Because Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, did not invite me to testify at his congressional hearings about Muslim radicalization in America, I’ll share with you my first and most memorable encounter with Islamic Jihad.
It was early December of 1998 and I was a young, terrified new mother who had been near death with preeclampsia and just given birth to a sickly, underweight baby who had arrived 6 weeks premature. My brand new bouncing baby boy was an emaciated 4-pounder who had barely made it out into the world before he was whisked away by an entire team of masked neonatal specialists.
The next time I saw him was in the infant special care unit at Evanston Hospital, locked up in a plastic box. The tubes in his nose, arms and chest led to a tangle of beeping medical devices which, the first time I ever held him, screeched excitedly when he stopped breathing.
In those dark first, days of my foray into parenthood, I had countless doctors poking at me to make sure I would recover from my multiple infections. But I only wanted to hear what my baby’s doctor had to say. The first time I met the doctor, I’d been wheeled into the infant care unit heartbroken at the misery of such an unexpectedly disastrous experience and so exhausted I could barely think.
The young doctor introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Doctor Shoshara.” But I couldn’t get past his hospital badge, which said “Jihad” on it.
I shook his hand, asking myself whether I was misreading his name, which I’d known only as the word that my dictionary describes as “a holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims; any vigorous, emotional crusade for an idea or a principle.”
“Your name is Jihad?” I asked. He smiled — so warmly — and said yes, and without so much as a pause went on to explain, in the kindest way, what medical interventions were being taken to make sure my son would live. Even after the kid was finally released — home but still as fragile as a baby bird — I’d call Dr. Shoshara with some semi-insane fear and he’d reassuringly answer my many questions.
Eight years later, as a reporter for the Sun-Times, I wrote a story about a group called American Muslims for Activism and Learning that, for the sixth year in a row, was passing out hundreds of free Thanksgiving turkeys to needy families at Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy in Hyde Park.
I led the piece off: “There’s a saying in the Islamic religion: ‘A person does not have true faith if they sleep comfortably on a full stomach while his neighbor suffers from hunger.’” Completely coincidentally, one of the people participating in this volunteer act of feeding the poor was Dr. Jihad Shoshara, who was gracious enough to pretend he remembered me and my sickly baby.
This is what he told me then and worth requoting now: “Thanksgiving is a national holiday everybody knows about. You don’t have to be Christian to celebrate, so it’s one we really felt we could join in. We started this before 9/11, but in current times it’s important to show that Muslims care about our country.”
This is what springs to mind when I hear the word “Muslim.”
Though the media circus Rep. King orchestrated recently did nothing but stir and, in some cases, reinforce feelings of Islamophobia and anti-muslim bigotry, none of us has to buy into it. What we can do is speak out when faced with stereotypes, lies, and plain hostility toward our Muslim doctors, teachers, neighbors, family and friends.
Esther J. Cepeda writes a weekly column for the Chicago Sun-Times, where this article first appeared.