I’ve been making the rounds lately – enough so that I occasionally introduce myself as a “circuit rider,” referring to the mostly 19th Century community of men of cloth who rode between village, towns and hamlets, usually on horseback, serving communities either too small or too poor to afford their own full-time cleric.
I’ve been speaking in schools both public and private, museums, churches, corporate boards, senior citizen centers, bookstores and civic organizations about my experiences, impressions and concerns as a Muslim in America.
A latter-day Muslim circuit rider in an aged Volvo 240 station wagon!
One of my events is an “Ask a Muslim Anything” program where guests are free to — and do — ask me anything from Islamic history to ISIS (Daesh). They ask about violence against women, the Taliban and “Radical Islamic terrorism” – about the Qur’an, Shariah, Sunnis and Shiiites and about Islam’s relationship with Christianity and Judaism.
I welcome them all and I try to stay until all questions are answered — or lights are turned out — and what I’ve discovered has humbled and informed me and today I want to share some of those impressions.
First, I applaud everyone’s participation in these ecumenical town halls. I think it takes some courage to share one’s fears and anxieties with strangers and I’m thankful to the hundreds that have come out, even under adverse weather conditions, to ask touchy questions.
I’m humbled by the generosity and intelligence of my interlocutors. Questions, almost without exception — even those expressing strongly anti-Muslim sentiments — have been expressed respectfully and, I must admit, stand in strong contrast to dark online comments posted by critics without the courage to face me in public.
In my audiences there are no basement dwellers, no xenophobic trolls.
And I’ve learned that sometimes my answers aren’t expansive enough — that I need to be more intentional in understanding what my neighbors are asking.
In some fora I’ve been asked about the repression of women in many Muslim-majority countries, within many Muslim households, and I realize that I have to even more fully articulate a condemnation of the abuse and unacceptable repression of women wherever it occurs — that I can’t assume that because I know that I’ve been condemning it forever that everyone knows where I stand.
While I know that the oppressive way many women are treated within Muslim patriarchies is contrary to the Qur’an — and that such behavior contradicts even the example of Prophet Muhammad — more needs to be said about how centuries-old oppressive traditions within many Muslim communities are unacceptable and intolerable — just as they’re intolerable in any society.
While one can celebrate Muslim women like Pakistan’s Malala and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman who at 32 was then the Nobel Peace Prize’s youngest winner — and women who’ve ruled Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Kosovo’s President Atifete Jahjaga, even to celebrate the women recently elected to Iran’s parliament — more needs to be said to distinguish between the Qur’an and the life of Prophet Muhammad, where there is no place for abuse of women, and abusive cultural and traditional overlays — like horrific honor killings — that have no place in my, or any, religion.
I’m also asked: “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak out against the violence?” or some such iteration of that meme, falsely implying that Muslims silently witness atrocities without speaking out.
I reject that argument; First, the violence being perpetrated by groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh is as outside of Islam as clearly as the KKK operates outside Christianity.
Further, Muslim condemnations of terrorism are issued on a depressingly regular basis, sometimes preemptively when they fear a new act of violence has been perpetrated as I expressed in, “Please God don’t let it be a Muslim.”
I’m a bit tired doing work people can do for themselves. Simple Google searches routinely unearth denunciations of terrorism ranging from individuals to communities of scholars. What a person sees, however, is dependent on what news sources one accesses.
For example, if one relies upon Fox or Glenn Beck for confirmational-bias, one probably missed the Open Letter to Al-Baghdadi issued by Muslim scholars denouncing Daesh — a global story that barely caused a ripple in America in part, I believe, because it didn’t fit the preconceived narrative of a normative Muslim as scary, dangerous, remorseless.
Fox’s Sean Hannity, ignoring a statement, “American Muslim Joint Statement On Crisis In Iraq” made two months previously, asked on Aug. 12, 2014, “So the question is, will prominent Muslims denounce and take on groups like ISIS, Hamas, and condemn and also fight against their unthinkable acts of terrorism?”
On Daesh alone, according to Georgetown’s Bridge Initiative: “To date, we’ve identified condemnations from more than 80 religious, civil, and political organizations, from 92 countries on six continents. From Argentina to Canada, from Alaska to Australia, Muslims have denounced ISIS. There are dozens of local student groups, tens of dozens of online campaigns and joint statements, and scores of public demonstrations and protests. Government leaders from the top 10 countries with the largest Muslim populations have condemned the group, as have some 14 Grand Muftis (the highest official of religious law in Sunni Muslim countries).”
There’s tension between communities — on one side are those Americans who’re fearful and uninformed, whose opinions are being formed primarily by well-organized and prejudiced xenophobes and Islamophobes.
On the other side are Muslims and their sympathizers who, recognizing hate speech and the rise of reported instances of anti-Muslim violence see Islamophobia as un-American and dangerous.
When one woman asked me why there weren’t any #MuslimLivesMatter signs on front lawns of NH’s minuscule 2,000-member Muslim community I was a bit too taken aback to fully respond – what Muslim, myself included, wants to paint a bulls-eye on his home and family during this hateful period of heightened anxiety?
Today, I’ve chosen to try and stand between these two communities to ease the pain of one and assuage the fear of the other. In this place we stand together knowing that the things we have in common — the concerns we share that keep us awake — the things that make us both humble and human — keep us in each other’s service and prayers.
Originally published in the Portsmouth Herald