“Illa Rasoul Allah, Respect Muhammad.”
The frame enveloping Facebook profile pictures popped up repeatedly in my newsfeed as dozens of accounts applied it in the weekend that followed the beheading of Samuel Paty, a French teacher in a northern Paris suburb.
The phrase, “Illa Rasoul Allah,” literally translated as “Anyone but the Messenger of God,” transported me from the warm embrace of a gathering of friends in London all the way back to East Aleppo five years ago. My heart raced and the blood drained from me, leaving my body in the throes of a panic attack. I haven’t been able to sleep well since.
On the snowy, cold morning of Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, I was preparing for the last day of a media training I was delivering to citizen journalists when breaking news notifications began bombarding my phone. “An attack targeting the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris.” “Two armed men killed 12 people and injured 11 others.” “The gunmen were shouting, ‘We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad’ while calling out the names of the journalists.”
I had just survived encounters with a couple of surface-to-surface missile attacks (we used to call them Fil or Elephant missiles) that week, along with rounds of intense fighting and several fighter jet bombing sorties as Syrian regime troops tried to advance through the district of Saif al-Dawla, where I was living at the time.
My building was the last inhabited one before a checkpoint manned by the armed opposition in Aleppo, which was separated from pro-government forces by a barricade of overturned buses. Living on the front line was a choice I consciously made: While there was a risk of getting caught in the crossfire, it was targeted less frequently by the notorious and indiscriminate barrel bombs – drums filled with TNT and shrapnel that were wildly inaccurate and were often dropped by regime planes on civilian areas. My district was too close for regime forces to use them without the possibility of accidentally hitting their own troops.
After reading the news of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I felt frustrated and angry. I wanted to do something to express compassion for the civilians who woke up like me, alive with plans and things to do, only to be suddenly executed in their workplace.
I picked up a marker and wrote “Je Suis Charlie” on a piece of cardboard, rolled it up, and left my home, passing the checkpoint to no man’s land before arriving at Salah al-Din square. The neighborhood was divided between rebel and regime forces, and the square marked the border. The area was frequently targeted by snipers stationed in the nearby Saad mosque on the regime side.
The square had become a monument for the opposition in the city, so I unfurled my makeshift poster quickly as I arrived, while my partner snapped a photo of me hiding my face behind it. Then we continued on our way toward a cultural center named Jadal, where the training was being held.
There were eight citizen journalists in the program, all of them men and including Homam Najjar, who was killed in an ISIS car bomb three months later.
After we concluded the training, I went back home to read about the aftermath and the shock of the crime Paris had witnessed that day. I tweeted the photo I took in the morning, with the caption: “I know what it means to be scared & unfairly killed by criminal terrorists. I am #Syrian I do feel your pain. Je suis #Syrien . #JeSuisCharlie.”
Overnight, the tweet attracted thousands of reactions, and the picture made its way to Facebook, the platform I feared most, because many of the fighters and activists in the city were active on it.
I kept my head down the whole day as debates swirled around me. Online and in person, reactions ranged from those saluting the “courageous woman” supporting the journalists killed by jihadists, while others accused me of being brainwashed, a woman risking her life to be “liked” by the “West.” The worst ones accused me of committing blasphemy for condemning the murder of “blasphemers.”
The following day I went to the Jadal cultural center again to discuss a new project I was planning to work on: training schoolgirls in journalism. When I arrived with my friend Salman, the principal appeared resentful. I started speaking with her but she interrupted me and raised her index finger in my face, and said twice: “Illa Rasoul Allah.”
I had the first panic attack of my life. I felt as if my heart was falling through my chest. I could hear my breath, shallow yet loud, and my stomach crunching up like an autumn leaf. There were many panic attacks after that first one, including the ones I had while writing and editing this text in my safe refuge in London.
Salman said something I didn’t understand. I was trying hard to gather all the terrified pieces of myself together to be present. I managed to hear her say, “I didn’t think you’d come today; they should have captured you in the early morning.” By “they” she meant the Islamist rebels that controlled the rebel side of the city.
I dragged my feet and the rest of my pale, shaking body back home, only to discover new levels of fear I had never experienced in my life. I deleted my tweets, deactivated my account, erased what I could find of my headscarf-free pictures from my Facebook account, and started actively planning for death.
I decided to lie, and claim that I didn’t mean to stand “with those who insulted the Prophet” with my poster but rather to attract the attention of the world to the Syrians being killed by the regime for demanding their freedom.
I even wrote a blog post and backdated it to prove my lie. Some of the activists who believed my lie, including the principal who triggered this spiral of fear, changed their minds and demanded an amnesty for me on the basis of the whole thing being a misunderstanding. Many didn’t dare voice their support.
