On a recent morning, Sami, my 4-year-old-son, and I sat down for breakfast, as we do most mornings. Sami asked for cereal and I asked him to prepare the French press. We didn’t talk about the flowers on the kitchen table or the book we read before going to bed. We talked about the terrorist attacks at two mosques in New Zealand, where 51 worshippers were killed, including children who were younger and older than Sami.
My son is only 4, but I felt compelled to speak to him, attempt an American Muslim version of “the talk” that countless black and brown parents have with their children.
I did not know how to talk to him about it. Does anyone know how to discuss acts of violence and bigotry with their little ones? Like many parents, my wife, Azin, and I, are learning on the fly.
I am a historian of the modern Middle East at Skidmore College; Azin works as an immigration attorney at a nonprofit, the Legal Project. We live in an upper-middle-class town, which, although largely white, also has a decent amount of international and religious diversity. We have Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, agnostic, and atheist neighbors and friends. Sami goes to a Jewish preschool.
Our routine is a fairly simple one: Sami and I get up together around 6:30 am for breakfast while Azin is getting ready for her workday. Sami gets dressed upstairs and I start the breakfast downstairs, listening to NPR.
Far more often than not, Sami comes downstairs demanding, “Turn that off! I don’t want to hear his voice!” My 4-year-old son is referring to President Trump’s voice.
The first time this happened, I obliged. The second time, I asked, “Why do you want me to turn it off, Sami? Why don’t you want to hear his voice?”
“I’m scared,” Sami replied. Sami’s fears are rooted in hearing Azin and me talk about her work as an immigration attorney, President Trump’s policy of family separation, and his unabashed “othering” of Islam and Muslims. Defending his Muslim travel ban, Mr. Trump stated, “I think Islam hates us.” Like other Muslim Americans, we often ask ourselves who the “us” is in this sentence.
On that Friday morning, after I took in the news about the Christchurch massacre, Sami and I sat down for breakfast. I asked myself what I would tell my son about it. It wasn’t a question of whether we should discuss it, but how. How do I tell him enough so that he understands, but not so much that he feels too scared to be who he is?
“Sami…,” I said, not knowing exactly how I would continue.
“Yes, Baba,” he responded.
“Something terrible happened the other day in a country named New Zealand.”
“Yes, I know,” Sami replied confidently.
“You do? How do you know that?” I asked puzzled.
“I heard about it upstairs when I was getting dressed.”
I struggled to string together the “right” words to describe the massacre.
“Someone attacked a mosque and hurt a lot of people there,” I offered.
“A mosque? But why?” Sami asked incredulously.
Sami loves running around mosques and greeting people, young and old, with a creative rendition of the Muslim greeting, “Al-Salaam Alaikum.”
We don’t go to the mosque that often, as we are not very religious, but we take Sami because we want him to have a connection with the Muslim community. We want him to identify with our community, a community that is diverse in race, beliefs, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, and so much more; it is also a community that collectively feels a visceral sense of fear when hearing Mr. Trump’s voice.
Returning to our conversation around the breakfast table, I said the following: “He attacked the mosque because he was a hateful man who wanted to harm as many people as possible.”
“But why, Baba? Why did he want to harm as many people as possible?” Sami countered.
“Because he believed many wrong things and harbored many hateful ideas about Muslims,” I stated with great trepidation. Sami and I have discussed hate before; however, this was the first time that I introduced the topic of someone hating another person simply because they are Muslim.
“But we’re Muslim, Baba,” Sami told me, confidently.
Just as he said this, his demeanor changed. Sami was connecting the dots: He’s Muslim, I’m Muslim, his mother is Muslim, some of our neighbors and his friends are Muslims, and so are the people who were attacked in the two mosques in New Zealand.
He immediately followed with a question: “Are the people in the mosque okay?” Silence descended on the table. I wasn’t sure how to answer. As I hesitated, the sun radiated off Sami’s beautiful brown hair. I thought about Sami and the children in the two mosques, like 3-year-old Mucaad Ibrahim, who were killed by the white-supremacist shooter. I teared up.
Azin walked in and joined us for breakfast. Our conversation moved in another direction as Sami wanted to talk to his mother about Nowruz and the Hot Wheels track she had promised to buy for him.
The massacre in New Zealand and the ubiquity of anti-Muslim ideas do not surprise me. I am simply confused as a father because I don’t know what I should have told Sami. Should I expose him to bigotry, violence, and hate? Or should I hide stories like Christchurch from him, so that he doesn’t have to feel the fear that comes with knowing who he is?
Some friends disapproved of my attempt to have this conversation. “Sami is too young to learn about such things,” said an older member in the Muslim community. Although conflicted, I disagree. Sami is vulnerable, but aware. He’s aware of our conversations and fears. He wants to be a part of the conversation.
Sami has his own fears; he is only 4 years old, and he is already afraid of Mr. Trump’s voice. But Sami is not afraid because he’s a child or naive. No, his fears are warranted. I’m afraid too. But I don’t want to hide. We don’t have the luxury to hide.
Sami is Muslim, his mother is Muslim, and I am Muslim.
Should we seek to obscure the “Muslimness” of our identity? And what would that even look like? Should Sami’s mother and I stop self-identifying as Muslim, change Sami’s name, eat different types of food, and stop visiting a mosque?
If we did this, would Sami be considered less Muslim, and hence safer? These are the existential questions that Azin and I, like countless other Muslim parents, think about as we process the attacks in New Zealand and seek to protect our children’s vulnerable Muslim bodies.