When I was 13 years old, I spent a few days in Brussels, Belgium with my family. My dad had spent a summer there with his aunt and uncle, who were living there at the time, when he was about 15 or 16 and wanted to me to experience the same thing, so he, my mom, a couple of family friends, and my best friend all took a trip to Europe with one of our stops being Brussels.
I grew up in a very rural area. The town I grew up in had a population of less than 2000 people, most of which were white Christians. Accordingly, that was all I was familiar with. I didn’t know much about other religions or other peoples’ beliefs and wasn’t religious myself, but I grew up in a conservative family. My mom and dad are both heavily affected by acts of terrorism in the sense that they react exactly how terrorists would want them to: they get scared. As a kid, some of that inevitably rubbed off on me.
Accordingly, when we went to Brussels, it was one of the biggest culture shocks I’d ever experienced. Not only were people speaking other languages primarily, but we stayed in a Muslim neighborhood. We would hear them praying in the middle of the night. I was fucking terrified. I knew they weren’t terrorists that were going to plan some kind of attack on my family and I in the middle of the night. I was scared for two reasons. One was that it was new to me. New things are always scary for at least a minute. The other reason was I felt that the world at large hated America. I was scared to be American because I didn’t know how someone would react to me being American in a foreign country. Whether it was a result of the fear that comes from terrorism or my 13 year old mind knowing that my country had no place in the war and that the rest of the world was looking at us with judging eyes, I’m not sure, but I was terrified. I was relieved when we left and went back to England.
As I got older, I learned more about the world and became less scared of things I didn’t know. Like I said, new things are always scary, but as I got older I learned that it’s important to be scared of those things until you get to know them. Then they become familiar, you’re not scared anymore, and you’ve learned something. One of those things was Islam.
I wound up learning about it because one of my all time favorite musicians, Cat Stevens, had given up on a life of what was probably agnosticism after a near-drowning experience where he pleaded to whoever is out there and said, “If you can save me, I’ll devote my life to you.” He lived and began studying religion to see which made the most sense to him and landed on Islam. Having someone I admired embrace a religion that I didn’t understand and had grown up almost fearing helped me get over that. I looked into it. I became informed of their beliefs, customs, and realized it’s another religion. It doesn’t preach terrorism or carrying out massacres on Americans. It’s just a religion.
When I learned of the tragedy in Brussels yesterday, I had two thoughts after being fucking devastated that a landmark of my childhood (even if I was terrified of it) had endured something like this. It almost felt closer to home than any attacks on US soil. But anyway. My first thought was how different it will be for me when I go back. Not solely because of the tragedy, but because my perspectives have changed. I’m excited for that. I’m a much more open, accepting, and understanding person now and I know things will be better. My second thought was one of disgust for the inevitable “Muslims are terrorists” backlash that it obviously received. They’re fucking not.
I encourage you to look up and research something you don’t understand. I guarantee that 10 times out of 10, you’ll have an idea of where the people who believe in it are coming from, even if you don’t agree. Understanding is not only much more important, but way more fun than living in fear of things you don’t “get”.
A friend of mine tweeted that we should be focused on uniting in times like this, not pointing the finger at one side and excluding them. Muslims live in Brussels and Muslims very likely died in the attacks. They could use some camaraderie too.