Things kept escalating. The same cultural center in Salah al-Din witnessed the burning of Syrian magazines that had supported the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Several demonstrations broke out in the streets of East Aleppo, with protesters burning the logo of the magazine and expressing support for the crime perpetrated by jihadists.
The boldest expression of support I received was from a couple of activists who shared my blog post and emphasized my lie. Only three people knew my real position and that I stood against the killing of anyone, including those who commit “blasphemy.”
The surreal thing was that a rebel leader who was after me for this supposed crime had led the rebels’ battles against ISIS in Aleppo himself, and was known for his courage while fighting them. Several activists who vocally opposed jihadists supported their operations against the Syrian regime and their crimes against journalists they don’t agree with.
The other rebel leader I feared the most in the city was a survivor of Syria’s gruesome government prisons. He had been released in an exchange deal before becoming an extremist. He personally assigned a man to dig through my blog to find proof that I deserved death. That man happened to be a citizen journalist I had trained the day of the attack. I had coached him on how to write articles.
While waiting for the rebels to raid my flat, I destroyed the Christmas tree I had. I removed the little scraps of paper I hung on it that contained all of my wishes for the new year (my top wish was to stay alive) and placed them all in a garbage bag. Salman was with me, and he was armed. “They won’t get you unless I am dead,” he said. He placed a grenade by the kitchen window and another in the bedroom. He told me to keep a gun ready and to kill them before they killed me. I refused to touch it. They will be shamed forever for killing an unarmed journalist while raiding her home, I said.
Fighter jets hovered above us in those endless hours, but this time, I didn’t hide in the corridor. Indiscriminate death seemed like a luxury option then. Moments separate being celebrated as a martyr by the revolutionaries, or being cursed as an apostate who deserves to die.
That day, my life, and who I am, changed forever.
I lived through tense sleeplessness, with constant painful contractions in my stomach. I repeatedly checked for explosives underneath my car. Then things got even worse. The French president at the time, François Hollande, mentioned my full name in a speech about the Charlie Hebdo attack, as an example of cross-national compassion and empathy.
I collapsed, paralyzed by fear. I cried myself to sleep.
The shariah court charged me with two counts of apostasy: one for Charlie Hebdo and another for supporting homosexuality, because the citizen journalist, whom I obviously trained well, found a line in my personal blog where I wrote that I wanted my daughter to rise up and defend liberal values like the right of homosexuals to marry, rather than fighting for a peaceful life.
Fear became an integral part of my body. It stayed that way until I could no longer handle it anymore and decided to leave.
Looking back at that experience today, it baffles me how anybody can see people or conflicts in black and white, how they divide the world into sacred heroes or thugs. It seems that very few are able to listen with open minds to complex narratives. Having lived through war, it baffles me that anyone who has lived or studied such extreme, complex realities can simplify narratives into us versus them, Assad versus ISIS, rebels versus the regime, France versus Islam, or Islam versus the West.
I have very few ideas that stand to reason now, but one of them is that this strict and shallow categorization is widening the crack between us and benefiting the extremists on all sides who grow more powerful and violent. This sort of one-dimensional thinking, along with discrimination, a sense of superiority, and colonial attitudes and policies, allows Western governments to support Arab dictators who imprison journalists and critical thinkers in pursuit of stability and protection from extremists, even as these regimes weaponize them to suit their needs.
As a Syrian refugee in the United Kingdom and frequent traveler to the West, I cannot count the times I was treated as a second-class human being because of where I was born, despite my fluent English, international awards, and British master’s degree. I will always be the refugee who came from the global south. Even in my professional field, I am still asked, when writing for Western outlets, to share only my experiences as a Syrian.
The vicious cycle is perpetuated by rejection, by ghettoization and being forced into slums, by the hate speech that arrests mainstream platforms, and when fascism becomes an act of patriotism. As segregation broadens, the terrorists win.
I did not think of all of this when I held up that poster in solidarity with the victims of Charlie Hebdo. It was simply clear to me that no one should be killed for what they do, say, or believe in.
But expecting people to let go of their prejudices for the greater good is perhaps naive. After all, I thought it was common sense for everyone to stand against violence. Yet the drive toward greater extremism is inexorable. Because not only do people sometimes justify crimes like Samuel Paty’s killing, they also sometimes celebrate the killer, as was the case during protests in my hometown, Idlib, in late October.
During the last 10 years of conflict in Syria, I learned the hard way how deadly polarization can be, and how many bridges we need in order to overcome it. Perhaps the key lies with us, in every step we take against the norms and toward the other side.
But while some are risking their lives to challenge polarization by building bridges of empathy, politicians provoke hatred and discrimination from a base of power and privilege. In Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Egypt we will have to overcome a legacy of division that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives in the last decade. Perhaps, as the divisions widen in Europe, we would do well to remember that we in the Arab world, those who stayed and those who had to flee for their lives, were also fighting for free speech and inquiry alongside the battle for a free Syria.