On terrorism: My perspective as an American living and working in the Middle East

When I explain I live and work in the Middle East, people often believe I’m foolish, brave even, for risking my personal security. Yes, Kuwait borders Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and is quite close to Iran. So I can see, from an American perspective, how one might think living here would be unsafe.

Kuwait has had one terror attack in the past ten years. That’s fewer than the U.S. has had in 2015. I’m not scared, and will never be scared, of terrorist threats… it makes more sense to fear a lightning strike. I am, and will always be, scared of how quick people are to falsely accuse and associate certain groups with terror.

After the Paris bombings, a lot of Americans started posting about preventing Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. A majority of U.S. state governors said that they would not accept Syrian refugees.

That hurts a lot.

No Syrian refugees were involved in the Paris bombings. Yes, a “Syrian passport” was found and attributed to one of the bombers, but it was fake (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/were-syrian-refugees-involved-in-the-paris-attacks-what-we-know-and-dont-know/). Concerning bomber nationalities we know thus far, all were from the European Union (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/11/15/world/europe/manhunt-for-paris-attackers.html?_r=0).

To take this moment to lash out at Syrian refugees is not only leaping to unproven conclusions, but also disturbingly reminiscent of going to war with Iraq after 9/11. None of the hijackers were Iraqi. Yet we attacked Iraq. I understand that the declared reason we went to war was not 9/11 … but the emotions, the American citizen support, was. Patriotism and support of the war were, in the minds of many, inexorably linked to the attacks on the Twin Towers.

Even though those attacks didn’t really relate to Iraq.

Perhaps the most sinister aspect of terrorism is its disturbing ability to warp truth through fear.

In our current case, shunning Syrian refugees carries much of the same fear. These refugees are fleeing the instability that terror breeds. Considering Syrian refugees a terrorist threat is not only inaccurate, it’s associating them with their greatest fear. It’s calling them the very evil they abhor so desperately that it’s driven them from their lives and homes. Considering Syrian refugees a terrorist threat is not just a grotesque distortion, it’s the highest form of insult.

I understand that people are afraid. Terrorism is just that: promoting fear. Creating a situation where daily life becomes uneasy is the point of these attacks. That’s the point of terror everywhere. But there have been ZERO cases of refugees committing a terrorist attack in the U.S. Zero.

So I think people ought to recognize the facts. Actually, no. Not just the facts. Recognizing the facts isn’t enough to fight fear or terrorism.

I think people ought to recognize the humanity.

Part of the reason that the idea of Syrian refugees not being allowed into the U.S. hurts so viscerally for me is that I’ve talked to Syrian refugees. I got to know them. And I can assure you that not only are they human, they are some of the best humanity has to offer.

Last year, I spoke to a woman who broke my heart with a story about how her little boy hurt himself while playing and got blood all over his clothes. The woman wasn’t just crying because her child got hurt; she was crying with shame that she couldn’t afford to wash his only pair of clothes.

Then, she invited me to dinner at her house.

Those are the kind of people too many people in the U.S. want to refuse; people who have nothing yet are so kind and caring that they are willing to share whatever they have with you for your friendship.

It physically hurts me to see the country I am a citizen of, a country founded as a refuge for immigrants, a country calling itself a champion of freedom and justice for all, question the acceptance of refugees. As an American, I believe that our values and our humanity are measured in more than rhetoric; our values must be reflected in our daily actions. Being a global leader is not maintaining the status quo, but actively working to better it.

But it’s not just American reactions that scare me.

I’m also scared by reactions I see in the Middle East. Because terrorism isn’t just something that makes the “West” question it’s principles… it also impacts the daily lives of people in the Middle East.

Perhaps the best example I can use is this: too many times I’ve been approached by youth asking me if they should continue to be Muslim. This has happened to me in both Jordan and Kuwait, but I’ll focus on my most recent interaction in Kuwait. I normally don’t like to post about personal stories in Kuwait (it’s such a small country I don’t want anyone to recognize the person I’m talking about) but in this case, I think a personal story is needed to convey the seriousness of this question. (To protect personal security, some details have been changed.)

A few days ago, a student I was friends with came to my office and asked about my day. She does this regularly, so I thought nothing of it. Then she asked if she could bother me by asking something. Again, I thought nothing of it; this student tends to be very deferential and polite.

Then she asked if she could close the door, and I started paying more attention.

She closed the door, nervously braced her hands on one of the the chairs in front of my desk, and asked, “So, what do you think about Islam?”

A few minutes into our conversation, I realized she was having a crisis of faith. She still believed in God, but a lot of her friends had recently become atheist, and she wanted to know if she should as well. Or if it was better to become Christian. Or maybe something else. Her worry was based on the recent Paris bombings; my friend here had had enough of terrorism being done in the name of Islam, and she wanted out.

As a young American female, I’m often placed in a unique position in the Middle East. I’m not in the position to be threatening or judgmental, and people assume (correctly) that I have open, liberal views. So people tend to open up to me a lot. Of course, this doesn’t qualify me at all to counsel students about the existence of God.

But, knowing that if I dismissed this student she was unlikely to seek help elsewhere, I tried. I explained Qur’anic verses that promoted peace and deplored violence. I explained the importance of interpretation in the Qur’an, the various schools, the historical tradition in Islam that ISIS completely ignores and how I personally interpreted the Qur’an’s message as one of restraint in punishment. I offered hadith (stories of Muhammad’s life) about tolerance.

She countered with verses that promoted violence, harsh modern interpretations of Sharia law and hopeless acknowledgement that terror was so obvious in extremist Muslim groups. And as she pushed, I realized what she wanted: someone to tell her that giving up on God was okay.

But I couldn’t tell her that.

First, I personally believe in God. She was asking my opinion, and I wasn’t going to lie just to give her an easy way out. Second, I also believe one’s relationship with God is individual and personal, and nobody can tell you what to believe or not believe. I wasn’t going to say, “You should do this.” Instead, I just offered arguments and counterpoints.

So I pushed her to find her own way. I kept arguing. I tried to bring in new perspectives. And finally, when she mentioned that Islam was the only modern religion of terror, she heard my response.

I explained the RSS Hindu movement (http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/petition-filed-in-us-court-to-designate-rashtriya-swayamsevak-sangh-as-terror-group/) in India, which believes true Indians must be Hindu and has organized violence and bombings against Christians and Muslims. I mentioned the 969 Buddhist movement (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/27/us-myanmar-969-specialreport-idUSBRE95Q04720130627#E9mSRUbKhm4suhbz.97) in Myanmar, who’s monk leader incites violence against Muslims that has killed hundreds. I talked about the KKK Christian movement (http://terrorism.about.com/od/groupsleader1/p/Ku_Klux_Klan.htm) in the U.S., which targeted blacks and civil rights activists with torture and bombings.

That’s when it clicked for my friend that ISIS was not political religion, but religious politics. In other words, she understood that any religion could be interpreted in any way for any means; it was just a matter of the political situation manipulating religion to its own end.

She left with a promise that our conversations would continue, and a commitment to pursue her questioning further.

Spent and still a little shocked at our hour-long conversation, I sank back in my chair and felt the thud of pain and anger beat through my body.

I repeat: perhaps the most sinister aspect of terrorism is its disturbing ability to warp truth through fear. Honestly, the only real way I know how to combat terror is through hope.