For six days, Muslims and non-Muslims alike were shocked by the seeming abduction of Aisha Khan. The Kansas student who was studying for her finals left a disturbing voicemail for her sister about a man who had been harassing her. When her family rushed to campus, they found her belongings, including her phone, in a neat pile on a picnic table with no trace of Aisha. This, coupled with the voicemail Aisha had left, was possibly the worst scenario any mother, father, sister, brother or husband could imagine.
Almost immediately, there was an outpouring of well-wishes and prayers from across the U.S. for the safe return of Aisha to her family. For days, people wondered how she could have vanished into thin air and with no surveillance or eyewitness accounts her fate, at times, seemed hopeless. The story caught the attention of national media outlets. Even Nancy Grace of CNN, the perennial advocate of missing persons and victims of unspeakable crimes, did a segment on Aisha in hopes that someone somewhere had seen her alive and tip off the policemen and volunteers searching for her.
Then late last night, news broke that Aisha had been found safe with no scratches, bruises, or horrors visited upon her. Even more importantly, the police stated that she had not been abducted or held against her will. This was quite possibly the best news that anyone could have wished for, especially when one considers the alternative. No other explanation was given except that she was safely returned to her family.
Yet, judging by the Muslim community’s reaction, this seems like the worst outcome that could have happened. Almost immediately, people left withering comments on the Facebook page Help Find Aisha Khan, saying things like “what a selfish girl”, “I spent sleepless nights thinking about her, I deserve an explanation”, “I made so much dua for her, how dare she,” etc. And here I was under the mistaken impression that duas are selfless and unconditional, and we make dua for people we love and wish good things upon. A comment that was often repeated on the Facebook page was “she wasted taxpayers’ money!” I wonder, when did money become more important than a human life?
Quite frankly, the vitriol aimed at Aisha has shocked me. Just six days ago, she was seen as a victim, and now, almost overnight, she has become a villain in Muslim communities across America, apparently not worthy of these people’s well-wishes. Even worse, I saw many kind comments from non-Muslims glad for her return but an overwhelming amount of negative comments from Muslims. Then I ask myself: what exactly did these people wish for, if not her safe return? Judging by the comments on the Facebook page, the truth is uglier than I could imagine. I believe people upheld Aisha as a sort of martyr in our struggle for acceptance by mainstream America. No, I don’t mean that people wished her dead but I do believe that, deep down, people hoped that this case was something the media would latch on to as proof that we are just like anybody else in this country.
I believe this based on the comments people have made about how this will affect perception of Muslims in America. I understand in this day and age, we search for something, anything, that will humanize Islam in the eyes of our fellow Americans. They wanted to point to Aisha and say, “See? We feel pain just like you. Horrible things happen to American Muslims too.” I believe some people may have seen Aisha’s alleged abduction as a sort of bridge to tolerance towards Muslims in America. I acknowledge that I, myself, wondered how the media would take the outcome of this case and how it would reflect on Muslims. Then I felt shame because it certainly isn’t fair to pin our hopes of acceptance by mainstream America on Aisha Khan’s fate. People are so ready to condemn Aisha as an embarrassment to the Muslim community, but who among us knows why she walked away? I can imagine a few scenarios about why she left (none of which I’ll list here), so why can’t other people give her the benefit of the doubt, as Islam preaches? As the saying goes, “If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves” [Imam Bayhaqi Shu’ab al Iman 7.522].
Here is the lesson that I have learned from this: 1) do not judge someone’s actions until you know their circumstances and 2) most importantly, no single person should be used as the ambassador for Muslims in America, whether they wear hijab or whether they have a telltale beard. Someone’s pain and suffering should not be our springboard for acceptance in mainstream America and we certainly shouldn’t lay discrimination against Muslims at someone’s feet. If we want acceptance from non-Muslim Americans, then we should go about living our lives as we normally do, without ulterior motives. Show people kindness. Volunteer at a soup kitchen on Christmas instead of sitting at home while people starve. Create a public service announcement about Muslims, as the Mormon community has done (in fact, one of my dearest friends is working on a project like this at this very moment). There is a lot to be said for doing good and wishing well on others. Instead, our community chose to rear its ugly head, as evidenced by the nasty comments left on that Facebook page. How can non-Muslims show empathy for us when we are discriminated against if we can’t even show empathy for a girl in our own community who has returned home safely instead of not returning at all? In the end, we can’t blame Aisha Khan for how non-Muslims perceive us. We can only blame ourselves as a community for our lack of sincerity.
Tasneem Lat is a medical student in her second year. She is surrounded by amazing family and friends who challenge her way of thinking every day and for that, she is grateful.