Remember to Love: A Response to Islamophobia from a Non-Muslim Teaching Assistant in a Muslim-Majority Country

— By Grace Wivell —

I read the news of the bombings in Beirut, Baghdad, and Paris on my smart phone.  And not for the first time, I wished I had better access to internet or access to a paper newspaper in my native language, because the news was simply too heavy to be coming from a piece of technology that can fit in the palm of one hand.  That weekend, when I had the opportunity to go to the local internet cafe, I spent hours reading various articles and watching short videos about all the events that had occurred within a mere 48 hours.

A myriad of emotions weighed me down as I immersed myself in a world of the news: blocks of text, photographs, and chaotic videos attempting to encompass all that had happened.  I was saddened by the loss of so much life in such a violent fashion, and that so many families and friends would feel that empty space so poignantly.  I was angry at the way different media outlets were covering the various attacks depending on where those attacks had occurred.  And I was also afraid.  Afraid of how people’s reactions to these tragedies—for they were all, each of them, tragedies, and I would never call them less that that—would further encourage Islamophobia around the world.

Over the next few days, every time I got on Facebook or other social media sites, I was bombarded by standardized profile pictures featuring the French flag, as well as various explanations—some thoughtful, others not so much—as to why people chose not to change their profile pictures or overtly support France.  I saw vehement protests against the media’s coverage of the various attacks, which certainly seemed to be problematic at best; and I read reminders that readers are also partially responsible for how informed they are.

And mixed into all of this, I saw a wide range of articles, posts, cartoons, and videos that epitomized all that I had feared: a blatant, cruel Islamophobia that often encouraged the same kind of violence practiced by terrorist groups.  Perhaps even more dangerous were those more subtly prejudiced, celebrating the United States’ bill passed recently by the House of Representatives that might limit the U.S.’s acceptance of refugees from Syria, even though this kind of fearful response is exactly what terrorist groups such as ISIS are seeking to create.

As all of this saddens, angers, and scares me, I find myself paralyzed as I try to determine how I ought to respond.  I try to carefully choose articles and videos to share on my own Facebook timeline.  I unapologetically argue with people whom I feel are perpetuating the unfounded general fear of Muslims I see so often in responses to such tragedies.  And now I find myself attempting to write a blog post—which may only reach a few people, but will reach people nonetheless—and not really knowing what I can say that will have any impact.

I can point out, as so many others have, that Islam is not inherently more violent than any other religion.  I can iterate that 81% of ISIS terrorists indicted in the United States are American citizens, and none of them were from Syria.  I can beg readers to stop seeing refugees from Syria as potential threats, and start seeing them as people, as families seeking safety and security.

I can proliferate the voices of Muslims from around the world who have created powerful campaigns to counteract the wrong opinions so many have about Islam as a whole, such as the #NOTINMYNAME campaign which started in London, or the group of students who bravely wear pins proclaiming, “I’m Muslim, Ask Me About Islam” or the video recently made in Indonesia challenging the ideas of ISIS.   This might in theory be one of the best responses I can have to these events, because as an ally my voice should not be louder than those who are actually marginalized by such oppression.

But I also know that not everyone will click on links related to groups created by Muslims.  I know that, as a generally non-religious American raised in a Catholic household, my voice is sometimes more palatable to a Western audience.  Even if I should not be the loudest in the room, I should also not be silent.  Perhaps, if voices like mine speak loudly enough, the world will be quiet enough to allow the most important voices to be heard.

I have now lived in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country for over a year, and this year I even work in a madrassah, a Muslim religious school.  I recognize that Islam is very different in different places, and that Indonesia’s religious history is particularly unique.  I am not an expert on Islam, and this will cause many to disregard my argument. But as Indonesia is the most-populous Muslim nation in the world, I don’t think that my experience with Islam here can objectively be ignored.

Because so many of the positive aspects of my experience here have directly stemmed from people’s devotion to Islam.  I have been welcomed with open arms into two very different communities by some of the most genuine and kind people I have ever had the opportunity to meet.  I came here barely speaking the language, and only superficially understanding the culture, and I have largely been met with nothing but love.  There are multifarious reasons that might go into my being accepted here, some of which might stem from a uniquely Indonesian friendliness and some of which might be related to my privileged idolization as a white westerner.  But there is a graciousness here that I have seen extended to fellow Indonesians, not only to myself, who are often complete strangers.  When I have asked friends outright why they are so open and welcoming, a majority of the responses are the same: “That is what Islam teaches us.”

This has, largely, been my experience with Islam.  That Islam is love.

This is the face of Islam, not ISIS.

This, not ISIS, is the face of Islam.

Yes, there are levels of conservatism that are unfamiliar to me, the Northeastern American dripping with sweat in what I feel is far too many clothes for Indonesia’s tropical climate.  But just because it is unfamiliar that does not make it wrong, and again, this is the particular form of Islamic belief to which I am exposed, in the same way that the conservatism of the Amish and Mennonite communities I grew up around do not represent the beliefs of all Christians.   Yes, I find that some of problematic views on gender roles may stem from people’s religious beliefs.  However, they may also stem from a plethora of other influences, and I too, was raised in a religion that still does not allow women equal roles within the religious institution, thereby possibly influencing many members of this religion to believe that men and women are not equal.  Religion becomes entwined with every aspect of life, even those which are potentially negative, but it is not the sole factor.

