If Salaam had Lived: Reflections on the 20th Anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing

Oklahoma City, OK, April 26, 1995 -- A scene of the devastated Murrah Building following the Oklahoma City bombing. FEMA News Photo

For someone whose name was going to be "peace", Salaam died under violent circumstances.

It had been barely 24 hours after the terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. In the wake of the shock and pain of seeing employees, and most heartbreakingly, children from the daycare there, being carried out covered in blood, came the fury at the attackers.
And Salaam was probably the youngest person ever to experience it. He was still in the womb, a few short weeks away from birth.

As the search for survivors and loved ones amid the building's rubble began, so did the search for those responsible. Before any proof could be found, came the accusation, hardly hours after the bombing: it had to be a Muslim, it had to be an Arab, was the mantra of talking heads on the news channels. Which is why Salaam and his family became targets.

A group of angry residents surrounded their home. They possibly guessed the family was Muslim because Salaam's mother, Sahar, wore Hijab. And all Muslims in their eyes were already guilty.

First began the screaming, the hollering, the usual anti-Muslim epithets. Then came the stones, smashing Sahar’s living room windows, shattering her sense of security.

She raced to the bathroom and locked herself in with two young children who were screaming in fear. She was no doubt praying, as she cowered and feared the worst, not just for herself, but the children and her baby, the one whose name was to be "peace", the one she had been carrying for seven months.

Sahar started bleeding during the attack on her home and a few hours later, after the angry criminals had left, she was raced to the hospital. Amid shock and grief she delivered him.

It was too late. Salaam was already dead.

Every year, I remember Salaam on April 19. He would have been 20 this year, in college, probably studying for exams, texting friends, playing football, eating hot dogs, doing all the things an American teenager does. Except that this idyllic existence was not meant to be.

I’m sure the parents of the other children who died that day imagine what their babies would have been like, just as Salaam’s parents do. In daycare then, they would have been graduating from college today. Some would already be enjoying their first years of life on their own. They’d probably be slogging through exams and papers or looking for a job. But they would be tangible, just a phone call, text, email or drive away. The killers of Oklahoma City made them intangible. They, like Salaam, can never be kissed, hugged, consoled, cajoled, scolded, argued with, or loved. At least in this world.

Like them, Salaam would have been looking forward to life after college, maybe even agonizing over it. But unlike them, he would most likely have also experienced what a growing number of American Muslims do daily, in countless ways: the intolerance and bigotry we now call Islamophobia.

If Salaam had lived, he may have been told the story of his violent birth. Then again, maybe not. Most parents shield their children from such painful memories and share only their joy.

But Salaam would still have come face to face with Islamophobia in first grade, barely weeks after school started, when the 9/11 attacks happened. Like other children of his age at the time, he would probably have drawn pictures of burning buildings, airplanes, mayhem, murder, and horror. He may also have had nightmares of his whole family being killed, along with himself, in a similar fashion.

Salaam would most likely also have accustomed himself to the glares, the swear words, the curses, and insults, hurled at him on the street, maybe even at school, in the aftermath of 9/11. Kids who called him "terrorist", "sand ni***r", and his mother "raghead" for the being Muslim and Arab.

With bullying becoming a growing problem at schools across the U.S., Salaam may have also experienced his share of it. Maybe because of the way he walked. Or talked. Or the clothes he wore. Or maybe because he was Muslim, like the third-grader in Louisville, Kentucky who was hung off a bathroom hook until he fell to the ground unconscious at his school a few years ago. Or the Muslim girl in New York who had her Hijab ripped off and was beaten up around the same time.

Salaam would have also perhaps heard on the news about attacks on Sharia, with his home state being one of the first to lead the way. Not only was Islamophobia something cultural and social, but praying five times a day and fasting in Ramadan, the Sharia that Muslims the world over practice, could now become a criminal act. If someone in America should have known about misunderstandings about Muslims, as well as the tendency to point fingers of blame in their direction, it should have been Oklahoma. However, its constitutional amendment against Sharia was passed with the support of 70 percent of voters in the state.

Realizing this, perhaps Salaam would have changed his beautiful name to something more “normal”-sounding, as a growing number of Muslims have and continue to do to spare themselves discrimination and reproach. Maybe to Sal. Or maybe he would have joked that it had something to do with being able to slam dunk.

But amid this pain, he would, I hope, have befriended the good kids, the good neighbors, the good people, the ones who would defend him from abuse, help shield him from ridicule, and stand up for his beliefs even when he may have been too scared to. He would, I hope, have retained his faith in others and his country with the knowledge that not everyone holds you responsible for odious acts you would never even think of committing; that being a Muslim is not a crime any more than being an evangelical Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist is in America.

If Salaam had lived, only God truly knows what his future would have held. He was one of the first victims of modern-day Islamophobia, and possibly its youngest. But through his death, we can remember that the fight against intolerance in America, this time with Muslims as its primary targets, is hardly over. And the Islamophobia that very likely cost Salaam his life is sadly no longer an exception. It is slowly becoming a rule that Muslims and all Americans of good faith must urgently challenge.

Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FEMA_-_1545_-_Photograph_by_FEMA_News_Photo_taken_on_04-26-1995_in_Oklahoma.jpg

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