Islamophobia-phobia: an exercise in syntax

Monday afternoon, the 12-year-old I tutor, Ayni, asked me if I had heard that earlier that day her mosque was set on fire. The mosque was housed in a multipurpose building in the High Point neighborhood in which Ayni lives and where I tutor her every Monday. She told me there were people in the mosque praying when it caught fire.

I’m trying to mask the anger holed up inside me with the kind of formality of writing I was trained to engage in as a journalism student. I will tell you names, dates, and places, but I cannot tell you of the burning in my belly.

For the past several months, I’ve seen an onslaught of Islamophobic Facebook posts. Maybe because of the Syrian refugee crisis. Maybe because of particular political candidates and their—and this is putting it kindly—espousing of xenophobic ideas. I’ve never known what to do when these posts float through my newsfeed. I think of what my friend Randall might do: speak kind but provocative words of instruction.

I ignore them. I sometimes unfriend or hide posts, but I don’t speak out because debate is not my medium.

Do you hear the carefulness in my writing; I’m picking word by word by word with caution. Does it read disjointed, stilted, rocky, stroppy…? I’ve been given this gift of words, but right now I’m begging the thesaurus to do the hard work for me. How do I begin to put language to this?

Those who write hateful things about Muslims on my Facebook feed, and the ones who speak out on TV, are largely Christian. And they try to justify their hatred with Scripture. They justify their hatred with fear. Former classmates, family members, church elders: they’re all perpetuating the violence done to Ayni’s mosque.

I keep thinking, what do you do when your safe place—your house of worship—is no longer safe? There were people praying when the mosque caught fire.

And so we read.

Last week my boyfriend’s mother sent him a text, comforting him after a rough day at work: Jeremiah 20:11-13.

But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior;
so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail.
They will fail and be thoroughly disgraced;
their dishonor will never be forgotten….

And I listened, uncomfortable, because Joel, doesn’t your mom know this passage isn’t about rough days at work but about an exiled people who were enslaved by their enemies?

But this is why we turn to the poetry of the Bible, isn’t it? For our own personal grief—our hard days, our personal losses—and for communal grief. The Psalms of disorientation teach us how to cry out to God. Lamentations gives us space to beat our breasts in mourning.

In literature, we talk about the universal in the particular. I remember my writing professors telling me that the more specific I wrote—the more particularized my piece of creative nonfiction—the more relatable the story was. The verses in Jeremiah can mean something particular and cathartic to a person who’s had a bad day at work. And it can speak to the pain of a community facing the loss of a sanctuary.

The Book of Lamentations is a five-book acrostic poem, each stanza beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. I love this. As a fledgling poet, I’ve found that writing in a specific form has helped me more carefully construct my work. There’s a law I need to obey; some safety nets put in place. There is meaning in structure.

And yet–in the final chapter of Lamentations, the poet deviates from his form completely, as if to say, this suffering that we’re facing, no structure can bear it; not enough meaning exists for it to be laid out carefully in poetic form.

In the face of great suffering, grief, tragedy, what good is diction? When all you can speak is in groans too heavy for words, what good is syntax?

As she was telling me of her burned down mosque, Ayni said to me, I can’t believe this stuff still happens. Oh, child. This girl, who wasn’t even alive in 2001 when the Twin Towers fell, who did not see the kind of persecution her people faced in its aftermath, is asking, Why is this still happening? I grieve with her:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face?
    Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
    our belly clings to the ground.
 Rise up; come to our help!
    Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Ps. 44)

About Lauren Sawyer

I am a Ph.D. student studying social ethics in New Jersey. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at

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