Heraa Hashmi was propelled into the public eye when she compiled a worldwide list of as many different instances as she could find of Muslims condemning terrorism. A Muslim-American of Indian ancestry, Heraa was moved to action following a disappointing conversation with a classmate who wondered why Muslims are so silent about the violence of some of their co-religionists. The list was turned into a publicly available spreadsheet with 5720 examples of Muslim condemning terror which can be found on a website she created with some friends.
A year on, she visits Istanbul and ponders the efficacy of the decision due to her concern that the list played into the “moderate Muslim” narrative. The idea of a ‘moderate Muslim’ she argues is “an invention of a global system of capital and political hegemony” which uses the ‘moderate’ Muslim category “to include those Muslims whose lifestyles and beliefs are approved”, and exclude, arrest, torture and kill those who aren’t.
A student of molecular biology at the University of Colorado Boulder, Heraa is also a prolific YouTuber, a writer of fiction and runs an online blog with friends called Traversing Tradition which explores Islam for counter-cultural perspectives. Heraa, 20, speaks to TRT World.
Explain to us the context and exactly what drove you to collect all these condemnations of violence?
HERAA HASHMI: This was around the time of the US election, there were quite a lot of terrorist attacks and there was a buildup of Islamophobic sentiment. And one thing that kept coming up in the media was why are Muslims so silent? Which was very interesting to me because growing up very well-acquainted with the Muslim community, from my perspective it felt like we were continuously talking about these things. We were developing programs to prevent radicalism, we were going out and speaking and building relationships with other communities and so it just felt very odd.
But I remember my breaking point, when it really set in that this was a problem was when I was in class and it was a few weeks before the election and we were studying the role of religion in European history.
There was one student who turned to me and asked why Muslims don’t condemn this violence. He suggested this violence was a “Muslim problem” and that really upset me. We talked and had a bit of a back and forth but I didn’t feel like that conversation was going anywhere. So, I went home thinking I’ll do some research and just send him a list.
As I started researching I realized that there is a lot of information out there. It’s not that Muslims aren’t speaking up, it’s just that message isn’t being received or covered enough in mainstream media. That’s the story behind the list. Take us through how you collected this list, because it seems really long and mundane process.
HH: I won’t lie it was very mundane at times. I was cooped up in my room for three weeks and missed a few classes, but the more I got into Google deep dive, the more I realised that there is so much information available. And you have to realise I’m not a computer science student. Someone even asked me if I used a web crawler and I didn’t know what that was then. There was no method to my madness, just raw googling. Page after page, right the way through to the end, searching phrases like “Muslims condemn” or “Muslims against terrorism” collecting all the information in a spreadsheet. I spoke with a friend after about three weeks of collecting the information, and she said it was good enough to turn into a public resource, so that’s what I did.
What did you hope to achieve by compiling this list?
HH: Part of me wanted to question discourses which present Muslims as violent, but I was also focused on how Muslims have internalised some of these ideas. To an extent we have internalised the idea that Muslims, and Muslim countries are backwards or barbaric, and violence prone. I just wanted to help people think critically about these issues, and consider the likelihood that there are other factors involved with Muslims in the US and outside the US.
In the long run, I hoped people would question the things they hear about Muslims, and investigate what’s causing this rhetoric and what’s actually behind it.
How was the initiative received by Muslims and your wider community?
HH: Within the Muslim community most of the feedback was positive. A lot of people felt like this was a problem and this was a great way to address it. But there were people who critiqued the idea and I feel like I’ve grown from that critique.
The biggest criticism was by people who told me I was pandering and was being apologetic. That in trying to set aside the accusations of those that say Muslims don’t condemn terrorism, I was falling into the “moderate-extreme” Muslim trap. With hindsight, I feel like that was a fair critique because if you look at US media the spectrum of Muslims that get a voice goes from terror hating to those who are apologetic, and we don’t really exist outside that frame. I actually wrote about this in Traversing Tradition, a blog that we run.
We sometimes play into this by attempting to present ourselves as “moderate Muslims”, Muslims who only exist in a way that makes other people feel comfortable in their prejudices. And of course, we condemn terror, but a Muslim isn’t just a person who has an ethnic sounding name, eats exotic food, and might wear strange clothes. Me practicing my faith makes people uncomfortable, and that feeds into ideas about Islam and Muslims being violent. That point helped me realize that this is just a symptom of a much larger problem and we need to talk about it.
What do you think that problem is?
HH: That problem is a general and unhealthy climate of fear regarding the Muslim community. There is a bias in the way we view violence and how we attribute these things. There are so many studies that show domestic terrorism by people who aren’t Muslim is a far larger threat.
It’s so interesting that when terrorist attacks happen in quote on quote “Western countries”, like the UK or the US people are shocked globally, but when an attack happens in Kabul, Morocco or Turkey even in areas that aren’t warzones the perception is that these places are just war-torn countries and its normal when in many cases they’re not. And we just don’t get as angry or as bothered by those things as a society. That double standard has a lot to do with the assumption that Muslims and Muslim countries are violent which links back into the problem of fear.
What more needs to be done?
HH: I was recently reading some research published by Pew, and they found that most Americans have never met a Muslim. I think a lot of the problems people have with the Muslim community, and their ideas about who we are come from the reality that many have never met any of us and a lot of the hatred could be resolved if people went out and talked to Muslims.
But we also need to uplift Muslims and give them a real space on different platforms without these unhelpful binaries. And it doesn’t make a difference where that is, whether it be comedy, acting, writing or politics. Young Muslims have a voice, they have ideas, but they just need a mic to reach larger audiences.