By Wendy Diaz
When I was in 5th grade, around 10 or 11 years old, I was blessed to be placed in the classroom of who would become my favorite teacher of all time, Ms. Rosa Lee Watts. She was a strict, authoritarian educator in a Texas military base elementary school, who rarely showed a soft side, but it was her stringent rules and order in the classroom that fascinated us. One of the many things that she did that I am grateful for until this day is allowing my friend and I to vent our frustrations by performing spoken poetry in front of the class, or what we thought at the time were cool rap songs that we composed. It was the early 90’s and the topic of our amateur lyrics was Operation Desert Storm. My friend, Rachel’s, mother was active duty military and so was my father.
This far away land that was the Middle East was alien to us. All we knew was what we heard from our parents and what we saw in the news, but barely understood. What mattered was that our country was at war, our parents were sent off to fight the bad guys, and that it was all Saddam Hussein’s fault. He was the evil villain who was oppressing the people of Iraq and Kuwait, and the United States had to go and liberate them, like the superheroes in the comic books I read or cartoons that I saw on TV. It was all confusing, but the details of the conflict did not matter; my father could die, Rachel’s mother was in danger, and that is all I cared about. During those times, the names of the soldiers who were lost in combat were displayed periodically on a blue screen backdrop on TV. It was traumatizing for my mother, my brother, and I to sit frozen on the couch in the living room on a daily basis watching the names scrolling alphabetically on the screen, but there was always a weary sigh of relief when the unfamiliar D’s turned to E’s, F’s, and G’s.
Rachel and I would get together and talk about these things and eventually began to put our feelings on paper. The words became poetry and the poetry transformed into rap. We showed Ms. Watts our songs and expressed a desire to share them with our peers, many of whom were going through the same thing. She gave us the platform we needed to perform our rap in front of the class. We spoke about the war, the emotional turmoil that it caused our families, our parents and our fear of losing them, our hate for the “bad guys” and our desire to wipe them off the face of the Earth so that our parents could return to us safely. We needed someone to blame and so our anger was directed at this unknown menace. One of the songs we wrote was even called “Bomb Saddam,” and as sadistic as it sounds, it came from the deep-rooted frustration I felt as an innocent child, but it is something that now, as an adult and as a Muslim, I could never feel or say about any human being, guilty or not.
I did not know about Islam during that time, so I never associated Iraq or its leader with Islam and Muslims, and not even in my wildest imagination would I have ever thought that I would embrace Islam only 10 years after this incident. When my father returned safely from the war, I did not give a second thought to Saddam Hussein, Iraq, Kuwait, or anything else. I just basked in the bliss of smelling the scent of my father, of feeling his warm embrace, of cuddling next to him while watching TV and sinking into his side; I felt protected again and I felt free of worry and distress. My father told us about his adventures in the Middle East and his fascination with the culture. He told us that the people would leave their shops and belongings unattended only to go pray after someone would chant something loudly in the streets and on the rooftops.
Now as a Muslim, I understand that this was the call to prayer and these people were going to worship God, Allah, despite the turmoil surrounding them and the presence of a foreign military power. I am grateful to Allah for so many things, past and present; for delivering my father safely back home and allowing him to share these stories with us, but above all for His guidance and permitting me to piece this puzzle together after so many years.
I called Ms. Watts when I was graduating from college to let her know that she was my all-time favorite teacher, and I felt compelled to inform her that I had converted to Islam so I could undo any damage that I may have done when I performed those songs in front of her class years before. I felt it was my duty to tell her that Islam is good and free from the mistakes of human beings. She was happy to hear from me and she spoke to me about some of my classmates who had kept in touch with her, including Rachel. I sent her a photo of me in hijab, which she told me she proudly framed and hung on her wall. A few months later her son emailed me to tell me that she lost a battle with cancer.
Last month, I read a warning issued by CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, about anti-Muslim rallies being organized in front of mosques all over the US on October 9th and 10th (2015), and all of these memories came to my mind. The organizers of the armed protests are calling for “fellow patriots, veterans, bikers, and good ol’ boys” to join them as they verbally express their hatred for Muslims and vilify them in front of their places of worship. I chuckled to myself wondering if I would be welcomed since I am an American and I happen to be the granddaughter of a veteran, the daughter of a veteran, the sister of a veteran, and the sister-in-law of a veteran — yet I am a Muslim.
