The Incidental Writer Takes on Hate – And Goes Viral

Max and Jen

Last Monday night I sat dejectedly in front of my laptop, tears streaming. Many people had been killed, injured and assaulted in recent days. Others had felt the sting of cruel, frightening rhetoric. My little sister was hurt. I can’t see my sister in pain. I’ve endured many challenges and am certain more lie ahead. I can grit my teeth and bear when I’m being laid bare. Jenny’s wounds are a different experience. She’s my woobie.

The Paris attacks perpetrated by ISIS caused so much shock, grief and misery – as well as unfortunately, a virulent strain of Islamophobic political and social media discourse. For reasons she’s eloquently explained herself, the casual ease with which some are discussing closing our borders to Islamic immigrants, or worse, forcing Muslim citizens to register, is a sickening blow. One that hits close to the home Jenny shares with her Muslim-American husband Max and their two girls. As an older sister accustomed to doing whatever it takes to make my girl feel safer, I felt so useless. A single threat I can use my body to block. A vast and often nameless field of online hate? I’m a female web writer. I know how overpowering that crowd can be.

Jenny sent me a text and told me she was ready to take a digital break until the post-Paris hysteria receded. I understood. A short while later, she had a surprising change of heart:

“I feel like I want to write something. If I do, can I run it on your site?”

That “something,” Love, Hate and Islamophobia, which I am proud to have edited, has (absolutely no hyperbole here) turned into a sensation. Thousands of reads and almost 1,000 Facebook shares from this humble website. Rerun on People’s World, Nikki Nigl’s #WordsByWomenWednesday feature, supported by friends and strangers alike who’ve offered lovely words of support to Jenny and her family. She felt defeated, like the oppression of hate and intolerance was more than any one person could push through. But then she spoke. She was brave enough to disagree. And it’s a story that’s connected with people across the globe.

Once again, there’s no overstatement involved with that declaration. In the wee hours of Monday morning, Dawn, Pakistan’s #1 English-language website, ran Jenny’s essay – giving her message of love and compassion a wider audience than I think either of us dared imagine. No matter how worthy Jenny’s voice, how strong her prose, and regardless of having written for all the right reasons, that’s not always enough for the soft protest. There’s just so much damned din. But this quiet, firm revolt is being heard, read, shared, discussed. There’s a hunger to get away from the blanket canvassing of our friends and neighbors.

Somehow, even after all this, Jenny doesn’t believe she’s a writer. I told her a writer, quite simply, is one who writes. If one is read, by tens of thousands spanning at least three continents of which we’re aware (G’day Australia!), offered a regular opportunity to share a viewpoint, well I can think of a few scribes (cough) who consider that rather qualified. My pride and love only grow with this adorable, genuine humility.

We’re getting to her. My sister yearns to do important work. She told me so five days before Paris presented a terrible, urgent need for perspective. I can think of few labors more necessary than what she’s started – placing a relatable stamp on the regular Muslim family. My brother-in-law cooks mostaccioli while yelling at the Chicago Bears on television. It doesn’t get much more American than that. Max’s otherwise smiling, kind face is the one of Islam.

I’m starting to think Jenny’s a closeted poet as well. When she sent me some notes for this post, she asked me to try to convey “how a seed sprouted into a giant tree.” A kernel of exhausted disgust with hatefulness, the underbelly of humanity, blossomed into something lush and healthy – for her and in an impactful way, for community dialogue.

It’s been a full week since I cried those bitter tears of powerlessness in front of the computer. Every one who’s since spoken to me about Jenny’s forway into activism has been treated to waterworks. Only now the tears stem from another kind of pain – a pride and awe at this person you love that injects helium into the heart. You’re light, yet feel as though you’ll burst. How is it possible to sustain so much warmth and joy in someone who swims in your gene pool?

With any luck, I’m going to have to learn to cope with the sensation.


2 thoughts on “The Incidental Writer Takes on Hate – And Goes Viral

  1. Jennifer Ashrafi November 24, 2015 / 3:32 pm

    Thank you Ashley. I’m still in a fog of disbelief over how my essay took on a life of it’s own.


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