I arrived to Boston from NYC on the day of the bombing to give a talk on tolerance and visit friends studying there. A few hours later, as some friends and I were discussing in a local café in Cambridge various topics on Saudi Arabia, we heard the news. Our reaction, or rather reactions were many and mixed. We thought of the victims and their families. We prayed the number of afflicted people would not be high, and were saddened by the news and pictures of those murdered and those injured. We were angry at the meaningless act of terror. We worried about friends who were at the marathon. But as we thought of the victims we were also thinking of ourselves.
When others suffer we cannot allow ourselves to think more of ourselves than the victims. We can no longer allow our feelings of love and empathy towards other to be hijackedAbdullah Hamidaddin
We were nervous about the consequence of this act on the wellbeing of Saudis and Muslims in the United States. We were anxious about the way the media would portray this. When we first heard of Erik Rush tweeting “Muslims are evil. Let's kill them all” we thought this was going to be just the beginning with more to follow from other pundits and American citizens. And we started reminiscing the days of 9/11. And our agitation reached its peak when The New York Post announced the arrest of a Saudi student related to the bombing. We did not pay attention to the fact that the paper has no credibility. We were simply concerned about ourselves and prone to believe anything.
But it was not only the reaction of Americans which concerned us. We were also apprehensive about reactions in the Muslim world. We immediately assumed that many would commend this act of terror. And in the first couple of hours from the bombing we did see people on Twitter praising this crime of terror. But most of the negative comments were expressing indifferent to the suffering of those in the marathon, either minimizing it in comparison to suffering of Syrians and other war victims or blaming it on US foreign policy. And though we rejected all of this as a matter of principle, yet we were distracted from the ugliness of what was being said, to how it can be used by the many “Rushes” out there. As we prayed that they perpetrators are found as soon as possible we also prayed that it would not be a Saudi nor a Muslim. We may have even prayed for that more than we did for those hurt.
Our emotions were alternating between sympathy for those injured or killed, disdain of negative comments made by Muslims and concern for ourselves. On Twitter we saw that the thoughts of many Saudis and Muslims were also alternating in the same way.
Islamophobia and Saudophobia
But all our self focused concerns were relieved in a few hours. The Saudi student was eventually considered a witness not a suspect. The main media outlets did not start pointing fingers towards Muslims. Rush’s tweet became an isolated comment which disdains Americans as much as did Arabs. Official statements were careful in not to allow people to jump to conclusions. And most Saudis and Muslims – in the United States and abroad - were genuinely sympathetic with the victims of this terror attack and were severely critiquing the minority which was showing other feelings.
But as our main concerns were relieved, a sense of bitterness remained. I felt as if our sense of empathy was somehow hijacked by the effect of Islamophobia and Saudophobia. Instead of primarily worrying about those hurt, many of us were soon first worried about ourselves. And it is not the first time Muslims react in such away. Whenever there was a terror act, those thoughts would surface among Muslims around the world, and then be relieved when the identity of the criminal is revealed to be a non-Muslim.
Islamophobia and Saudophobia are evil in and of themselves for the injustice cause and the pain they inflict. But this was something different. This was about a defeat I felt in a part of our spirit. I felt we were deprived of being fully immersed in sympathy and empathy with those suffering. And I felt that in this instance it was not the Islamophobic nor the Saudophobic who should be blamed. Rather it was us who allowed our spirits to be defeated by them. Or to be more accurate who defeated our own spirits, for no one, no matter how much power they have over you can defeat your spirit. Only you can.
I understand that it is difficult not to be defensive the way we were. I know that in light of what happened to many Muslims as a consequence of Islamophobia and Saudophobia it is a natural survival response to worry in the way we did. But nevertheless it was not the full humane response. And as we reject and resist Islamophobia and Saudophobia we also need to reject and resist the defeat of our own spirits. When others suffer we cannot allow ourselves to think more of ourselves than the victims. We can no longer allow our feelings of love and empathy towards other to be hijacked.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1