Late night discussions with my high school senior son in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks have left me feeling anxious and exhausted these days. As a parent, I feel like I’m in uncharted waters, not knowing how best to guide him.
My normally easy-going, even-tempered son has been telling me more and more about high school friends and acquaintances who regularly ask him if he wants to kill all infidels, if he’s part of ISIS, if his local mosque harbors terrorists. He’s shared some witty comebacks that he’s used on annoying kids at school that have earned him their begrudging respect, but I worry about how much more he can continue to take before he snaps, before he says something illegal. My heart goes out to Palestinian mothers and African-American mothers who have been traveling much more hazardous roads than I have for decades and (in the case of blacks in this country) even centuries. I’m realizing for the first time what a weight and a scary responsibility it is to raise Muslim men in this society these days. We want our young men to have dignity and honor and the ability to stand up for themselves and their loved ones, but we still want them to keep their tempers in check and somehow find that sweet balance between (1) not putting up with $%&# and (2) maintaining peace — all without looking like an aggressor OR a “wuss” (polite term).
When I heard about some tough words he recently used on a classmate who finally pushed him too far, I told him, “Shaan, that’s not the sunnah (way of the Prophet). You’re supposed to either be silent or say that which benefits. We’re supposed to spread light, not darkness. What are you contributing to this world? What will that guy have to say about Muslims after his experience with you?”
“It’s the only language kids understand … and it works,” he quietly insisted. “It definitely shut him up. The guy totally chickened out.”
“I’m sure it did ‘work’, but it’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem. This is just the beginning. It’s not going to get any easier. You’re going to be dealing with these kinds of comments for the rest of your life — in high school, in college, in the workplace. Your uncle is a doctor and a partner in a hospital, and he was telling me that even HE has to deal with ignorant comments/questions and racist jokes from fellow doctors. You’re going to have to be smarter than that. I don’t want you to lose your soul just because you’ve figured out how to put a jerk in his place.”
His jaw was set and I didn’t think I was getting through to him.
“Those kids are not your teachers, Shaan,” I reminded him. “They may talk to one another that way and that may be the language they understand. But they’re NOT your example.”
“Mama, talking ‘peace’ doesn’t work in these situations. A guy who doesn’t come off strong will either get laughed at or pummeled or called a ‘p—y’.”
“I’m not telling you to lecture people or to give sermons or to be holier-than-thou. I’m not even telling you to go out of your way to be nice to someone who’s being an a-hole,” I told him. “But I do worry that you think all of the stories of the prophets that we’ve taught you your whole life are just stories…that they’re fairy tales and they’re not applicable to your life. The whole point of learning about how the prophets dealt with torture and taunting and teasing and trials and tribulations — much worse than anything you’re experiencing — was for you to see how REAL MEN deal.”
I reiterated the hadith (saying of the Prophet) where a man asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) for advice, and he told him, “Don’t get angry.” He asked him again, and he replied, “Don’t get angry.” He asked for a third piece of advice, and the Prophet AGAIN responded, “Don’t get angry.”
“There are some scholars who say that that hadith means it’s actually haraam (prohibited) to EVER get angry, but thank God a majority of the scholars say that the actual prohibition is only for ACTING on anger. You have to remember that when you feel yourself starting to get angry … you CAN’T act on it.”
I went on to remind him about the time the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was stoned by children in Taif and the time people threw sheep’s entrails on his blessed back while he was praying in front of the Ka’aba and the time the Quraysh taunted him by distorting his name to “Mudhammam”, yet the Prophet’s only response was: “Doesn’t it astonish you how Allah protects me from the Quraysh’s abusing and cursing? They abuse Mudhammam and curse Mudhammam (“the blameworthy”) while I am Muhammad (‘the praiseworthy’).”
“Think about it, Shaan,” I told him. “Allah sent the Angel of the Mountains to the Prophet (peace be upon him), and he (the angel) told him that just one word from him (the Prophet) and he would crush the people of Taif between the mountains only because of how they had abused and insulted the Messenger of God. But, instead, the Prophet said he would rather that the people of Taif live and that their descendants should one day grow up to be Muslim. If he hadn’t made that choice to forgive, you and I wouldn’t be Muslim today … because it was Muslims from Taif who eventually took Islam to the Indian subcontinent (where our ancestors come from).”
Shaan’s face softened and he smiled. “I think the only way a kid could be Muslim these days is if he knew and loved the Prophet (salallaahu alaihi wasallam). I don’t know how ANYone could be Muslim and NOT know the Prophet. The only kids at my high school who are actually practicing Muslims are the ones who came to Islam through love, not ones who came through no-no-no and rules and regulations.”
I listened quietly.
He continued sharing what kids in high school are saying about Islam and Muslims these days. “The other day, a guy in my class was saying that he just wants to see all of Middle East get nuked. He thinks America should drop nuclear bombs ALL OVER the Middle East. I asked him, ‘Have you ever traveled to the Middle East?’ That threw him off and he just stammered, ‘Well … no … I haven’t had the privilege of traveling overseas just yet.’ And I told him, ‘It’ll be good for you. You should get out of San Ramon … get out of your bubble … leave your PlayStation behind and go see what the world is really about. …'”
I laughed, but then I said, “And it’s entirely possible that he WILL one day go out in the world and change his mind about things. You have to know that everyone is still a work in progress, Shaan. No one is static. You have to look at people with the eye of compassion and mercy, and you have to wish well for them. It’s a cliche, I know, but you should feel sorry for their ignorance and small-mindedness.”
Then Shaan said, “Y’know, Shaykh So-and-So told me something very interesting the other day. He told me that Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) said, ‘I can walk on water; I can raise people from the dead; but as for compound ignorance — I don’t know how to treat that.’ He was SO right. There’s regular ignorance when you say you don’t know something, and then there’s compound ignorance when you don’t even know that you don’t know something.
“I don’t know what to do with all the compound ignorance around me. In my Intro to Law/Mock Trial class, all these kids who think they’re ‘the real Americans’ don’t even know the basics about the Constitution. A girl from my high school is going to Oxford to study law and she’s desi (Indo-Pak origin), but she knows American law better than any of these kids who think they have more right to this country than anyone else. They don’t even know the foundations of what this country was built on and they think they’re patriots.”
Then he said something that made me feel a sense of pride along with a slight sense of apprehension for the future. “You do realize, Mama, that we kids are fighting for our rights as Americans, NOT as Muslims, right? We have every right to be here. My grandparents are American; my parents are American; and I’m American. This is my home and I’m not going anywhere.”
If only I could get Donald Trump to hear what my son has to say, but — then again — I guess it’s pointless since there’s nothing we can do about compound ignorance.
Editor’s Note: Hina Khan-Mukhtar is a mother of three boys and one of the founders of a homeschooling co-operative in Lafayette, California, which now serves over 35 homeschooling families in the East Bay. In addition to teaching Language Arts to elementary, middle school, and high school students, she has written articles on parenting and spiritual traditions for children and is involved in interfaith dialogue. The views expressed here are her own.