Islamophobia: Is it about Religion or Ignorance?

The evening of yesterday, I viewed Jason Plant’s[1] photos of the recent demonstrations in London, Ontario, against Islamophobia.[2] Then something crossed my mind. Momentarily, I stopped thinking   fast.  I took a deep breath in,    and I breathed out, then I paused   for a deeper reflection of all the photos in front of me. Let that sink in! Quick research on the subject: Islamophobia. This, is how the title of this article is born, aided by Dr. Evelyn Leslie Hamdon’s 2010 book[3]: Islamophobia and the Question of Muslim Identity : the Politics of Difference and Solidarity.

What is my question?

Islamophobia: Is it about Religion or Ignorance?

In my attempt to an answer this question, I am compelled to draw on a personal experience from my dysfunctional neocolonial family and the displaced colonized intellectual I’ve become with the aid of Western education in London, Ontario.

It is news. And we all know that the recent terrorist attack in London, Ontario killed four members of a Muslim family, a fresh memory in our minds. I feel for the innocent child who lost his family in this terrorist attack. I am writing a few weeks after this terrorist attack. Hundreds of Londoners have expressed sympathy and support, yet the paranoia leaves on.

Are such attacks going away anytime soon?

The optimist in me hopes for a better world. But, what is hope? Hope, but hold your expectations low!

I will caution you, […] that while hope ignites the soul and lifts the heart up, regardless of the weight it has born, hope is also a very dangerous thing. It places the things you yearn for seemingly within reach; encourages you to stretch out your hand just a little bit further, so you may brush the embodiment of your longing, ever so slightly, with your fingertips. With each of hope’s promises, you become more willing to suffer because you truly believe it will be answered by your heart’s desire. And, like a siren calling lost men to sea, hope whispers in your ear that if only you can stretch, reach and hold on for just a little bit longer, all will be well. But, sometimes […] hope is exactly that – a bait and hook that you don’t realize is barbed with false promises and insurmountable circumstances.

Gabriel Ndayishimiye, Run Elvin (unpublished).

Lessons from world history provide minimal comfort.  Should we prepare ourselves for subsequent attacks?

YES!

I argue we should.

My question would be, how?

The episode reminds me of two of my uncles, Ali and Abdulrahman, whom I discuss in my unofficially published memoir (first book): Run Elvin. Thus I would say the terrorist attack in London, Ontario, was an attack on my uncles, nieces, cousins, brothers, sisters and all my Muslim friends across the globe.

Why would I say this?

I lived with my uncles before they married, between 2005 – 2007, in the towns of Malawi (Blantyre and Thyolo). They run a small grocery store. I helped out in my naivety young life in the grocery business throughout the years spent with them. These early years of my life were critical in my personal growth and development, but they also taught me a lot about life and the religion of Islam. 

My uncles owned a Radio Cassette with a CD player and played music of Zain Bhikha, the South African singer-songwriter (may his soul rest in peace), and Maher Zain, the Lebanese-Swedish singer-songwriter. The Islamic music and radio channels played all day, all night. Being a fan of music, I loved most Muslim music artists introduced to me during this period. I learned most of what I know about the Islamic religion during this period

What is the difference between Christianity and Islam? This question was a puzzle I never solved. I would have joined Islam. Over the time I lived with my uncle, I disproved all the misconceptions and myths against Muslims and I lived happily among them. but my grandmother’s voice resounded: “If you ever convert to Islam, you will deal with the consequences.”  I was still afraid for this one reason:–my grandmother, a very devout Catholic. With my circumcision in 2005, she feared I had been converted to some degree and hence the warning.

How serious was she?

My grandmother was always the most vocally religious member of our family, and my grandfather being a man of few words, seemed less concerned. Growing up, I have seen to lose interest in religion—humanism appeals most to my grandpa. As if this was not enough, grandma forced him to attend church services.

During the period I lived with my uncles, Abdulhaman bought me an Oxford Dictionary translated into Chichewa (Malawi’s local language) and an Arabic book for beginners. I used the dictionary but hardly opened the Arabic book because I didn’t know how to read Arabic. Did he encourage me to attend Madrassa classes? Of course. I never attended the Madrassa despite his insistence. He seemed okay with me remaining Christian for the time being. I really should have converted to Islam. Over the time I lived with my uncles, I disproved all the misconceptions and myths against Muslims, I lived somehow happily among them.

