There is a famous saying: “We see things as we are, we do not see things as they are.”
This is how most of the world thinks American media covers their stories. In truth, I think all people see things as “we are” and not as “they are” no matter where we are in the world.
But America is seen as a global power and the main leader in the world ― one that everyone admires, and many are hurt by. So what does it mean to see things as “they are” ― how people from different countries or cultures experience stories and see issues from their perspective?
This is the very spirit of The Zainab Salbi Project, an original new series that premieres on The Huffington Post on November 15.
I traveled around the world for these stories and here’s what I learned: Muslims see ISIS as the biggest enemy of Islam itself; the third gender revolution is happening in India, where people no longer have to choose between male or female on any legal form; Mexico has one of the highest rates of journalists being killed; Buddhist monks in Thailand are setting fire to women’s monasteries; and behind closed doors, the stories of French families whose sons joined ISIS are ones of love and loss. They shocked me with new revelations on why these young men are leaving their home countries to join ISIS.
The journey started in the heart of America, exploring Islamophobia as experienced by American Muslims ― and how Muslim women wearing the headscarf are becoming the target for physical and verbal attacks.
The journey continued to Iraq to explore the impact of ISIS on the society, and to France to understand the reasons behind increased radicalization among the youth. After visiting both countries, this much became crystal clear: These stories are very much interconnected. They are not separate in their narratives at all.
And they all start with the war in Iraq and the state of destruction the country was left in. ISIS, I came to realize, is not the cause. They are rather the symptom taking advantage of a story; a story of pain, disenfranchisement and anger that all of us, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or not, played a part in creating.
Those who are attracted to ISIS will not be killed off in the battle for Mosul, nor will they disappear. They will lose Mosul and their so called “caliphate,” but they will reappear in various ways. They see themselves on a mission to address the anger and pain that started with the Gulf War in Iraq, and Iraq’s current fragile state.
For many around the world, this is a story that has long been over ― one from the past, if you may. Not for Muslims. The story of what happened to Iraq after the second Gulf War is still alive, and the actual destruction and pain that people were left with is indisputable.
Most Muslims differ in how to deal with that sadness, but not in the actual story itself. What is broken is broken. How to deal with it, how to mend it and how to heal it is the story to follow, and for all of us to explore. But we first need to understand. All of the Muslims I interviewed suggested the same solution when I asked them what others can do: “get to know us.” It is my hope that this series will start the process of shattering stereotypes, thereby building new bridges of understanding.
Seeing things “as they are” was an exploration full of surprises that challenged most of my preconceived notions of the “other.” I had no idea, for example, that freedom of press is at risk in Mexico and many journalists have been kidnapped, tortured, and killed. But there are journalists risking their lives just so they can keep reporting on what is happening in their towns. India, a country which frequently makes news for violence against women, is actually leading an amazing gender revolution where the government sees gender as a non-binary form of identity, leaving it up to the individuals to choose their gender freely and legally. Thai women are not taking “no” as an answer from any male monks refusing to ordain them. Instead, these women are taking matters into their own hands and are ordaining themselves.
The truth of the matter is that the good, the bad and the ugly exists in every country. The question is can we see all of it, understand it, and neither romanticize nor demonize it? Both are extremes that deprive the “other” of the multiple identities each one of us have. This is a time of fear, blame and misunderstanding. To move forward in such a time, we must dare to ask the uncomfortable questions so we can dare to see the story in a different way.
This is The Zainab Salbi Project and I hope you join me in this journey.
Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American author, women’s rights activist, humanitarian, social entrepreneur, and media commentator who is the founder and former CEO of Washington-based Women for Women. Salbi is also an editor-at-large for Women In The World, in association with The NY Times, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. Find out more on how Zainab Salbi uses the power of storytelling to trigger change on Red UK.