I am not Ahmad, By Aisha Ali-Khan.
In April I took my 11 year old son to Paris for a short break. Paris for me is a magical place, a place where lovers stroll and friendships flower. I had been numerous times before and wanted to show my son what an amazing, cosmopolitan city of the world it is.
There was only problem that I could see, a tiny little speck of worry and doubt on the horizon.
My son is called Ahmad.
I must point out right away that I have never experienced any kind of racism or feelings of being unwelcome when I had visited Paris before.
But then again, Paris had never experienced any kind of terrorist attacks on the same level as the Charlie Hebdo attacks before our visit. These co-ordinated attacks were seen as not only a physical attack of violence, but also a direct attack against freedom of speech and expression.
I knew that anti-Islam sentiments were quite high ever since.
When I booked the trip to Paris, I was looking forward to eating crepes, croissants and macaroons while gazing across the sprawling but stunning Paris vista atop the Eiffel Tower. The only thing my son had on his mind was going to visit Stade de France and perhaps bumping into Thierry Henry and having a selfie taken with him. In the end, he didn’t get his selfie with Thierry but did get a Paris Saint Germain football bought from the club shop, which now sits proudly beside his Arsenal football.
Though it was never verbalised, both my son and I knew even back then that being called Ahmad in France might upset some people, and as a mother whose duty it is to protect her only child, I asked him to choose a name that I could call him when we were in the busier parts of Paris. He decided to choose ‘James’ and we spent our few days in Paris laughing and joking about our little ‘secret’.
If the aim of the terrorists were to punish France and the West, or try to bring more people to their cause, then they had spectacularly screwed up. The only thing they achieved was to create an environment in which the rest of us, including Muslims, feel unsafe and turn to unconventional and some may even argue, un-Islamic methods, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.
We have now seen the second wave of terror attacks to engulf Paris in less than 10 months- this time more co-ordinated and planned for maximum casualties amongst the innocent men.
Now our happy Parisian memories have become tainted with thoughts that are sombre, angry and distressed. Will these evil men and women ever stop before they have destroyed the world I grew up in and want to preserve for my son? Will Paris and indeed any other major city feel safe again? And most importantly, will we, as Muslims, be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with our non-Muslim counterparts in solidarity without silent and accusing fingers pointing at us?
I abhor and condemn extremism and terror, as do many others that I know. There is no place for such appalling acts of random and mindless violence against innocent and blameless people.
I know that France has not enjoyed an easy relationship with Islam and many see no differentiation between moderate Islam and radical Islam. The rise of the extreme right, and recent legislation on Islamic attire for women, reflects the nature of this relationship. However, some will argue that France is justified on its stance towards Islam having suffered a number of terror attacks starting with the three months of terror of the Paris Metro and RER bombings of 1995, right through to the most recent attacks on Nov 13.
The fact that so many Arabs were under authoritarian French colonial rule for so long has left an indelible mark in the psyche of both the later generations of Arabs, destined to carry the humiliation and anger now ingrained beyond repair, and also the French people. There is a real sense of ‘us and them’ and I fear that no amount of dialogue and engagement will close that chasm, now filled with the blasted body parts and blood of innocent Parisians.
It is pointless trying to argue who did what first- whether it was France’s hard line attempts to maintain a secular society, or the lack of integration from the waves of immigrants who attempted to establish a new life in their former colonial master’s country, a stance further cemented by their children and grandchildren. What matters is how we can move on, recover, rebuild and re-trust.
I know that I may be criticized for writing this piece- some may argue that it is the foreign policies of the West that has contributed to the rise of violent extremist Islam. I am prepared for that.
I am also ready to accept that France is not at war with me or my religion. It is my religion that is being used to justify terror attacks against France and the rest of the world. Until these crazed, un-Islamic fanatics stop then the rest of the world will no doubt be pushed towards answering fire with fire, engulfing the entire Middle East in flames of revenge and retribution. The innocent civilians trapped in Raqqa and other ISIS strongholds will most certainly testify to that.