My life as a Muslim in the West’s ‘Gray Zone’

Published: November 28, 2015

A small group of protesters, who did not want to give their names, stand outside the state Capitol during the first-ever Muslim Day in Oklahoma City. PHOTO: AP

Some months ago, I gave a reading from my most recent novel in Scottsdale, Ariz. During the discussion that followed, a woman asked me to talk about my upbringing in Morocco. It’s natural for readers to be curious about a writer they’ve come to hear, I told myself. I continued to tell myself this even after the conversation drifted to Islam, and then to ISIS. Eventually, another woman raised her hand and said that the only Muslims she saw when she turned on the television were extremists. 

“Why aren’t we hearing more from people like you?” she asked me.

“You are,” I said with a nervous laugh. “Right now.”

I wanted to tell her that there were plenty of ordinary Muslims in this country. We come in all races and ethnicities. Some of us are more visible by virtue of beards or head scarves. Others are less conspicuous, unless they give book talks and it becomes clear that they, too, identify as Muslims.

To be fair, I’m not a very good Muslim. I don’t perform daily prayers anymore. I have never been on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I partake of the forbidden drink. I do give to charity whenever I can, but I imagine that this would not be enough to save me were I to have the misfortune, through an accident of birth or migration, to live in a place like Raqqa, Syria, where in the last two years, the group variously known as Daesh, ISIL or ISIS has established a caliphate: a successor to past Islamic empires. Life in Raqqa reportedly follows rules that range from the horrifying to the absurd: The heads of people who have been executed are posted on spikes in the town’s main square; women must wear a niqab and be accompanied by a male companion when they go out; smoking and swearing are not allowed; chemistry is no longer taught in schools and traffic police are not permitted to have whistles because ISIS considers them un-Islamic.

As part of its efforts to spread its message outside the territory it controls, ISIS puts out an English-language magazine, Dabiq, which can be found online. In February, Dabiq featured a 12-page article, complete with high-resolution photos and multiple footnotes, cheering the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and claiming that they made manifest for the world two camps: the camp of Islam under the caliphate and the camp of the West under the crusaders. The article ran under the title “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” The gray zone is the space inhabited by any Muslim who has not joined the ranks of either ISIS or the crusaders. Throughout the article, these Muslims are called “the grayish,” “the hypocrites” and, for variety, “the grayish hypocrites.”

On November 13th, men who had sworn allegiance to ISIS struck the city of Paris, killing 130 people at different locations mostly in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, neighbourhoods that are known for their multiculturalism. As soon as I heard about the attacks, I tried to reach a cousin of mine, who is studying in Paris. I couldn’t. I spent the next two hours in a state of crushing fear until he posted on Facebook that he was safe. Relieved, I went back to scrolling through my feed, which is how I found out that my friend Najlae Benmbarek, a Moroccan journalist, lost her cousin. A recently married architect, Mohamed Amine Ibnolmobarak was eating dinner with his wife at the Carillon restaurant when an ISIS terrorist killed him.

It was probably not a coincidence that the Paris attacks were aimed at restaurants, a concert hall and a sports stadium, places of leisure and community, nor that the victims included Muslims. As Dabiq makes clear, ISIS wants to eliminate coexistence between religions and to create a response from the West that will force Muslims to choose sides: either they “apostatise and adopt” the infidel religion of the crusaders or “they perform hijrah to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the crusader governments and citizens.” For ISIS to win, the gray zone must be eliminated.

Whose lives are gray? Mine, certainly. I was born in one nation (Morocco) speaking Arabic, came to my love of literature through a second language (French) and now live in a third country (America), where I write books and teach classes in yet another language (English). I have made my home in between all these cultures, all these languages, all these countries. And I have found it a glorious place to be. My friends are atheists and Muslims, Jews and Christians, believers and doubters. Each one makes my life richer.

