Sept. 15, 2001. Phoenix, Ariz.: Just days after 9/11, Balbir Sodhi was shot and killed by Frank Silva Roque, who reportedly told friends and a waitress at a local restaurant that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”
July 2004. New York, N.Y.: Rajinder Khalsa was beaten unconscious by white men.
March 2011. Elk Grove, Calif.: Gurmej Singh Atwal and Surinder Singh, two elderly friends, were killed while on an afternoon walk.
Their crime: They were Sikhs.
Towel-heads. Rag-heads. The Other.
“O our Sustainer! We have sinned against ourselves — and unless Thou grant us forgiveness and bestow Thy mercy upon us, we shall most certainly be lost!” Qur’an, 7:23. (Asad)
It’s really hard not to get angry over the news these days. Three recent events: the massacre of innocent movie-goers in Aurora, Colo., the slaughter of Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wis., and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Mo., highlight tensions in our communities that should give us pause to consider what kind of country we are living in. To ask, what kind of country do we want.
But my faith demands of me not to be angry, especially this blessed month of Ramadan. My faith demands that I trust in God. To rejoice in the presence of the Beloved.
To be mindful of those who have less than we do. To ask for forgiveness from those we have offended. To be charitable. To love.
A week of Ramadan remains. Muslims believe that during one night, an unknowable night, within Ramadan’s last 10 days, during the Night of Power, God began to reveal the Qur’an to Muhammad, enjoining him, and us, to:
“READ in the name of thy Sustainer…;” Qur’an. 96:1(Asad)
The Qur’an, along with the Tanakh and the New Testament, comprise the major scriptural elements embraced by the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims believe that the believers of those scriptures are all “Ahl al Kibab, “People of the Book.”
While theological differences may divide the communities — for example, on the Divinity of Jesus — and while some political elements interpret scripture in order to divide rather than bring people together, the basic elements: Social justice, compassion for the poor and homeless, freedom, hospitality and love thy neighbor bind the “Ahl al-Kitab,” indeed, all people of good faith, together.
After the shootings in Oak Grove, a CNN commentator said that Sikhs were “unfairly” mistaken for Muslims and targeted. Really? Really? If they had really been Muslims, would it have been fair to shoot them?
July 4, 2012. Joplin, Mo.: Someone unsuccessfully tried to torch the community mosque. Despite a clear picture of the arsonist’s face that was captured on a surveillance camera and an offered $15,000 reward, nobody came forward to identify him.
Aug. 6, 2012. Joplin, Mo.: The Islamic Center and Mosque in Joplin was burned to the ground during a fire of suspicious circumstances. A total loss.
Did you see that story in the news? It didn’t run in the Portsmouth Herald or Seacoastonline. While, in terms of loss, the burning of a building, even a house of worship, does not compare to attacks that kill people, it does highlight, for me, the marginalization of Islam in America. Are attacks on Muslims so common, so acceptable, that we don’t need to take note of them?
Is that the America that Benjamin Franklin wrote about when he 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?”
The Joplin Mosque burning comes just as the Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., prepares to open its doors after facing years of Islamophobia, legal challenges, attempted arson and vandalism.
The Joplin Mosque burning comes at a time when it has become open season on American Muslims. The marginalization of Muslims, in my mind, is an ignorant, calculated political conceit designed to disenfranchise certain Americans from the public square. That politicians, like Michele Bachmann and her posse of congressmen who attack other Americans on the basis of their religion, are given platforms for their invective is disturbing. The attack on Muslims is nationwide and it is spreading. As long as it is condoned at the highest levels by politicians, especially in the Republican Party, it will continue to scar our collective soul. As long as Republican Party leadership does not repudiate the hatred and bigotry, they are parties to it.
I’m still trying not to be angry.
It is because we are not Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan that we should insist that America pay attention to what is happening within our borders. Those are not democracies who have extended the franchise to all citizens. We are. We say we have a public square. We say we are a nation of laws, protected by a Bill of Rights and a Constitution that gives all rights to all citizens.
We have a choice.
We can confront the bigotry and intolerance. We can confront the challenges that threaten the values that have made us a great nation, or we can succumb to a new tribalism and Know-Nothingism that will transform us into the most ill-informed, well-armed, Third World nation in the world.
I am often reminded, in times of stress and anger, of Rabbi Hillel, who was once asked to sum up Jewish teaching while standing on one foot.
He replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
For all Americans, for African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans, for Sikhs and Muslims, for Jews and Christians, for Hindus, Buddhists, secularists, atheists and Wiccans, for the unemployed and homeless, and for all those who embrace the American dream, there should no longer be a place for poet Langston Hughes’ words: “I swear to the Lord I still can’t see why democracy means everybody but me.”
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.