She was born on September 11. Not the September 11. Four years later but we will never be able to mention her birthday without thinking of 2001. She was born in a Muslim country and a Somali midwife delivered her. She is our light on a dark day.
“Can your teacher kill you?” I said to my daughter in response. Her teacher is a Djiboutian Muslim. “Can Safa?” Her friend. “Can Sagal?” My friend.
“No way,” she said. Those were people, friends, coworkers. They played marbles together and came to birthday parties, gave spelling exams.
I don’t know where she picked up the idea that Muslims can kill anyone they want and she didn’t know where she had heard it either. But at nine years old she was already absorbing the climate of hate and fear that permeates our world. It was my job as a mom to counter that, to provide a new climate.
I thought I had been doing exactly that. We are immersed in Islam, surrounded by Muslims. The call to prayer governs our working and sleeping hours. Our weekend is Thursday and Friday because Friday is the Islamic holy day. We have a Quran nestled onto a wooden cradle at the highest point of our living room, next to the Bible. Our coworkers and fellow students and running partners are Muslim. Shopkeepers, taxi drivers, airline employees, teachers, policemen and women, politicians. We celebrate weddings with Muslims and grieve at funerals with Muslims, we pray with Muslims and fast with them and spin dizzy on the merry-go-round with them.
I assumed that this lifestyle was enough. If I showed empathy for Muslims and developed authentic relationships with them, I thought that would communicate a certain worldview to my children. A worldview that said Muslims are not ‘others,’ they are not people to be afraid of or judgmental toward, they are not different from us. We have different faith convictions but we have a shared humanity.
But my daughter didn’t draw a connecting line between Safa and al-Qaeda or between her teacher and al-Shabaab so when she said Muslims could kill anyone they wanted, she didn’t realize her words lumped them into the same category. That wasn’t her intention and I realized she needed more than an example lived out in front of her. She needed me to talk about the relationship between Islam and our faith, Christianity, about the call to prayer and our protestant church service. She needed to hear from me about terror attacks and how to respond to them. She needed me to give her words and language that could specifically counteract the words she heard from the broader culture.
An article in Newsweek, Even Babies Discriminate (focused on race) debunks the idea that raising kids in a diverse environment naturally helps them embrace diversity. I expected the ‘environment to become the message.’ It didn’t. I needed to address the diversity around us directly, openly, and verbally.
So what do I communicate with her and my older kids when violence strikes close to home? When terrorists, claiming to be Muslims, attack in France (where we attended language school) and slaughter seventeen people? Or when the Somali terror group al-Shabaab, claiming to be Muslims, attacks a shopping mall in Kenya (where we used to live) and kills almost seventy people? Or when this same terror group detonates a bomb in a restaurant down the block from our favorite ice cream place?
First, I tell them what happened, they are old enough to know. I use the real names of the real terror groups involved. They are going to hear about it at school anyway, I want first dibs on how things are presented.
In the telling, I emphasize certain things. A Somali Muslim man rescued dozens of people from the mall in Kenya, he went back and back and back, risking his own life to get others out. Djiboutian taxi drivers, also Muslims, were the first responders at the site of the suicide bomb, they rushed the injured to hospitals. The rector of the Great Mosque of Paris denounced the attack in France, a Muslim policeman was killed trying to protect people.
I don’t promise these things will never happen here and I don’t promise I will keep them safe. I do promise that we will remember those who are grieving, we will not be swayed in our conviction that ‘muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ are not synonymous, we will pray for peace and pursue peace.
What does that mean practically for parents: pursue peace? It starts with these kinds of conversations with our kids but it can’t end there. I don’t know what it will take for the violence to end but as I think about my own need to improve my mothering in this area, four action points come to mind.
Uprooting the Darkness
The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is an extremist militant Christian group, they belong on the same religious spectrum as me. They rape, maim, kidnap, use child soldiers, and destroy villages in the name of establishing a Uganda based on the rule of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament.
I would like to put as much distance between myself and the LRA as the east is from the west. The moment I recognize this darkness in my religious system it becomes easier to recognize that the majority of Muslims would like that same amount of distance between themselves and ISIS or al-Qaeda. Yes, there is a violent strain of Islam. And yes, there is a violent strain of Christianity. It isn’t helpful to say, “they aren’t real Christians” or “they aren’t real Muslims.” This excuses us from wrestling with this violence in our religious systems and from dealing with our own darkness. But it is in us, too. At least in me.
Some Djiboutians have treated me poorly. Stoned me, spit on me, insulted me, robbed me. In my angry humiliation I respond poorly. I take that anger and direct it, indiscriminately, at everyone. I start to see everyone in the light of the one who wronged me, like personal religious and racial profiling. I need to uproot this. Occasionally I see it rise up in my children and I need to address it in them, too.
Ignorance leads to fear. What we don’t know and don’t understand, we fear. Fear drives us toward isolation. But the time for living like an ostrich with our head buried in the sand while all the world crumbles around us is long past. It is too late to run for a cabin in the woods.
“Are you afraid?” is one of the most common questions people ask about my family living in Djibouti. They look different, dress different, eat different, talk different, worship different. They live over there. We should be afraid.
But we aren’t because they don’t live over there, they live right here and we have spent more than a decade learning about Islam and local culture and figuring out how to teach our kids about the faith of their peers. To my kids Muslims aren’t anonymous people in turbans and face veils waving machine guns. They are Safa and fourth grade teachers and we aren’t afraid of them. We stand next to them at interfaith prayer gatherings where priests and pastors and imams plead with God for peace. We hold their hands. They hold ours.
There is no excuse for ignorance, for not knowing the ‘other,’ the Muslim or the Christian. Most people today live, work, shop, or travel within meters of this other person. As parents we can slip our family out of the world, become isolated, disappear into homogenous enclaves of people who live, look, and believe like us. We can believe the lie that this will keep our children safe. Or, we can engage. We can insert ourselves into situations that require courage, humility, and intention.
Peace rallies and solidarity marches and protest tweets are good. I’ve been to them. I’ve tweeted #bringbackourgirls and #jesuischarlie. But they aren’t enough. Not even with forty world leaders linking arms. During the rally people feel less alone, less afraid, united across divisions. Afterward they go home. And then what?
Then we need to get into relationships. Messy, disagreeing, mutually-improving relationships. I rarely see eye to eye on religious matters with my Muslim friends. That’s okay, this isn’t about agreeing or forcing someone over to our side of a debate. It is about developing empathy and compassion. Brené Brown says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
As parents forge compassionate relationships across religious and other boundaries, our kids will follow in our footsteps. They’ll have play dates with Muslims or Christians, Americans or Djiboutians or French. They won’t know the ‘other,’ they will know their friends and will call them by name.
Casting a Vision
We are raising a fresh generation and this is what gives me great hope. Motherhood in an age of terrorism is an incredible opportunity to cast a vision for our kids of another way to live. Differences in religion and politics and race and gender and economics all have the potential to explode into unending violence. Are we going to raise our kids with fear, cowardice, and isolationism? Or are we going to grab hold of this broken world with one hand and our children with the other and commit to being part of healing it?
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children: 14-year old twins and a 9-year old who feel most at home when they are in Africa. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, FamilyFun, Babble, and Running Times. Visit her at: Djibouti Jones, her Facebook page or on Twitter @rachelpiehjones.