This gray life of mine is not unique. I share it with millions of people around the world. My brother in Dallas is a practicing Muslim — he prays, he fasts, he attends mosque — but he, too, would be considered to be in the gray zone, because he despises ISIS and everything it stands for.

Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed in America. Other times, especially when people are scared, gray lives become targets. Hate crimes against Muslims spike after every major terrorist attack. But rather than stigmatise this hate, politicians and pundits often stoke it with fiery rhetoric, further diminishing the gray zone. Every time the gray zone recedes, ISIS gains ground.

The language that ISIS uses may be new, but the message is not. When President George W. Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he declared,

“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

It was a decisive threat, and it worked well for him in those early, confusing days, so he returned to it.

“Either you are with us,” he said in 2002, “or you are with the enemy. There’s no in between.”

This polarised thinking led to the United States invasion of Iraq, which led to the destabilisation of the Middle East, which in turn led to the creation of ISIS.

Terrorist attacks affect all of us in the same way: We experience sorrow and anger at the loss of life. For Muslims, however, there is an additional layer of grief as we become subjects of suspicion. Muslims are called upon to condemn terrorism, but no matter how often or how loud or how clear the condemnations, the calls remain. Imagine if, after every mass shooting in a school or a movie theatre in the United States, young white men in this country were told that they must publicly denounce gun violence. The reason this is not the case is that we presume each young white man to be solely responsible for his actions, whereas Muslims are held collectively responsible. To be a Muslim in the West is to be constantly on trial.

The attacks in Paris have generated the same polarisation as all previous attacks have. Even though most of the suspects were French and Belgian nationals who could have gained entry to the United States on their passports, Republican governors in 30 states say that they will refuse to take in any refugees from Syria without even more stringent screening. Barely two days after the attacks, Jeb Bush told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the United States should focus its efforts only on helping Syrian refugees who are Christian.

Ted Cruz went a step further, offering to draft legislation that would ban Muslim Syrian refugees from the United States. When he was asked by Dana Bash of CNN what would have happened to him if his father, a Cuban refugee who was fleeing communism, had been refused entry, he implied that it was a different situation because of the special risks associated with ISIS.

As it happens, I am married to a son of Cuban refugees. Like Cruz’s father, they came to this country because America was a safe haven. What would have been their fate if an American legislator said that they could not be allowed in because the Soviet Union was trying to infiltrate the United States?

The other day, my daughter said to me, “I want to be president.” She has been saying this a lot lately, usually the morning after a presidential debate, when our breakfast-table conversation veers toward the elections. My daughter is 12. She plays the violin and the guitar; she loves math and history; she’s quick-witted and sharp-tongued and above all she’s very kind to others. “I’d vote for you,” I told her. And then I looked away, because I didn’t have the heart to tell her that half the people in this country — in her country — say they would not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.

I worry about her growing up in a place where some of the people who are seeking the highest office in the land cannot make a simple distinction between Islam and ISIS, between Muslim and terrorist. Ben Carson has said he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.”

Right now, my daughter still has the innocence and ambition that are the natural attributes of the young. But what will happen when she comes of age and starts to realise that her life, like mine, is constantly under question? How do you explain to a child that she is not wanted in her own country? I have not yet had the courage to do that. My daughter has never heard of the gray zone, though she has lived in it her entire life. Perhaps this is my attempt at keeping the world around all of us as gray as possible. It is a form of resistance, the only form of resistance I know.

This post originally appeared here

Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami is the author, most recently, of “The Moor’s Account,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Feroz

    Nice write up Laila but was the Cuban origin man you married a Muslim ? If not did he have to convert to marry you ? I have to ask these questions because from your article it seems you are a liberal Muslim. In case you had an inter religious marriage, did you toss a coin to decide which religion your daughter followed ?Recommend

  • Genie

    There are just too many people who live in delusion. Many think that if they called themselves President of the USA, they will indeed, become so. So it goes with many an imposters. There are nothing but imposters all around. All these imposters claim to be Buddhists, Hindoos, Jews, Christian, Muslims etc. without showing the beauty of their religion through their deeds. If people do not practice their religion they should never make a claim to belong to that religion. People who practice their religion can be identified by their humility and being at peace with themselves and with others. There is utterly no room for any violence either in thoughts, words or deeds, for those who uphold their religion truly and sincerely.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    Yet another “victim mentality” blog.

