“Je suis Charlie.” It is a French phrase we have all heard a lot lately, referring to the tragic, unconscionable massacre at the Paris offices of Charlie Hedbo, a satirical publication that has long poked and prodded at the veil of the sacred and sanctimonious. The massacre casts a heavy fog the world over, particularly dense around societal acceptance and inclusion of religious differences, what constitutes and should be afforded as religious rights, and how separate cultures cherish or do not necessarily cherish freedom of speech. This heavy fog was and is densest around the western world’s perception of the Islamic faith and the Muslim people who follow it.
While United States President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande initially refused to consider this Islamic terrorism, the rest of the world (including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to an audience of Muslim clerics) were quick to deem it as such. Many signs point towards that: from Paris’s past and more recent historical tensions surrounding inter-faith relationships in the city, including a ban on face covering including the niqab and burqa, to the apparent ties between the supposed terrorists and al-Qaeda as well as ISIS. Je suis Charlie translates to “I am Charlie” and is meant to signify us standing together against terrorism, but instead comes across as standing against terrorists, which in this case are identified as Muslim. And this distinguishing is dangerous — it often lends to unfair generalizations and prejudice.
With that in mind, a phrase we haven’t heard enough is “Je suis Francois.” Or “Je suis Sato.” Or “Je suis Oumaima.” And the last of those is what we presently need to hear the most. We know Charlie. We understand and appreciate Charlie. For those reasons it is easy to love and mourn Charlie. Most of us don’t know Oumaima, or many of her fellow Muslims being misrespresented by these extremists. We don’t understand or appreciate her. For those reasons it is difficult to love and mourn her.
So meet Oumaima. Oumaima Erhali is a 17-year-old Moroccan woman determined to surf. She’s part of a generation pushing boundaries in a country where many believe a surfboard is among many places a young Muslim woman does not belong.
But Oumaima won’t let stereotypes hold her back from the sport she loves or the life she wants to lead. And we shouldn’t let stereotypes define a people who are far more than the handful of extremists who continue to wreak havoc and bring terror to your, Ouimaima’s, and my world.