2008. Remember “Obsession”? Remember opening your copy of the Portsmouth Herald, at the height of election fervor, and having a DVD pop out with a cover picture of the fallen twin towers, overlaid with a masked, presumed Islamist terrorist? Remember watching those images of scary Muslims threatening to bring down Western civilization, practically in Prescott Park?
For Muslims in America, including Seacoast residents, it was a heavy body blow. Millions of the DVDs were circulated that month. Worse still, the Herald acknowledged it never watched the DVD before dropping it into subscribers’ homes, to watch while consuming pancakes and coffee. For many Muslims, it was not unlike waking up on Sunday morning to see a cross burning on your front lawn.
I thought that “Obsession” would be the last major thrashing of America’s Muslims. I was wrong. Fear, an unending war on terror, Afghanistan and Iraq wars not going well, punctuated by the election of President Barack Hussein Obama, set loose some of our darkest demons. Birthers, truthers, deniers. know-nothings, united by fear and ignorance, determined not only to disenfranchise President Obama, but along with him anyone who was remotely related to “The Other,” primarily Muslims, dominated the public square.
Islam has been part of the Seacoast fabric for generations. Early traders from New England communities brought back spices, textiles and stories from the Middle East. Slave traders brought back Muslims from West Africa, some sold into slavery by Muslims, to help build an emerging nation. Most were forcibly converted to Christianity; some never forgot their roots.
There was no anti-Muslim rhetoric in the early days of the Republic. Tolerance was clearly embraced in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, where the United States wrote, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, — as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen, — and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation …”
John Quincy Adams had a copy of the first Quran printed in America (by Isaiah Thomas in 1806) when he defended the mutineers in the Amistad Rebellion, many of whom were Muslim, and Benjamin Franklin wrote that he wanted a meeting hall in Philadelphia that would be so inclusive “… so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
Imagine a public figure voicing such sentiments in Philadelphia or Portsmouth today.
Today, Seacoast auto mechanics, jewelers, educators, photographers, doctors, dentists and students live in our midst, go to school, pay taxes and fight, and die, as patriots in America’s wars. Friday prayers and Sunday school are regularly held in many communities. Two weeks ago, Seacoast Muslim families worshiped together in Portsmouth to celebrate Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. Yet, there is still unease.
Muslims perpetrated 9/11 and Muslims died in its ashes. I believe part of what made America great died on that day, as well. Part of me died that day. Before that morning, I never thought Americans would see me as The Other. True, we had cultural and political differences, but our ability to express them made us more American — we were more free, had more opportunity, less fear, than others. Our ability to live, love, thrive, was unlimited.
America, especially to Muslims, became less free after 9/11. Many walked with a softer footstep and spoke in hushed tones. Muslims knew the targeting of a community based on religion was fundamentally un-American. Stories of torture, extraordinary renditions, round-ups, firings and harassments spooked American Muslims. Worldwide, Muslims, who looked at America as a beacon of tolerance and freedom so lacking in their own lands, who were horrified by the abomination of the 9/11 attacks and who had no relationship to terrorism or to al-Qaida, were disillusioned by America’s response.
It is no longer enough to say, “Islam is a peaceful religion.” Critics of Islam cherry-pick Quranic text, looking for inflammatory quotations with which to impeach peace advocates. While it is true that the Quran is the literal word of God it is not meant to be read literally. Like other sacred scripture it is rich in metaphor and allegory. Like other peoples of faith Muslims try to understand and live within God’s words and challenges, whether in Exeter or Cairo. While American Muslims are freer here than they would be in many Muslim lands, I don’t believe either Muslims or non-Muslims are free to live in fear. To honor themselves and the nation they must engage and challenge the public square.
Muslims must fully acknowledge the fear that spooks their American neighbors. Most Americans are not responsible for the ignorance and invective that dominates many public spaces. Muslims must work against that fear, not by quoting the Quran, but by example. Invite your neighbors to your prayers, parties and Eid celebrations. Send them Christmas cards! Go to the schools with trays of cookies and lemonade scented with rose water. Challenge yourselves to be fully empowered. Help reclaim the beauty of America with the beauty of your hospitality and the example of the prophet Muhammad. Most importantly, challenge those Muslims who distort God’s Word to attain secular power.
The last three years have been more difficult than those before. Arguments over Obsession, the “Ground Zero Mosque,” hate sites targeting New Hampshire Muslims, have been costly. I want to stop being angry and for the struggle to end — to be able to freely love life again. To be able to disagree politically and feel unthreatened. To express solidarity with the oppressed and the occupied, to agitate for social justice, and not be accused of supporting terrorism. I want to re-embrace the promise of America that drew the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to our shores.
Lastly, I want, when pulled over by the police for a broken taillight, to be able to roll down my window, smile, and say, “Yes, officer?” without first, out of fear, turning off the Quranic recitation I was listening to.