On the night of the attacks I was with a couple of friends. There were three of us altogether, all of us from Muslim backgrounds. There was myself – I’m gay – and then there was Raisul, who’s straight, and there was Humera who is lesbian. We were laughing and joking.
I got a message from one of my friends on Facebook. ‘Some terrible stuff seems to be going on in Paris’, is all it said. As soon as I read those words, my heart sank, and I knew it was most likely another Islamist attack. I quickly opened up BBC News, and saw: some people had been shot by gunmen in Paris. I quickly passed on the news to my friends. They were shocked. Suddenly the merry atmosphere had turned dark and heavy.
This was something I had been expecting for some time now. It didn’t come as a surprise.
We were all now on our way to Raisul’s house to celebrate his birthday, but the mood between was far from celebratory. We talked about the causes of violent extremism on the way to his house. We talked about Islam and whether it encouraged violence. I shared my experiences as an Islamist who was at one point willing to carry out violent attacks. Humera shared her experiences growing up and being told at her mosque to be grateful to the UK for accepting us Muslims as equal citizens and allowing us to practice our religion freely.
We talked about the left and how some of them had helped create an environment where Islamist extremism could grow, flourish and fester unchallenged, by shutting down any debate on the subject, both within and without the Muslim community, as racist and Islamophobic. We also talked about the right and how some of them had driven every day peace-loving Muslims into the arms of extremists, and in many cases, violent extremists.
We learned more as the news poured in. A hundred people taken hostage at a concert. A bomb at the Stade de France. The gravity of the situation was dawning upon me. At this point, I thought the attacks were limited, finished, localized like Charlie Hebdo. This was something else.
Both myself and my friends proposed a toast to the people who had died, and the people who were still dying. Now, as a cultural Muslim, I normally don’t drink. But that night I drank more than I have ever drunk before. The news then came out that most of the hostages had been murdered in cold blood. We were all stunned into silence. I drank more.
My desperation, shock and sorrow quickly turned into an infuriated state of anger and outrage. An attack on Paris was an attack on London, my home city. See, as a former Islamist, I knew that people like members of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda view Europe as one homogeneous entity. Therefore, by attacking Paris, they were, in their minds, attacking all of Europe and the wider West at large.
Part of the anger I felt was directed at myself. I was angry that I ever believed in and followed the ideology that these attackers used to justify their horrendous actions. Even though I myself never publicly supported such violent acts of terror, I did nevertheless teach others about the extreme form of Islam known as Salafism that formulated the ideological and theological basis for such acts. The guilt and disgust I felt towards myself was overwhelming and overbearing.
Whenever I hear of such acts of violence being carried out by radical and Islamist groups, I go through the same mental anguish, over and over again. This is a burden that I know I will have to carry for the rest of my life, and to be entirely honest, I don’t want to stop feeling this anguish and guilt, because feeling such emotions, however painful they may be, are what make me human – it’s what differentiates me between who I was then and who I am now.
I went home that night and stayed up till 6am in the morning following the news and listening to all the reports coming in. I fell asleep perturbed and in a state of stupefied despair. Needless to say, I did not sleep well that night.
I woke up the following morning, and immediately checked on the news. Now that the alcohol had worn off, I was finally able to process the full extent of what had just happened. I listened to the reports coming in and broke down crying. The people who had been affected by these attacks were just like me. They were European, just like me. They believed in and held every principle I believed in: free speech, democracy, gender equality, gay rights, human rights…
It is clear from social media that many Muslims are afraid for their safety, and I have received many reports of Islamophobic incidents to Friday’s events. I implore everyone to channel the anger they are feeling towards the Paris attackers to fighting the extremist ideology. Please don’t attack random Muslims in response. All hatred does is simply breed more hatred.
After last Friday I have promised myself that I will redouble my efforts in fighting the incipient and twisted world view that gives rise to such blood thirsty monstrosities. This is something that will not be fought by a few activists in the field. It needs a society wide response. It requires all of us to engage young impressionable people into open and honest discussion and debate.
We can only fight ignorance with knowledge, darkness with light, and hatred with love.
Sohail Ahmed is a London-based human rights activist working to build bridges between the Muslim and LGBTI communities. You can read more about his story here.