As I contemplated all this, I turned to ask my grandmother how my uncles converted to Islam. She began: 

Grandma: Your uncles became Muslims after the family fled to Tanzania. The first one to join the religion of Islam was Mathew ([who] changed his name to “Abdulrahman” when he converted). There was no life for him or us in the refugee camp, and the conditions forced many young people to move out of the confines of the refugee camp and go to cities searching for jobs. Your uncle was one of these youth. Eventually, your uncle and his friends found themselves in the local towns of Tanzania, and they settled in an area that was predominately Muslim. If they had remained Christians, integrating into the community would have been difficult. Instead, they converted to Islam and adopted Arabic names. They gave up their Christian and Rwandan names because they feared [it] would be discovered that they are not Tanzania nationals. Above all, they both feared losing their new jobs and felt compelled to convert to Islam.

My uncle [Abdulrahman] didn’t seek permission or advice from anyone in the family.

If he had, I wonder what they would have said–if they would have understood and supported his conversion.

My uncle’s defense clarifies that he sought community, fit in, and perhaps achieve high standing in a predominantly Muslim society. If he was to live in peace, he felt he had to become a Muslim. There is no doubt that his life in Tanzania was a challenging one. 

The news of my uncles’ conversion was considered a tragedy and wasn’t well-received by anyone. Grandmother criticized him for having changed his religion. “How did you convert to Islam? Your fathers are not Islamic; how dare you convert to Islam when no one in our family’s chain is Islamic?” she demanded explanations and went on to explain that when they fled Rwanda, they heard about the religion of Islam, but no one gave it any value or paid attention to it. They were disturbed by my uncle’s conversion and still seemed interested in knowing who exactly converted him. 

Grandpa: Haruna!

Of course, once, I had heard the rumor. Haruna, a distant member of our family who had lived in Tanzania long before the 1994 tragedy, led my uncles to Islam.

Grandma: He [Abdulrahman] claimed that ‘what happened, happened, and there is no other way around it… there was no changing it.’ As soon as he broke the news to us, he was gone back to the city within days. He continued to live in the Muslim community, and he prospered; he opened a bakery, then came back to the camp to fetch his younger brother, Eric, who he then guided toward Islam. When Eric returned to the refugee camp in Tanzania, he arrived with a new name: ‘Ali.’ We told Abdulrahman that ‘if Ali is to live with us again, we will convert him back to Christianity. Our family does not accept the religion of Islam; it does not speak to who we are, and we don’t understand it.’ But Ali continued living with Abdul. The longer they lived together, the more potent Ali’s faith became. Ali then went to live with an old family friend, Haruna, a son, to an old family friend back in Rwanda. Haruna’s family had also converted to Islam while they were in Tanzania. Hence, we argued that ‘Ali did not become Muslim of his own accord, but rather was led to it by his elder brother, Abdulrahman, and then Haruna’s family. Consequently, we gave up and thought, ‘if it’s true that they pray to a real God, it is up to the Lord to judge them on judgment day.”

Grandpa: “your grandfather and I washed our hands of it and thought, ‘God, if it is our fault that the kids went astray, then have mercy on us, but we did the best we could to keep them, Christian. Please never blame us for their wrong choice.’ That was that, and life went on. We could not reject our children.”

“We could never do such a thing,” my grandfather added. 

Grandma: I see them going to pray, as we do. And because of the maternal love I feel, I am constantly praying and hoping that my kids return to Christ, to our true religion. It is hard for me to trust their choices and their religion. They broke the pact that I gave them at the beginning of it all at birth. The pact that I made having them baptized Christians. Imagine that you learn the Christian commandments of God, and the teachings have sunk into you, and you pass them on in the pact you make with your children. Then, all of a sudden, the child breaks the pact. But we did our part to keep the family together, united in Christianity. Since your uncles broke the pact, it is up to them to face the consequences, and there is nothing I can do about it. I do not understand their religion; I do not know how they pray and beg for mercy to their ‘God.’ It is up to them to save their souls on the day of judgment. So we, as parents, keep praying for them. We say, ‘God, if you will please turn the hearts of these kids towards you, and if you see them on the right path, continue to guide them and shine your light upon them always, so they may continue to follow you, serve you and live your way’.”

