Don’t let your grief close you off to others

By Anika Baset | 15 Feb 24

Modern culture offers few depictions of what it means to be a secular Muslim. This has often left me confused about how to relate to my religious heritage. I don’t wear a hijab, pray the requisite five times a day, fast during Ramadan, or go out of my way to eat halal meat. Growing up in the post 9/11 world, in certain social contexts it has often felt easier to hide or downplay my religious heritage — which I have often been able to get away with because of my South Asian ethnicity and my easily anglicised name.

In the past six weeks, however, as the war continues in Gaza and protests continue in Sydney and Melbourne, relating to my Muslim identity has felt more important than ever, if only to offer the perspective that people are more complex than neatly ascribed political positions would indicate.

11 September 2001 represents a before-and-after moment. I was in Grade 4 at the time and felt the hairs on the back of my neck prick up when our teacher said, “Oh, the Muslims did it.” Overnight, the sense of safety in our otherwise unassuming, frankly quite boring, community changed. The recent reports of increasing incidents of Islamophobia and general distrust of the Islamic community have felt painfully familiar.

In the years that followed 2001, whenever news of Islamist extremism punctuated news reports, my mother would remind me of the following verse from the Qur’ān: “Whoever kills an innocent person, it is has if he has killed all of humanity.” I clung to this verse like a talisman, like a protective charm, as a reminder that my religious heritage represents peace and tolerance, even when extremists kill in its name.

In 2015, I was offered a chance to travel to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories on an internship with a peace-building organisation as a fourth-year law student. I had been interested in the conflict for as long as I could remember — no doubt because Muslim communities around the world view the Palestinian plight as their own. I was nervous to tell my father about the opportunity to work in Tel Aviv because because of his firmly held beliefs in Palestinian sovereignty. But his wisdom surprised me: “You should go. Israeli people and the Israeli government are not the same thing.”

My mother had died a year prior to my trip to Israel and I was struggling to process the enormity of the loss as a 22-year-old. On a visit to Jerusalem one Friday, I wrote a prayer for her and placed it in the Western Wall, alongside the Jewish worshippers just before Shabbat, and then walked over the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where I bought a Qur’ān for her and left it at Islam’s second holiest site. My mother wasn’t particularly religious, but it seemed negligent as a daughter not to offer her the chance of maximum posthumous blessings from two of the world’s major religions.

The sheer physical proximity of these two holy sites, however, bore witness to the intractable nature of the ongoing conflict. And yet, it seemed to me the worshippers at both sites were doing the same thing as me: praying for their loved ones, present and departed, and praying for their safe and prosperous futures.

Grief cuts you open in a way that is impossible to describe: an aching hollowness that leaves you breathless at times. But grief can also soften us, opening us up to others whose pain we see as our own. In 2015, the loss of my mother meant that my experience in the Middle East felt like more than just an intellectual exercise in understanding conflict resolution. My heart had just been bulldozed to the ground and every emotion felt amplified. I was struck by the overwhelming sense of pain on the part of Palestinians in the West Bank, who had suffered so deeply under the occupation, through collective punishment and the lack of basic freedom and dignity in their day to day lives.

One morning, I slept in before work only to awaken to messages from friends that there had been a stabbing on my bus line in Tel Aviv. The eerie sense of fear in the Israeli office and on the bus-ride home lingered for days. But I was also deeply moved by the compassion and long-standing dedication of the activists I worked with on both sides, whose life’s work was dedicated to lasting peace, even in circumstances where it felt like an impossible goal.

Memories of that trip have flooded me during this past month, reminding me that humanity has always been capable of more than just blindly picking a side and sticking to it, and that the ability to do so represents the best of us, despite what extremists of all colours may want us to believe. This is also the ability not to use our own grief to shut down our openness to others — or, at its most extreme, to justify unjustifiable violence — but instead to channel it towards empathy, tolerance, and the preparedness to build a better future.

Even so, ever since 7 October it has felt that to be Muslim means to unreservedly pick a side, in line with religious figures who purportedly speak for entire communities, only for those comments to then be weaponised by belligerent politicians and ultra-conservatives on the other side. This game of tit-for-tat cheapens all religious communities and flattens out the plurality contained within them.

Acknowledging the fear of rising antisemitism does not invalidate my own fear of rising Islamophobia. Acknowledging the grief for children of a certain religion does not invalidate grief for children from another. Acknowledging political context, power imbalance, and the need for proportionality does not invalidate hopes and fears individuals have for their people and their communities.

Because whoever kills an innocent person, it is as though they have killed all of humanity.