Is There a Terrorist Under That Hijab?

Like Neda Agha Soltan (the young Iranian women who was shot and died in the streets of Tehran in post-election unrest in 2009), and Rachel Corrie (a Jewish peace activist who was crushed to death by a bulldozer trying to protect Palestinian homes in Gaza), Marwa Al Sherbini seemed an unlikely candidate for martyrdom.

A pharmacist by profession, the 31-year-old mother of a three-year-old boy was several months pregnant with her second child when she walked into a German courtroom (also in 2009).

She was Egyptian. And a Muslim.

img_3281.jpgIn keeping with her religious beliefs, she chose to wear hijab, a headscarf. In my world, hijab is worn by friends, such as my Malaysian mate Siti, pictured with me at right. But Al Sherbini’s scarf was like a red flag to the bull of hatred that one man, Alex W held within for “foreigners” and Muslims.

Al Sherbini was in court to testify with respect to an appeal made by Alex W who had been convicted of charge relating to insulting her religion by calling her a terrorist.

It’s unclear from reports exactly how the deadly courtroom drama unfolded, but the results are undisputed: Al Sherbini succumbed to her wounds, her husband was somehow shot trying to save her and the ire of Muslims everywhere was again inflamed by what they saw as a crime against Islam.

What a tragedy.

Equally tragic is the violent anti-Western reaction of some Muslims by the senseless death of this innocent young mother. They take the actions of one unbalanced man as representative of all non-Muslims. “See?” They say, “more proof of how anti-Islamic ‘the West’ is.”

And so the cycle of violence is fuelled with more bitter hatred.

Similarities? Or Differences

In the aftermath of 9/11, and the midst of the bombing of Afghanistan, Bill Clinton delivered a lecture entitled the Struggle for the Soul of the 21st century. It was broadcast by the BBC to millions of people around the world.

The content of the 45-minute lecture revolved around one simple question: Which are more important? Our similarities or our differences?

Halfway through the talk, Clinton made an observation: “Don’t you think it’s interesting,” he said, “that in the most modern of ages, the biggest problem is still the oldest problem of human society – the fear of the other? And how quickly fear leads to distrust to hatred to dehumanisation and to death?”

Interesting, yes. And so terribly sad.

muslim_sisters_on_their_way_to_a_wedding_in_malyasia.jpgImagine someone thinking that these two beautiful and bubbling sisters I met outside of a mosque in Malaysia could be terrorists simply because of what they wear on their head?

From what I have observed, “fear of the other” arises when we’re faced with someone unfamiliar, someone who is different from us in how they think, how the act, or even what they wear.

Walking in their shoes can dissolve the fear of others, as my friend Ann Njeri discovered when she recently visited Indonesia, and about which she wrote in her letter Long Live Islam.

It’s not always comfortable to be in environments with which we are unfamiliar, as I personally experienced on a trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, I believe dialogue, engagement, and openess will foster understanding and tolerance in the long term.

atie__i.jpgDuring the 18 years wonderful years I spent in the Middle East, I met many, many strong, beautiful, caring, kind, gentle, peaceful Muslim women who wear hijab.

In 2009, during two trips to Malaysia, I was welcomed by Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim women of all ages and ethnicities.

Yes, we are different, culturally, religiously, and racially – and sometimes also in the ways that we choose to dress. But we are also sisters: you, me and these hijab-wearing women.

Like other women, Muslim women differ radically in the styles and colour of their dress; their hijab may be black, pink, white, plain, bejeweled and otherwise.

And you know what? Amongst those I’ve met, there’s not a terrorist to be found.

It’s time to see beyond what people wear, and to cherish our common humanity. Time to heal the world and make it a better place.


Related links:
Look Beyond The Headscarf (July 20, 2009, FT article)
Hjab Girls (a wonderful essay by Cory Eldridge)