“I don’t understand why you write what you do.”
“Do you believe in America?”
“Can’t you write something good about America?”
The challenge came from a Seacoast Sunday reader. The hurt was deep as I knew the author. I like and respect him and years ago when a project I initiated was about to get off the ground he was one of the first to help. Without his support it might not have succeeded.
I get lots of criticism for my columns. I welcome them all; the good, the bad and the clueless. I know there is risk in writing a column, or in expressing unpopular points-of-view, but that is the beauty of America: a public square where competing narratives joust for attention.
His letter, though, was special. There was hurt in his challenge and I got the feeling he felt as though I had betrayed him; that I had betrayed what he believed I was.
We met in Portsmouth.
What had I done to hurt him?
He loves his country, as I do. He is pained to see many things around him, around us, that he dislikes and distrusts, as I do. We were two men in pain who liked and respected each other.
He believed I had betrayed him. I believed him.
He told me how he read my columns, listened to my voice. How I entreated readers to listen to narratives foreign to their ears. He told me of the places where he agreed with me, why what I was saying mattered. His views were nuanced and thoughtful.
I was humbled.
He cut to the quick: He told me his curiosity was piqued by the content of some of my columns and that he wanted to know more about what I was doing. A thorough, thoughtful man, he did some reading and asked some questions.
Anonymous voices, whispering from dark, unlighted places tried to plant doubts in his mind. They questioned my loyalty, my faith, my pleas for tolerance and pluralism. Their intention was clear:
Disenfranchise the writer. Disenfranchise the “Other.” Disenfranchise me.
But the whispering voices had miscalculated. They had spilled their seed on infertile ground. My friend rejected the lies. He trusted that 20 years ago he had not been wrong.
He trusted his gut and wrote: Who are you?
What is the truth, he asked? Do I know you? What do you believe?
Who are you?
It is I, I told him, when we met in Portsmouth. It is I whom you embraced 20 years ago, when we both saw the need to embrace truth and oppose injustice.
I told him I believe that one critiques as an act of love. That I have spent 40 years between two worlds and three religions and I think it’s important for my readers to have a sense of what “The Other” world thinks.
I told him I believe it is an act of patriotism to challenge America, to be faithful to its vision. I told him the America that embraces Emma Lazarus’s vision of “huddled masses yearning to be free” is my America.
As we talked, I also realized that sometimes I might go too far. That even though I might be right in my critique, that it is not always the right thing to say.
I need to be more mindful about that.
On this journey I have perhaps become arrogant. If so, I apologize.
Let me tell you what I believe.
I believe in the promise of America. I love that in America a Muslim can worship more freely than in any other country, Muslim or not.
You asked me about Sharia and about the Muslims who attacked us on 9/11?
This is tough. Even for Muslims, but I know it’s important for you to hear. Bear with me.
I told you I believed that Sharia in the Qur’an is like our Declaration of Independence. Sharia reflects the embodiment of aspirations that man embraces in order to serve God — and thusly, to serve man. Sharia is about dignity, liberty, justice, hospitality.
I believe in that.
Sharia is different than Fiqh — Islamic Law. Many Muslims also wrongly conflate the two. Fiqh is sort of like the Constitution. Laws that jurists have written that are supposed to order Islamic societies in accordance with God’s expectations for us. In many Islamic countries those laws are antiquated and repressive, opposing freedom and social justice, supporting patriarchal authority, political repression and injustice.
Jordan’s King Hussein said, “Let me say this loud and clear. There is a world of difference between terrorist acts and the Islamic Shari’a. Islam is not only a religion, but a way of life. And at its heart lie the sacred principles of tolerance and dialogue.”
Further, let me be personally clear. I believe that governments that violate the rights of their people by invoking Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any form of religious exceptionalism are illegitimate governments. I believe governments that rule by totalitarian or oligarchic authority in order to diminish the people’s voice in the public square, are illegitimate governments.
Today, I live in a place I love, surrounded by those who love me. To my friends, I am not a good Muslim neighbor; I am a neighbor who is a Muslim.
I like that.
That is America. Where friends can call friends to account over ideas, not religion. A country where the marketplace overflows with competing ideas and narratives, and where the promise of truth eventfully forces aside slander and lies.
If someone asks me now, “Speak of the good of America,” I will speak of the day my friend and I met to discuss his letter. I can’t imagine many places where that can freely happen.
Our collective search for beauty takes place in an America where the sacred principles of tolerance and dialogue thrive and protect us.
That is the America my friend and I fully embrace.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.