    “Most of the time, gray lives go unnoticed in America.” Why should they be noticed, are you seeking attention? Go on with your everyday life and keep on doing good work. Are Vietnamese, Cambodians, Koreans who came as refugees seeking attention?
    “Republican governors in 30 states say that they will refuse to take in any refugees from Syria without even more stringent screening.” – There are 20 other states and couple of territories. Shamefully no GCC (rich) Arab mumaliks are taking these Syrians. Is anyone in Maghrib taking them?
    “And then I looked away, because I didn’t have the heart to tell her that half the people in this country — in her country — say they would not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.” – Not yet, may be in the future. But first things first, during her growth in a plural society, make your daughter understand the value of plurality and diversity. Teach her not to carry religion as a chip on the shoulder. Also that in US allegiance to the nation comes above Islam (means fight enemies even if they happen to be Muslims).
    US is a nation formed on Judeo-Christain principles with separation of church from state and it has opened its doors to every other nation in the world. The only ones who have abused so far are the sections (not all) of Muslim community, while most of the are apologists or Grayzone residents and some even cowards to allow Islam getting hijacked by Islamists and blame every other non-Muslim for problem in ME and other disputes.Recommend

  • Parvez

    This is the topic all around and there is much written on it……but this was one of the best pieces I have read that spells it out in simple terms.Recommend

  • RameshHeg

    No matter how much you want to exaggerate claims of “Islamophobia” or “fear of being Muslims”, etc, etc these are all nothing compared to being an Ahmadiyya or a Christian or a Hindu in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Kumar Gaurav

    Why so much of hate against Islam in today’s world..Being a Hindu I can say it is the only true religion.Recommend

  • Jayman

    If Muslims moving abroad want all the nasty things that made their own nations unbearable, why migrate at all?? They can have all the repressive laws they want in their own lands.Recommend

  • fatima

    WOW Laila Lalami, you have beautifully articulated my thoughts into words. Incredibly insightful and a very well written piece. I wish you the best of luck on your new book and look forward to giving it a read.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    Faith is judged by the values its follower portray. It has been easy to hijack and distort the Islamic teachings.
    It has happened in the past, in modern times in Palestine, Kashmir and other parts where struggles were given colour of Jihad. These hijackers have been given facetime through their voices and actions to eliminate any peaceful and sufi (introspective) side of Islam.
    For instance, someone takes Holy Bhagvad Geeta, chapter 11 verse 32 out of context with ample distortion, and keeps on using it, what would Sanatana Dharma look like?
    I would really like peaceful Muslims to step-up and save the faith from the hands of these Islamists.Recommend

  • Faulitics
  • SuperNeo™

    Most of the Muslims migrate to West on fake asylum or enter illegally. but theri way living remain same .. simple steps are followed.

    1. Asking Asylum on the basis of fake facts.
    2. Remain Unemployed , survive on tax payers money.
    3. create no go zones
    4.ask for sharia
    if you don’t believe, current situation in UK is worst than above points in fe area life is hellRecommend

  • Time Is Up

    You raise valid questions. I hope Laila answers them.

    Here is one on Steve Jobs.

