Preservation of the Gray Zone: Laila Lalami Speaks on Islamophobia at Redlands

“She is worth the wait,” Denise Davis, the Director of Student Leadership at the University of Redlands promised. The audience anxiously awaited Laila Lalami’s presentation, “For or Against: My Life as a Muslim in the West’s Gray Zone,” while technical difficulties caused a delay. After said technical difficulties were given up on (resulting in unfortunately missing out on amazing pictures Lalami would have provided), Davis’s promise was fulfilled. 

Lalami is currently a creative writing professor at the University of California Riverside and the author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, Secret Son, and The Moor’s Account. Lalami has received many honors for her books, including being a finalist for the Oregon Book Award for Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. She also has received the American Book Award, the Arab American Book Award, the Hurston/ Wright Legacy Award, was included on the Man Booker Prize longlist, and a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Moor’s Account. Lalami has also written written essays and opinion pieces for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostThe Nation, the Guardian, and the New York Times.

Lalami spoke to a diverse audience at 7 p.m. on Feb. 2 in the University of Redlands Orton Center about Islamophobia. She began by having the audience stand up, stretch, and get comfortable. After everyone sat down she dove into her presentation.

Lalami made something clear with her audience at the beginning of the speech: she is not an expert on Islam. There are various denominations of Islam. Islam is a civilization that has a variety of achievements. Islam is a geographic region. Islam is a conference that includes 57 different countries. Islam includes multiple and diverse cultures, races, ethnicities, and traditions. As she expressed several times throughout the night, Islam is a vague word in comparison to all that it encompasses.

She brought up the ISIS terrorist attacks on Paris that took place on Nov. 13, 2015. She spoke of these attacks leading to worldwide condemnation of ISIS and sympathy for the victims. This included multiple social media sites becoming involved in the awareness of the shootings and many people sharing and voicing their opinions on the event. However, Lalami pointed out that what happened in Paris also happened the day before in Beirut. What happened in Paris also happened in Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia. It even happened very close to the University of Redlands, in San Bernardino. Lalami made the point that tragedies like these have been happening in Syria every single day for the past four years, with little media coverage.  

“What is ISIS?” Lalami asked.

She answered this question with a brief history of the terrorist organization. ISIS stands for Islamic State of Iraq. Lalami explained that it is primarily a religious group, but has strong political values and beliefs. In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq and eventually called for the disillusion of Iraqi civil and military services. Taking advantage of the people angered by this action, al Qaeda recruited members and established itself, and it has grown and evolved to become what is known as ISIS today.

Lalami told her audience that as of 2015, ISIS controls territory in both Syria and Iraq. In this territory, they behead their enemies, put their victim’s heads on spikes, and place them on display around town. Women must be fully covered, and to be sure these women are following this enforcement, a brigade accompanies them everywhere they go. There is no smoking, teaching of chemistry, or even whistles.

One of the most noteworthy points of the night was when Lalami talked about the gray zone. She explained that ISIS sees the world as black and white and in the middle is the gray zone. For ISIS to prevail, they believe the gray zone must be eliminated because it threatens ISIS’s view of the world.

The gray zone is the place where people coexist and tolerate one another, Lalami explained. The gray zone is a peaceful place where everyone lives side-by-side.

Lalami noted that the top search after the San Bernardino shooting was “kill Muslims,” and she mentioned countless attacks on Muslims. Lalami proved her point of the brutality of ignorant people against Muslims with this example: a poll was taken in which the majority of participants voted to bomb Agrabah…the fictional kingdom in Aladdin.

She brought up Donald Trump, using him as an example of how the political class is reacting poorly to the attacks on Muslims. Trump wants to ban Muslims, but Lalami questions how the U.S. could or would turn away Muslims from the whole country.

She listed Muslims that have achieved amazing accomplishments, such as Malala Yousafzai, an activist for female education and youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Lalami questioned how the United States could turn away such amazing and accomplished people.   

“Why is it so difficult to make a distinction between Muslims and ISIS?”  Lalami asked. “We are awash in Islamophobia discourse.”

She alluded to 2016 GOP runner Ted Cruz, and said he proudly claimed that he was a Christian first and an American second. She asked her audience if it someone put a different religion first and American second, such as Judaism or Islam, what would people say? Lalami expressed to her audience that politicians only play on two emotions: hope and fear, and when this country is afraid, this fear can be turned against the citizens.

The audience members were able to ask Lalami questions. During this she gave her listeners notable advice and commentary. Lalami advised that keeping lines of communication open was an effective form of fighting Islamophobia on campus.

“If you don’t talk, someone else will,” Lalami said. “All of us have voices.”

[Images by Sky Ung, Redlands Bulldog photographer]