American Muslims and Sikhs have been experiencing another uptick in aggression against them. In mid-August, shots were fired at a Morton Grove, Ill., mosque; paintball guns left ominous paint splatters all over a mosque in Oklahoma; and an acid bomb was thrown at a Lombard, Ill., Islamic school — all three incidents occurred while the buildings were full of Muslims observing the Ramadan evening prayer service called Tarawih.
Even worse, a mosque was burned to the ground a few weeks before in Joplin, Mo.; and most frightening and tragic, six innocent Sikh followers were gunned down in their Wisconsin gurdwara (place of worship), seemingly because the shooter assumed they were Muslim.
At this same time, some elected officials have publicly spouting false, hateful accusations at the Muslim community. Illinois Congressman Joe Walsh, while speaking at a town hall meeting just miles from both Chicago suburban incidents listed above said, Muslims are trying to “kill us in America every week.” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-Minn., 6th District), has been on a Muslim witch-hunt that is truly reminiscent of McCarthyism. While even Bachmann’s Republican colleagues have called her out, and her fellow Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn., 5th District), has made repeated attempts to set Bachmann straight, she’s sticking with her assertions and has a small cadre of fellow Tea Party Republicans whipping up the fear in their districts as well.
Is there a correlation between this political rhetoric and some of these acts of violence against non-Judeo-Christian-adherents-who-also-happen-to-be-brown? I think so, but only God knows what’s in the heart and mind of each individual. When these things happen, a person wonders if it’s possible to overcome so much animosity from people who are bent on not hearing you or recognizing you as a human being. Your first instinct is to either fight back with equal fury and hatred, or just turn and walk away. Though both options are natural reactions, I learned neither is as effective as persistent dialogue.
Last winter I was a guest on WBUR in Boston’s “Hear and Now” on the subject of bias against Muslim Americans. Later that day I received a long letter from a woman who had heard the interview, telling me why Americans hate Muslims and Muslim women.
She wrote that “rational” people are repulsed by Muslims because “the absolute fact that [Muslim] women are nothing. ZERO! You are a possession.” She vented hate for many paragraphs and concluded with, “you can talk up a good game Kari, but you are not ever going to be part of America in anything but address. You can live here; don’t ask for respect or inclusion, it will never happen. Your poor little daughters will be raised in this repressive religion and it is just sad … ”
I was shaking with anger. I typed off a very insulting reply and promptly deleted it, as I thought about how Prophet Muhammad (saw) had always responded with stoic patience and kindness to his worst detractors. He said, “The best friend in the Sight of God is he who is the well-wisher of his companions, and the best neighbor is one who behaves best towards his neighbors.”
I thought, “She just doesn’t know me.” So I wrote back:
“As a Muslim, my faith dictates that I treat you with respect and kindness, regardless of your behavior towards me.”
I went on to tell her that I am a multi-generation American and that my daughters are “active, vibrant young ladies who attend school, play sports, violin, and participate in the high school robotics club and Model United Nations.” I told her about my respectful sons and my loving husband, who is a true partner in parenting. I finished with, “I wish you had the opportunity to meet my family, or any of the other six-to-seven million Muslims who are your fellow Americans. We’re open for a discussion and we’re open for a visit. Don’t hesitate to reach out with sincere curiosity, and you’ll be surprised at what a warm response you’ll get.”
She replied with another insulting letter and ended with this, “Quit looking for acceptance, you’re not going to get it for all the reasons I listed below. You be strong in your faith and ignore us. But don’t insinuate we are ignorant and need to visit your sweet, gentle, loving home filled with Muslim bliss … We would have to pretend, you and I, for as I would look at your head scarf the reality of what that means would sour all else.”
Oh well, I thought, it’s pointless. I mentioned the exchange to a friend of mine who wisely advised that I not give up because she said that this type of exchange could be the “ultimate dialogue ideal,” given that it was private and allowed each person to take time to write their thoughts. I was dubious, but because I admire my friend and her experience with community building, I decided to give it one more try. I wrote:
“I won’t take your comments personally, because you aren’t treating me like a person …” And I then let her know I would not continue the conversation in a hateful manner.
She wrote one more “addendum,” as she called it, with more nasty comments and agreed that she was finished with the exchange.
I tried to get her hateful words out of my mind that night, but I felt like a stranger had slapped my face.
The next day I received another e-mail, with the subject line, “An Apology.” She wrote, “Kari please accept my sincere apology for my absolutely rude comments. You are right, I am wrong for just going off like a rocket. I bundled every bad thing ever said about Muslims and aimed it at you. You and your family are obviously fine people and yes, my fellow Americans, who I do not know and had no business maligning. I had had a VERY bad day and week (which I will not burden you with) and just took everything out on you.”
I could have left it alone at that point. But I wrote back, “Apology accepted because that’s where dialogue begins and can end with mutual respect.”
I let her know that if she ever had sincere questions regarding some of the issues she had raised that I would be more than happy to talk to her about them: “My door is open for discussion if it’s honest and sincere. I promise to return the favor.”
I heard from her one more time.
“Thank you. I don’t know if I would have been so forgiving had this exchange been reversed. I will always be reminded that great differences exists within any religion, and to paint with a broad brush is a mistake. I have always known that, just lost my way in anger. You allowed the burden of my great regret to be lifted and I thank you for that gesture.”
When she began this exchange she did not think of me as living, breathing woman with a real life. By engaging her, and patiently reminding her that she was writing to a person, I was able to break through some of her animosity. She may not have known any Muslims before, but now she knows me.
We all have to persist in dialogue with others outside of our “group” because only God knows whose path we may alter away from hatred or violence.