I do not believe that Islam is perfect.  But I do not believe that any religion is perfect.  I recognize that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims (to make a vague and under-analyzed assessment of a large group of people), just as there are good and bad Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.  I cannot ignore that ISIS claims in its very name to be an “Islamic” organization, even as I cannot ignore that the KKK claims to be a “Christian” organization.

But, for all religions I have ever had the privilege to be exposed to or studied, I do believe that at their core they intend to make the world a better place.  I believe that, at their core, they are about love.  Islam is not different.  Islam, too, is love.

All I ask of people as they react to the various tragedies that have occurred recently is to try to emulate this same love.  It is okay to be sad, to be frustrated, and to even be angry at all that has happened.  But do not direct that frustration and anger towards people who have done nothing wrong.  Do not allow your fear and your rage to close your borders and your hearts to those who need love the most.  Be sad.  Be frustrated.  Be angry that the world still seems to be more ready to hate than to love.  But do not hate in return.  Keep your doors and your hearts open.  Remember to love.

While working on various paperwork for AMINEF (American Indonesian Exchange Foundation) and materials for lessons earlier this week, I was pulled away from my table in the corner of the internet cafe by a group of excited Indonesians who wanted to talk to the foreigner tapping away at her keyboard.  One of them was a Catholic priest who has worked for the last twelve years in a neighborhood a little outside of Paris, and we inevitable ended up discussing the recent situation.  He is originally from Gorontalo, and had only returned to visit his sick mother.  In slow, carefully chosen Indonesian that would ensure I would understand even though I am still not yet fluent, he expressed his worry at being here while his parish is seeking to understand recent events.  He felt he had a duty to his mother and that he could not leave right away, but he hopes that he can go back to France very soon in order to guide his parishioners.  “They will be sad,” he said to me, “But I do not want them to be angry.  I want them to remember to love.”

It was heartening to find a kindred spirit so far from home, a reminder that all people are capable of the inclusive love we both wish was omnipresent in the world.  And it, combined with various conversations with friends both within and without the ETA program, gave me the encouragement I needed to keep speaking, even as I am never sure what exactly needs to be said. Just as this man will return to Paris and remind his parishioners that Islam is not ISIS, that Islam is the faith of his beloved friends and neighbors from the Muslim-majority city he spent his formative years, I will remind anyone who will listen of the same idea.

Islam is not ISIS.  Islam is part of the spirit that creates such beautiful smiles on my students, helps build the system of support I have in the teachers at my school, ensures I am never left stranded in this amazing, baffling country without a friend.  Islam is love.

Whatever religion we may or may not belong to, however hurt we may be by the pain of the world, we must remember this.  We must remember to love.

Grace Wivell is a 2014 graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied English Education. She is a second year ETA. Her first placement was in Malang, East Java, and she now lives, learns, and counts cows in Gorontalo, Sulawesi. You can follow her blog at https://allfortheloveofwandering.wordpress.com/

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8 thoughts on “Remember to Love: A Response to Islamophobia from a Non-Muslim Teaching Assistant in a Muslim-Majority Country

  1. I’m an Indonesian muslim who’s right now studying in the UK. Thank you so much for this writing, Grace 🙂 I hope when I come back next year I can still meet you.

  2. Pingback: Dear American Friend: Indonesian Youth Write About Islam and ISIS | Indonesiaful.com

  3. Pingback: Dear American Friend: Indonesian Youth Write About Islam and ISIS | Kate's Fulbright Blog

  4. I shared on my Facebook page – hope that was ok! 😊 Haylee has been doing a blog about racism for one of her classes. She wrote something very similar on one of them about the importance and responsibility of using your vioce to create positive change in the world. I loved what she had said too!! XOXO

  5. This was wonderfully written and so heartfelt- we totally agree with what you’ve written. Our neighbor’s across the street are Muslim and we worry about them and if they are getting hassled. I know we have for being Jewish so it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. I need to make a point to go to them and make sure they know they have our support! Thanks for writing this! Just wonderful! Love you!! Keep on loving!!😘😘

  6. Yes, Islamophopbia has reared its ugly head in the US and many western countries. It is wrong and we all have to fight against it. As an Indonesian who currently lives in the US I am trying to do my part in fighting Islamophobia by writing about it in my fb page (search for it: Anekata Indonesia).

    However, the other side of the equation here is how many Muslims in Indonesia have their own fear and prejudice for Christian people (Christianophobia?) and other minorities. After discussing about Islamophobia, You may want to ask your students to switch roles and ponder about their role as a majority in Indonesia and how they treat minority groups (including Christians) in Indonesia. How would they feel if a church were built in their kampungs? Do they have friends of the minority backgrounds? What misconceptions exist about those minorities?

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