  • DudeFromDC

    “And then I looked away, because I didn’t have the heart to tell her that half the people in this country — in her country — say they would not vote for a Muslim presidential candidate.” … That is so sad, isn’t it? I mean, take for example muslim countries. Non-muslims are not even allowed basic human rights let alone being the leader of the country. And you have the audacity to spin this around on American public? If Americans don’t vote for Muslims, its because of Muslims, not Americans. Just because your parents migrated to US for a much better life than in a muslim country doesn’t mean you have the ethical right to preach rightoeusness to your hosts. Legally yes.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Yes, it has retained its original form ie Armed Legion created to build empire. Xianity also was Armed Legion but after slavery, colonization etc they are exhausted.Recommend

  • Jayman

    At least the Muslims facing “Islamophobia” know that they are facing a backlash for something that members of their community perpetrated. But the Christians, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus in Pakistan are persecuted just for being alive.Recommend

  • omaranis

    Ahmadiyya or a Christian or a Hindu in Pakistan….why dont you leave then? i know a lot of minorities living happily, those who do not indulge in subversive activities.Recommend

  • omaranis

    wonder why every one is calling you a hypocrite!Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    Nice one Feroz, I have precisely these same doubts. Hope the author will respond.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    Sanathana Dharma is not a belief system but is based on logical debate and self experience. where as all abrahamic religions are. You start to question it, these religions starts to shake in basement and response is often aggression based on ignorance.Recommend

  • Sane

    Sheer lie. In Pakistan and the other part of the world, only Muslims are being killed at mass scale. None of there religions.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    I know I have lived for some time in Sheffield / Leeds …Recommend

  • Milind A

    I’ve got to congratulate your bravery for publicly acknowledging your proclivity towards the forbidden drink.. Years back a DAWN columnist Irfan Hussain casually mentioned his love for beer and drink and Pakistani readers came like a ton of bricks on which, After which he wrote another article highlighting this hypocrisy in Muslim societies. And yes, there may be Muslim inhabiting those gray areas, but publicly very few own these up.. Thus whatever picture of Muslims we non-Muslims see – is in black and white.Recommend

  • Milind A

    “I worry about her growing up in a place where some of the people who are
    seeking the highest office in the land cannot make a simple distinction
    between Islam and ISIS, between Muslim and terrorist”

    Please rush to Saudi Arabia or any Muslims country, where she could have a shot at Presidency of that countryRecommend

  • Time Is Up

    I am surprised that ET has not been approached by any Ahmadi mother whose daughter too wants to become a PM of Pakistan.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    They are leaving. Please check and validate not just percentage but number counts of people from 1947 through 1972 and any recent census.
    Here are some of the typical questions which will help us measure if a minority is thriving (not just surviving) and growing in any nation
    What is the highest public office post a non-Muslim can reach in Pakistan (beyond CJ Bhagwandas and Anil Dalpat etc) and name who are in power today?
    How come we do not have a Ahmadi even as a CM or Governor of a province?
    Are there any non-Muslim Commissioners/Superintendents of Police?Recommend

  • JP

    What does the author’s marriage has to do with this article?
    Why interject that into the discussion? Does it have any bearing?
    Don’t change the subject.
    ‘Toss a coin’ ….Recommend

  • Gullu

    Never expected this from you Supriya.
    Should we go into the ghettos in the Bronx? Say, even
    Brooklyn? How about Jamaica [Queens] ? Better still, how about
    the Chicago neighborhood of Devon Street? Will make you feel
    right at home, has the look of a Poona slum. Like you never left
    Bharat. Well, moving on to LA [Calif] there is this Little India, area.
    er…make that Little Hindustan. All the homey comforts there. Recommend

  • Jayman

    Of course, it is a “sheer lie”. When have Muslims taken responsibility for anything? Recommend

  • Gullu

    That was Indian ghettos in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
    And in Little Hindustan in L.A …you can buy your idlis
    and your dosas and your coconuts and your papadams
    and banana leafs.Recommend

  • Supriya Arcot

    If I say THIS is bad it does not mean THAT is necessarily good .We are talking about THIS in THIS article.Recommend

  • Linux Novice

    It deeply does. One has to preach what one practice!Recommend

  • notepoli7
  • notepoli7
  • Swaadhin

    Gullu, I have been told you are hurt, are you alright?Recommend

  • LS

    They don’t ask for Sharia, Don’t stop others and harass them for not following their religion or their sense of right or wrong. They don’t preach hate in their temples. They don’t set bombs in public transportation and other public areas, they don’t rape kids en-masse. These fantastic cred only goes to Pakistanis..Recommend