Hearing my grandmother’s commitment to the Christian faith led me to a question, and I had to intervene. “How would you feel if I told you that I am no longer a Christian? Or that I no longer want to participate in Christianity or have anything to do with it, or any other organized religion, for that matter? Would you understand me? How would you react?”

Grandpa was the first to answer. “No!” he shouted. “We would not tolerate that!”

Grandma added, “I would not entertain that, not in my family! So that is a ‘no’! And here is my reason: no matter what you gave in support of your claim, decision or choice, I would not be convinced.” 

Both grandma and grandpa then said, as if they had planned it: “Icyo gihe twavuga ko Ur’umuhakanyi” — that I would be a denier of faith, a denier of the one true God. “You would be a denier who surrendered his heart to the Devil.” (the “devil” being Satan, of course.)

I failed to contain an audible laugh at that statement. She seemed so concerned at what I had just told them. For some reason–or perhaps many–I was savoring this moment. I felt great satisfaction in the direction our discussion was taking. 

Grandma repeated the phrase as if to acknowledge its reality, honestly. You are a denier of faith – you have denied God and now surrendered your soul to Satan. “That means that you are out of the hands of your parents,” she added. “God cannot bless you anymore because you have denied him.”

I added, “uwanze Imana ntabwo iba ikimukunda,” which means, “those who have denounced God cannot be loved by God?” 

What are the consequences?

I would never come to understand. But, what my grandma meant, remains the puzzle of my life to this day! Will I ever come to an answer? I wish I would say with confidence, but who knows of tomorrow?

Soon my knowledge of Islam developed at Huron University College, in London, Ontario, through a religious course taught by Dr. William (Bill) Acres (Religious Studies 2131E: LIVING RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD.) Whose course description stated: “A study of the history, faith, and practices of the major living religions – selected from Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.” I registered for this course for the same personal (say, selfish) reasons stated above: My life’s question is to understand a genealogy of foreign religions and religious beliefs (name Islam and Christianity) in my own family.

I have always complained about my Christian background to my friends. However, in the summer of 201 9, I found myself complaining. Again, it was the moment of spiritual crisis in my life. But, this time, not to my causal friends. Instead, I complained to Dr. Acres during one of our casual discussions on coloniality and organized religions. To quench my frustration, he said: “Gabriel, soon, you will be thankful you took religious studies seriously in high school.” He went on [to paraphrase]: The Christian religious traditions learned “back home” have prepared you to aid your quest to understand Western Christianity, in all its essence.

As I write this: I am grateful, Dr. Acres reminded me of that?

Am I?

YES! I am very thankful!

As time passed, Dr. Acres and I went on to debate Pol Pot’s misinterpretations of Frantz Fanon’s decolonial philosophy to organizing the post-colony.

To be continued…


Reference

[1] A Cinematographer based in London Ontario, and a new friend whom I recently connected with through Facebook.

[2] Jason Plant’s (2021) Muslim Vigil, a visual history of undocumented pandemics

[3]  Hamdon, Evelyn Leslie. 2010. Islamophobia and the Question of Muslim Identity: the Politics of Difference and Solidarity Halifax: Fernwood Pub. Currently, Hamdon is working as the Senior Advisor, Equity and Human Rights, in the Office of the Provost and Vice-President (Academic) at University of Alberta.

Published by Gabriel Ndayishimiye

Gabriel Ndayishimiye lives in London, Ontario. He is a writer with a passion to contribute to Black history and literature; and the author of “Run Elvin” (forthcoming), a memoir written for youth from marginalized backgrounds. This book tells Gabriel’s academic/life experiences from refugee camps in East and Southern Africa and now from the metropolis of the western world. The story aims to inspire and motivate such demographic of youth to take up given opportunities to be creative, achieve success, and develop resilience to fight the challenges of life.

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