I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet was shortlisted for our 2018 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize, along with five other non-fiction works that promote global cultural understanding. A reporter for the Washington Post who was born and educated in Germany, Souad Mekhennet provides a mediating voice between the two sides of her upbringing: Muslim and Western. In this compelling and evocative memoir, she describes her journeys behind the lines of jihad.
I’ve often asked preachers or imams who abuse religion for their political ambitions why they do it. Many have told me they believe it’s what Islam requires. Others said they know what’s best for the ummah. Most people argue this is how the Prophet Muhammad would have wanted it to be. But they’re talking about one of my forefathers. Why should they be the ones to decide what Muhammad wanted or how he saw the world?
While I’ve carried the pain of the discrimination I faced as the daughter of Muslim guest workers in Germany, I’m still very grateful for the chance I had to get a good education, and thankful for the wonderful people who pushed me and convinced me not to give up. Yet when I visit countries in the Middle East, I feel the pain of laborers from Southeast Asia or the Philippines. No matter if their employers are Sunni, Shia, or of some other religious background, these workers are often treated badly and barely have any rights. The fact is that many Arab states harbor some version of entrenched racism.
The rise of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS is not the problem of any one specific country or group. It is the result of many mistakes. There are the political leaders who too often look for short- term solutions. There is the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking that has led to arming more militias in Syria and Iraq. But the history of Western involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan should have taught us all that the one you train and arm today may turn against you tomorrow. Empowering militias can lead to the destruction of nation- states as we know them today. I grew up among different religions and in different worlds, and in the spirit that civilized people don’t clash, even if they have different opinions or orientations. The world is full of those who offer easy answers in challenging times. They know how to play with the fear and hopelessness of the disenfranchised. In a paradoxical way, all those who preach hatred against the possibility of peaceful coexistence are benefiting from each other.
The world is not facing a clash of civilizations or cultures, but a clash between those who want to build bridges and those who would rather see the world in polarities, who are working hard to spread hatred and divide us. While the work of the bridge builders is certainly difficult, there are people in every generation who live their beliefs and who are willing and able to seek out common ground. I was lucky enough to have the examples of my parents and grandparents to show me what is possible.
Who sets the rules for everyone else? This isn’t just a problem for the Muslim world; it is also a problem for the West. You cannot expect tolerance if you’re not willing to give it to others. The minute somebody says I’m right, you’re wrong, is the minute we give up the space for conversation. This has happened too often. It is still happening.
Over the years, my work had made me a target of various forms of hatred, from Germany, the land of my birth, to Iraq and Pakistan, among Muslims and Christians alike. These days, people expect a reporter to take sides. But that’s not my job. It is difficult to stand in the middle, but I believe losing the ability to listen is far more destructive.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s this: a mother’s screams over the body of her murdered child sound the same, no matter if she is black, brown, or white; Muslim, Jewish, or Christian; Shia or Sunni.
We will all be buried in the same ground.
Extract is taken from I Was Told To Come Alone by Souad Mekennet, out now in paperback (Virago, paperback, £9.99).
Souad Mekhennet is an award-winning journalist who was born in Germany and grew up there and in Morocco. She is currently a correspondent for the Washington Post.