  • LS

    Typical “Muslim” is a victim blog. They forget how they are servicing the world by bombing and killing. Started in 647AD and continues till date. I haven’t see a single article that talked about their killing ways. None of their 57 Muslim countries give non-muslims any of these rights that they are asking for in western countries but you don’t see such articles coming out of any of these countries from “Lesser folks” but if this happens to a Muslim… OMG its a grave injustice but its ok if we do it.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    It’s funny how Muslims cry about invasion of Iraq by USA.
    Have Muslims never attacked foreign countries, looted them, plundered them, ravaged them and simply destroyed the natives?Recommend

  • mazharuddin

    Instead of beating about bush come to the moot point, do you also believe life after death ? This concept of heaven is main cause of suicide bombing among Muslims. These folks are deprived of everything and constantly being told by their clergy that They would get heaven class facilities on heaven therefore these bearded goons are striving for it with full force.Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Why should they leave? They are as much son of the soil as you are.. Keep religion personal. Equality and justice for all citizens as Islam truly teaches. Not a hog wash kind of Islam Pakistanis have learned. Most Pakistani Sunni Muslims do not even understand the Quran and therefore this attitude towards Shias, Ahmadies, Christians, Hindus, Parsis AND ALL OTHER MINORITIES. People like you have destroyed Jinnah’s Pakistan.Recommend

  • Nadeem

    A very stupid question Feroz. .Questioning someone’s faith and belief is sick mentality.
    So my question to you is have you read the Quran with meaning and do you understand it or are you Muslim by “label” only. I know your kind . You and your ilk belong to the tribe of Abu Jahal. Remember that Islam teaches that there is no compulsion in religion. Stop being a “pretend” Muslim. Learn true Islam and not from a Mullah!!!Recommend

  • Nadeem

    Excellent response. I admire your honesty and am a Muslim living in North America I would never live in any society which is not pluralistic. Pakistanis have a long way to go yet to understand that religion is private and personal matter.Recommend

  • Nadeem

    No, not in modern times. yet the destruction of Iraq was based on lies and a President who had no knowledge and a fat ego. He not only destroyed Iraq and peace in the Middle East but also the lives of many American youths who went to fight for no cause. Today their families still grieve. Also it set a precedent for “preemptive” strikes against a defenseless civilians. This is the same philosophy adopted by the terrorist. They attack defenseless civilians. The destruction of Iraq, Libya and Syria can start something bigger and no country can be considered safe. Bush and Blair should be tried by the International Court of Justice for the damage it has caused through out the world. It was not only Muslims in Iraq who suffered. Iraqi Christians suffered most. Yes all Arabs have suffered excluding Saudi who was also an accomplice. Death of people anywhere is not funny!!!!Recommend

  • Babar

    Double standards in Pakistan for sure!!!! All citizens are not equal in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Rajiv

    A few hundred years ago Muslims were doing the same with others.
    Taste your own medicine.Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Beautifully written, no wonder u r a Pulitzer Prize finalist. I agree, each and everyone of us has to resist extremism and their nihilistic world view, to the best of our ability, starting with our homes and families and neighborhoods.Recommend

  • omaranis

    its not jinnahs pakistan, its my pakistan, if miorities feel so side lined they should leave.Recommend

  • omaranis

    non-muslims canot be given high post in muslim state.Recommend

  • Time Is Up

    Why? What if non-Muslims are most eligible for the highest post, even then?
    If it is about some crap from Sharia and Dhimmitude, then Muslims should stop living in plural societies such as India, Europe, Aus. US etc, and get back to some Sharia shitholes. There are about 50+ OIC nations to choose from. Diversity can be achieving without Muslims, in fact it will be peaceful and progressive.Recommend