I went on vacation to Europe this summer to see my relatives and came out with a story. That’s what happens when journos go on vacation. Even our families can’t rest. But the story I came across had to be written from a personal perspective because several of my younger relatives were turning to extremist ideology and they happen to call it Islamism.
People make religion peaceful or violent and so I began to investigate my own family through that lens rather than asking the typical question of “Is Islam inherently violent?” Islam is what Muslims make of it. The same goes for any religion.
Yet there is a violent Islamic movement rampaging through the Middle East. ISIS is the latest horrifying group and the West is partly to blame for arming them as they have done so in the past with groups like the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
I had done many stories about Islam and war but throwing my own family into the mix made it tricky. How could I write this story honestly but without hurting relatives who were already in pain? It proved to be difficult.
One distant cousin was in jail for aiding al Qaeda and his parents refused to speak and so did he. His parents begged me not to name him but he was already a public convict. I only had news reports and distant family members of his to quote. I kept his story short. The most difficult case was Hakim’s family. The 22-year-old had traveled from Germany to fight in Syria only to die in a skirmish. His mother never saw a body and found out about his death through a text. She asked me to help her find out whether he was really dead. I’m still trying to find a list with his name on it. That’s the only way the distraught mother will accept her son’s death. But throughout my hours of talking to Fatima, Hakim’s mother, I had panic attacks as she described how her older son, Daud, had thought about joining the rebels in Syria. I contemplated whether I should report him and stepped away from that decision. As journalists, our job is to write what we know, so I did just that.
My first cousin Karim’s story scared me the most because he’s a member of a banned Islamist party in Germany and I didn’t want him to get into trouble. The group should not be banned because banned groups just do more harm when they go underground.
I made sure that most names were changed to protect identities but I kept my own name. I have only changed my name once on a story and I regret that. If journalists hide from their own stories, who will have the courage to come forward? Good journalism begins with exposing yourself and those around you.
When the story was published under the compromised headline My Family and Other Extremists — my original idea was Strangers in the Midst but that wasn’t newsy enough for Newsweek — I was nervous. How would my relatives react?
My cousin Karim shared it on his Facebook so that meant he didn’t have a problem with it, or if he did, he didn’t tell me. But a week later, his father, my uncle, called and had a 15-minute outburst on the phone. His main gripe: “You should’ve sent me the story and changed your name before publication!”
I guess I had not been clear enough about how journalists only read back quotes. We don’t send entire stories, even to our uncles, because every character in the story wants to shape it to their own agenda. So I tried to tell him that he was getting positive feedback from parents like himself who were struggling with extremist children. Most of the comments praised my uncle for being tolerant and open to other religions and cultures. Then I sent him all the feedback comments on email. I hope he understands why I did the story through my family’s perspective. The personal has more impact and readers will judge a family, not all the followers of one religion. Maybe one of these parents will find solace or one young man or woman will turn away from this ideology if they read this piece. For me, that’s the reward in sharing my family’s struggles.
Link to Newsweek story: