Balkan Chronicle: #MyJihad is steeped in my Balkan roots

Born and raised in Chicago, I took for granted my family history. My father was a Pomak from the tiny mountain village of Arda- in the southernmost region of Bulgaria, bordering Greece. Communism oppressed my family’s ability to practice Islam. They changed our family name in an attempt to wash away our identity. My grandfather was killed from stepping on a land mine leftover from war. He was just steps away from the border where he was planning an escape to freedom for the entire family. My father did escape communism eventually by running across the border. A moment he never regretted, but that stole 20 years away from seeing his family again.

My mother is a Catholic Croat whose family hailed from Stolac in Herzogovina. She was born in a refugee camp in Linz, Austria in the 1940s. Born right after her father was killed in war. He never got to hold her.

Painful family history is respected and understood but not talked about too much. What does talking about it do except remind us of loss, hardship, injustice?

Fast forward to the current. I am a self-proclaimed soccer mom living in the Chicago suburbs, trying to manage my own health insurance business and take care of my family. I’m also a volunteer and Board Member for a new public education campaign literally sweeping the globe called, #MyJihad whose tag line is: ‘taking back Islam from Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim extremists alike.”

My involvement in the campaign was a very natural process after the idea was sparked by Ahmed Rehab, Executive Director of CAIR-Chicago (Council on American Islamic Relations). I am joined in this grass roots effort by other moms as well as students and people of all faiths- who are tired of the worn out “isms” in the media’s portrayal of Muslims. Terrorism —- Islamism —- Jihadism—- Tired of letting haters define who we are- define Muslims and Islam in Western media and in the world.

Jihad is an Arabic word that means struggle. It does not mean holy war as the Merriam-Webster dictionary proclaims. Aggressive coercion or war is Un-Islamic. Jihad as a physical struggle has strict, moral codes of conduct meaning it’s only in self-defense. So the extremist viewpoints on all sides have been speaking for Islam. Until now.

Is it just too boring to talk about the similarities Islam has with Christianity? With Judaism?

Does it simply not sell enough newspapers to talk about how Muslims share their mosques with Christians and Christians share their churches with Muslims?

Why doesn’t the western media put out realistic stories of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world? Muslims who struggle every day to become better people by following the path of Allah, helping others, in hopes of achieving heaven in the afterlife?

The #MyJihad campaign allowed me an outlet to express my views and to share my personal struggles. It is a movement that belongs to the world. Anyone can share a post, a photo, a video, a blog- expressing what jihad means to them on #MyJihad’s facebook page which has a following of 8,000 and growing, Twitter, or website: #MyJihad has been covered in worldwide media in countries across the globe and in major news outlets like the New York Times, Huffington Post, Al-Jazeera, and more.

As a result of my volunteerism, I was honored to be asked to give a TED talk on the #MyJihad campaign. Giving a TED talk does not mean simply showing a few powerpoint slides and trying to sell an idea. It means sharing yourself- your story- with the world. Sharing your story is how you create understanding. It was at this time I realized what motivated me to be an activist for Islam. My motivation and passion were locked up inside the stories of my parents and their struggles. It was my Balkan heritage that involved oppression of my Muslim faith and even, loss of life of my Catholic grandfather for our nationality. It was not allowing my father to die in vain, nor both my grandfathers. It was not allowing my mother’s orphan refugee beginnings to be forgotten and unheard.

So I shared my father’s story of escaping communism for the love of his faith when I gave my TED talk on March 16, 2013. And I will continue to share my perspectives on my new website, where I am no longer hiding the pain of my heritage. I’m now sharing my heritage in hopes that it can bring further understanding about what it means to be human with dignity and rights to be yourself and practice your faith- regardless of others that want you to play by a different set of rules.

#MyJihad is to be myself. And to invite others to join me in sharing their truths. What’s yours?