My grandfather served in the Korean War in the famous 65th Infantry Regiment known as the Borinqueneers (A squadron of Puerto Rican soldiers), my father who served for over 30 years is retired from the ARMY but still works for the US Department of Defense whose mission is to protect the security of the US and the lives of all Americans, my only brother and his wife are also in the ARMY. They represent three generations of military service, risking their lives to protect the liberties of all citizens of the US, regardless of their religion. It seemed ironic that whoever organized the rallies failed to realize that there are Muslim veterans (or in my case, Muslims relatives of veterans), and that there are Muslim soldiers serving in the military, as well as Muslims in all sectors of American society. Their hatred has completely blinded them to the facts that surround them.
I thought about myself and the rap songs that I wrote with Rachel and I realized that this specific anti Muslim bigotry is nothing more than the same fear and insecurity I felt as a child. However, these folk are not children, and their irrational anxiety is being targeted towards the entire Muslim population, who has become the face of the new menace. The seeds of discord have been planted into the minds of the ignorant people and now they feel threatened by an enemy which their own imaginations have concocted, like a monster under their beds that won’t let them sleep. But rather than write poetry about it, they have pasted their emotions on hateful t-shirts, posters, billboards, and the like, and have decided to take up arms and march towards the mosques to attempt to psychologically terrorize the people who they accuse of being the terrorists.
Now as a Muslim I find myself on the other side of the coin. I don’t blame them completely because the reality is that many of these people have been brainwashed or lack the adequate knowledge about Islam to realize that they are making a huge mistake. Their minds have been hijacked and made to believe that there is an imminent threat to their livelihood in the Muslim community; that Islam is the boogie man or the bad guy who is out to take away their freedoms. The same circumstances that put Rachel and I through the emotional rollercoaster we rode as innocent children are affecting their own rationale. I blame the major news media networks, manipulative journalists, and irresponsible politicians, whose desire of increasing their popularity and ratings by any means surpasses any ethical and moral grounds. Some of them have even rejected constitutional principles in order to continue their campaign of lies and slander against Islam.
Now instead of a scrolling blue screen of names, we repeatedly listen to the names of the victims of the September 11th attacks on every anniversary, the blurred images of the Iraqi battlefield have been replaced with clear videos of the twin towers collapsing, the night vision bombing of Iraqi forces and flares lighting the desert sky are now high definition YouTube videos of terrorists chopping people’s heads off and Muslim women and children being battered and victimized, and Saddam Hussein has morphed into Osama Bin Laden, Anwar al Awlaki, Al-Qaeda, and now ISIS. Now bigotry has become a source of entertainment as Hollywood movies portray Muslim villains and feature plots dealing with terrorism that we can watch on Netflix over and over again. Never forget. They hate our freedom. God bless America. These are the slogans that have programmed Americans now for well over 10 years. And while we can’t forget the horrors of any tragedy or war, dwelling on these events only adds fuel to a fire that is becomes increasingly difficult to contain.
The fact of the matter is that the biggest war we are all fighting is neither physical nor ideological, it’s psychological. These people organizing the rallies, the tea-party goers, the bigots, the Muslims, we are all victims of a larger menace, the one who declared war on the progeny of Adam long before any of us were born. While some news media sources, politicians, and others have attempted to taint our religion, they are powerless against the informed mind. One thing we can actually thank them for is making Islam, Muslims, and Muhammad household names and opening up the doors to communication and education. Not all (non-Muslim) Americans hate Islam and Muslims, and the ones who do are few and far between. With a little dialogue and a lot of compassion and common sense, we can change the narrative.
As Muslims, we just have to continue to do our best to educate the people who do not know what Islam is really about. We have to forgive the ones who offend us because they, like Rachel and I in 5th grade, do not realize what they are doing or saying. In the spirit of Prophet Joseph when he addressed his brothers years after they had thrown him into the dark well, let us say to them:
“No reproach on you this day; may Allah forgive you, and He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy!” (12:92).
Wendy Díaz is the co-founder of Hablamos Islam (We Speak Islam), a non-profit organization which produces Islamic educational material in the Spanish language. She has translated content, articles, and fataawa from English to Spanish for websites such as WhyIslam.org, khutbah.com, islamweb.net, and calgaryislam.com. She is also a freelance writer and her articles have been featured on New America Media, Public Radio International, The Message International Magazine, and the Muslim Link Newspaper. She has a passion for writing children’s literature, and has authored and/or illustrated 9 children’s books.