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Overcoming Our Fear of the Other

Elaine Dang ’17 survived the 2013 terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. She reflects on the experience and what she has learned since.

The following article was reprinted from CNN Opinion (@cnnopinion), where it was originally published. Read the original.

I survived a terrorist attack—the kind President Trump uses to perpetuate a fear of “The Other.” I am not a national security expert, but I am someone who has come face-to-face with terrorism. I, likely more than many experts who often base their knowledge on theory and secondhand information, can understand how this fear can spiral into something ugly. 

On September 21, 2013, the International Day of Peace, I was at a children's cooking competition in a mall in Nairobi, Kenya, when members of the extremist group al-Shabaab opened fire. By the end of their siege, 67 people were killed, though I was fortunate enough to survive the attack. In the following weeks, my physical wounds healed, but I developed PTSD. 

Every time a door slammed, my heart raced and I ducked for cover, assuming it was a gunman. As I walked into any public place, I immediately surveyed my surroundings and planned an escape route. I constantly felt threatened in large groups of people, so I avoided crowds and public spaces. And, just like many Americans today, I began to feel anxious and suspicious of people who were visibly Muslim. 

As someone who was raised in a variety of diverse communities, this shift in my thinking and response to others shocked me. My fear had narrowed my vision, and made me believe that good and evil were as easy to discern as black and white. Somehow I had begun to think that by knowing what a person looked like or how he worshiped I could classify him as either dangerous or safe. But I was wrong. 

As my psychological wounds healed, I began to recognize when my response was emotional rather than rational. And then I learned to use those moments as a signal that I needed to pause and consciously think about the emotions I was experiencing, and how they affected the conclusions I drew about situations and about people. 

I realized the only way to overcome my fear and distrust was to educate myself about the religion, read reputable sources for facts and information about terrorism and violent crime in our country, and—most importantly—get to know more Muslims. 

I spent time reaching out to people I knew who were Muslim and told them about my experience. I openly shared my concerns and asked questions about their beliefs and opinions. We talked about things I saw on social media or heard in the news. 

Over time, the people I met became my friends, colleagues, and mentors. It was clear that the extremists who carried out the attack I experienced were not true representatives of their faith. In fact, their actions were an affront to a religion based on peace and compassion. 

Of course, it shouldn't have surprised me. One of the first people to come to my aid as I escaped the mall was a Muslim woman who, largely driven by her faith, risked her own safety to assist me in a time of need. She was the true face of Islam, not my attackers.

But I hadn't taken the opportunity to dig deeper and learn more—at least not then—and so I missed something that only became obvious later on: that al-Shabaab did not reflect the ideals of Islam. 

Using the actions of a few extremists to justify fear of 1.6 billion people worldwide is irrational and amoral. Grouping an incredibly diverse set of people based on one characteristic—whether religion, race, or any other single trait—unfairly objectifies them. It turns many individuals worthy of care and understanding into a massive, inhuman entity of fear. 

For those curious about Islam, there are many people and resources that can help those interested in learning more. Visiting a local mosque, reaching out to a Muslim business owner or engaging with Islamic Cultural Centers in-person or online are all excellent options to explore. 

And for those who aren't interested, I implore you to try. I share my story because I understand your fear of radicalism and the real threat that it poses. And I also understand how this fear and the information espoused by the very government that serves us can shade your thinking. 

The more I have learned and engaged, the more I have realized how futile it is to try to group all Muslims together. Just like subscribers to any other religion, they are undeserving of judgment and distrust based on the actions of a few. 

And rather than labeling them “The Other”—which erases their humanity and historically has been used to justify heinous acts—we must recognize their individuality and diversity. We must directly engage and learn from one another. In the end, it is the only way to overcome fear and pave the way for future peace and mutual understanding.