On September 11, 2001, members of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda flew two planes into the World Trade Center. Two other planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Three thousand people died. On December 17, 2014, Taliban militants attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan. One hundred and forty-five people were killed, almost all of them school children. My friend Zainab, an international student from Pakistan, told me that she had close friends at that school. Zainab’s affection for her friends is as precious as mine for my friends. The parents of the children who died in the shooting expected their children to come home that day, just like my mom expects me to come home after school when she says in the morning, “Have a good day, sweetie.”
When we see these headlines on our iPhones, when we see the black smoke coming out of buildings on our plasma TV, when we hear about yet another terrorist attack on the radio, we feel a gut reaction of terror, guilt, and sympathy. Terror because something like that could happen to our loved ones. Guilt because we still check our Instagram after glancing at the headline, turn to our favorite TV show after seeing the falling building, and sing along to Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” after hearing terrible news. We know that our sympathy is insufficient to allay the grief of those directly affected, and yet it seems to be all we can offer them.
I have personally felt helpless. After all, what can a 17-year-old high school student do about an event thousands of miles away? The problems seem so huge and complicated while I seem very small.
But I found out that sympathy just doesn’t cut it. This notion of our helplessness is just a pretext to ignore problems in our world. It is an excuse because while it is easy to neglect these problems, we cannot do that. Although it may seem like it, global tragedies don’t disappear when we switch to Instagram, when we turn off the TV, when we stop caring. We cannot add terrorism to the list of problems we know are real but that we consider unsolvable. We cannot expect someone else to solve them. Instead, every one of us needs to ask ourselves, “So what? Something is definitely messed up, but how do I contribute to this mess in a positive way? How do I prepare myself, at the very least, to one day be part of the solution?”
So these are my tips, because we – our generation – are in this together. We all need to take steps toward finding solutions, however small and insignificant they may seem. If you have other ideas, please leave them in the comments section of this article on www.TeenInk.com.
Tip #1: Educate yourself.
The easiest way to educate yourself is to pay attention to the news by regularly visiting a credible source of information. Carve out a specific time of day to do this – perhaps while you slurp your morning coffee, or as you wait for the bus. You don’t have to read the news for hours, just a little bit every day. Order a subscription to your city’s major newspaper and check the World News section every morning, or download the Al Jazeera app on your phone, or change your web browser home page to CNN so that every time you go online, you can glance at the major headlines.
At first this may seem like a daunting task because, truth be told, world news is not simple; there are many facets to it. The more you learn about an issue, the more you realize that it is more complicated than you originally thought. Your sense of what is “right” and “wrong” about a particular topic – which might seem so clear initially – becomes more and more blurry as you learn more. For example, when I first heard about the CIA Torture Report, I didn’t know that it was connected to the events of 9/11. It was 2015 after all, and 9/11 was more than a decade ago. But soon I learned that the CIA had secretly interrogated over a hundred prisoners based on their Islamic background and possible affiliation with terrorist organizations. While every bone in my body is repelled by torture, I can understand that our government would do everything in its power to make sure a terrorist attack like 9/11 never happens again.
Had I continued my research that day, I would have found other thoughts, opinions, and facets of this issue. But the goal is not necessarily to become an expert on an issue in one day, but to dig a little deeper every day.
Tip #2: Do everything you can, even if it’s only a little.
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke once said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” When a small task presents itself, you might think that it is below you or simply not worth your time. You might decide not to do it because why waste your valuable time on something ineffective and insignificant? But get this: although your contribution may seem small – just a drop in a bucket – that is how you fill buckets.
As a human rights activist for Amnesty International, I have found myself in frustrating situations where people refused to do the little things because they considered them inconsequential and trivial. They love to fantasize about big-picture solutions, but they don’t realize that those wishes will never come true without lot of substantive, unglamorous, messy work. They would tell themselves that they care about women’s rights, but when presented with a petition to pass the International Violence Against Women’s Act, they hesitate to sign it. They would praise Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela but refuse to protest with the people of Ferguson after the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. They enjoy the benefits of freedom of speech and check their Facebook every two seconds but refuse to call the Saudi government and stop them from torturing Raif Badawi, an activist who has been sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes for the crime of blogging.
Sign the petitions! Write the letters! Call your representative! Raise your voice! Those petitions will be viewed by Congress; a prisoner of conscience will read those letters; your voice will be heard. There is so much you can do and while you might not realize the ripple effect of your actions, they do matter.
Tip #3: Be vulnerable.
You don’t want to seem out of the loop. You don’t want to seem dumb. You don’t want to offend anyone. It’s better to keep your mouth shut. Only say something when you know people agree with you. Whether you acknowledge them or not, these thoughts are in you, in me, in everyone.
I believe in stepping out of my comfort zone because I have had positive experiences when I have done so. For example, as I mentioned previously, I have a friend, Zainab, who is an exchange student from Pakistan. She told me that before she came to Seattle, she thought that all American high schools were like the one in the movie “Mean Girls.” Based on American media, she believed that all American high schools have cliques that wear pink on Wednesdays and bully others. Had Zainab not made herself vulnerable, had she not had the courage to come to the United States, she would have continued to believe this. And not only did she benefit by being vulnerable, but she also helped me learn a valuable lesson: Muslims have prejudices against Americans too.
Of course, I knew about the other side of this coin – that Americans have prejudices against Muslims. By getting to know Zainab, I realized that many of my preconceived notions about Islam also weren’t true. For example, the term jihad is often heard these days in connection with terrorist attacks and violence against the West. So naturally, I thought the word’s meaning was closely tied to fighting and brutality. However, I learned from Zainab that jihad actually has to do with “struggle” and “resisting.” It is about doing what is right, no matter how hard it may be and no matter how much internal struggle and self-restraint it may require. If a person has an urge to steal, hurt others, or break a promise, their jihad is supposed to help them do the right thing. According to Zainab, a mujahideen, a person engaged in jihad, should never do the terrible things Al-Qaeda or the Taliban is doing.
When she was young, Zainab was taught the same principles as I was, just in an Islamic context. This reminded me of the Aesop fables that my dad used to read me to teach me moral lessons like “don’t lie” or “slow and steady wins the race.” Being a Muslim and learning its values gave Zainab what those Aesop fables gave me – a collection of guiding principles that help us make the best choices in life.
I learned so much from just one conversation with Zainab. Imagine if I engaged in enlightening interactions like this every day. When you let your guard down, ask questions when you are confused, and stand against prejudice, you help others find you and you help find yourself.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the March 2016 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.