Every family has one. That relative who makes you cringe. The black sheep of the family. The trouble maker. The bad seed. The bum.
When I became Muslim over nineteen years ago, I immediately became a sister to all the more than one billion Muslims on the planet. Quite lovely and touching, when you think of it. A black-skinned man in Sudan is my brother. A lady with straight black hair and pale skin in China is my sister. A nut-brown girl in a village in India, a flaming redhead in Ireland, an olive-complected fellow in Cairo. My brothers, my sisters. You can argue that with me they definitely got a sister who is, uh, different from the stereotypical picture of a Muslim. I’m white. My ethnicity is American with roots in England and Germany, with some Native Choctaw and Cherokee thrown in. I love Nascar and American football. I eat biscuits and gravy. I watch Spongebob – the old Spongebob, back when it was good. But I like to think I’m a nice person, not someone you’d run away from or cross the street to avoid. Unfortunately, I can’t say that about some of my brothers and sisters in the faith.
Let’s take one brother. I don’t know his name, but that’s not important. When you have a billion siblings it’s kind of hard to keep track. Anyway, this brother of mine lives in a little village in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. He is a drug dealer. I’m not proud of it, not proud of him, but there it is. My brother the drug dealer. He has a little plot of land. On one tiny segment he grows food for his family, but on most of the land he grows opium poppies. The sap from these poppies is harvested and processed and ultimately turns into heroin. (Funny thing about that, I have another brother in Egypt who shoots this heroin into his arms. Ironic, huh?) I don’t have a say in his career choice. He was forced into growing the poppies by the local warlord and if he doesn’t make his quota they’ll take his daughter and rape her or strangle his son. He’s not a super happy guy, and he often uses his own opium to ease the hard edges of his life and take the pain away, if only for a while.
Family. Tough, huh? You can be a decent person, pray five times a day with all the sincerity in your heart, you can work an honest job and love your kids and never kick your cat, but the moment they show your brother’s picture on TV you’re guilty by association. MUSLIM, the TV says. RADICAL ISLAMIST GROUP FINANCED THROUGH DRUG SALES, reads the crawl at the bottom of the screen. And there’s my brother standing in the middle of his poppy field with a gap-toothed grin on his face with his deadly crop waving gently in the breeze behind him.
Guilt by association. It’s like having the last name Manson or Kaczynski or Dahmer. You introduce yourself at the PTA meeting as Mrs. Dahmer and most of the people in the room are thinking serial killer with body parts in the freezer. Show yourself as a Muslim and some, a lot, or even most of the people are thinking Osama bin Ladin. No way of getting around it. It’s an uncomfortable truth that some people feel I have to apologize for the sins of my people, that because of our shared faith somehow I’m responsible for that man growing poppies halfway across the world, or I’m responsible for the hopeless young man who strapped a bomb to himself in Palestine, or the bearded radical wielding an RPG in Libya, or the protestor burning an American flag in Cairo. They’re Muslim. I’m Muslim. Muslim = Muslim like 1 = 1.
A logical person would see the fallacy of this argument, but logic often goes out the window when Islam is under discussion. Islam is the bugaboo, the monster in the closet, the Red Scare of our current time. People have been led to believe that Islam is some barbaric atavistic faith locked 1400 years in the past, and many Muslims are unfortunately doing nothing to disabuse people of that notion. That’s where I come in
I chose to make my avocation the teaching of Islam. It’s the focus of my writing. It occupies my mind for a good part of the day. When I’m not posting a blurb on Twitter or Facebook, or writing a blog post here, I’m teaching my children their Arabic letters or sharing a story of Prophet Muhammad’s kindness. It’s more than just what I do. It’s who I am.
But you have to deal with it too. If you want to have an honest discussion about Islam, you have to be, well, honest. You cannot blame Islam, or me, for the sins of my brothers or sisters. If you hear about Muslims behaving badly, you cannot ask me why Islam allows this behavior. You can ASK me if Islam allows this behavior, and when I tell you most emphatically NO, then you should believe it.
I chose Islam 19 years ago. I chose it after I studied it. Studied the Qur’an, studied the commentaries and the biography of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. Studied books of hadiths (prophetic traditions). I am not a scholar, but I am a skeptic, and I would not have accepted Islam if it were as it is portrayed in the media. I would not have accepted Islam if it were as it is lived by many Muslims. I would not have accepted Islam if it were a barbaric atavistic faith locked 1400 years in the past. I wouldn’t expect you to, either.
So, put aside all my wayward siblings and remember that you probably have a few skeletons in your spiritual closet as well. If you want to know about Islam, ask me. Ask me. I will give you a truthful answer. It might even be the one you’re looking for.