Religious Diversity, Hospitality, and a Muslim Cemetery in Texas

Religious Diversity, Hospitality, and a Muslim Cemetery in Texas July 23, 2015

Denton Texas
Courthouse on the Square – Denton, Texas

I’ve lived in Texas for almost 14 years.  It’s taken a while, but it’s home now.  There’s a lot I like about living here:  mild winters, great food, and a low cost of living.  A strong economy.  A diverse metropolitan area with inexhaustible opportunities for arts, music, and sports.  Plenty of religious allies.  And the biggest positive of all, my UU church and CUUPS group and the many close friends I’ve made through them.

It isn’t perfect.  While some parts of the state are beautiful, the Dallas – Fort Worth area is pretty bland.  Summers are miserably hot.  The cities are new, the suburbs are newer, and there are no natural or legal barriers to sprawl (of course, that’s one of the reasons the cost of living is so low).

And then there’s the politics.

Contrary to the frankly offensive stereotypes promoted by some people who’ve never set foot in Texas, the whole state is not a uniform sea of ignorant right wing bigots.  Oh, we have our share of ignorant right wing bigots, but Texas has a long history of populism (that rarely achieves a working majority, unfortunately) and the major cities are quite progressive.  Houston has a lesbian mayor, and Denton passed a referendum last November banning fracking (only to see it overturned by the legislature).

But many, many Texans are apathetic about politics – voter turnout rates are among the lowest in the nation.  Some of this is from libertarian types who just don’t care much about government.  Some is from the young and the poor who don’t think voting will matter.  The result of all this apathy is that Texas politics are dominated by business interests whose main goal is keeping taxes as low as possible and by social conservatives who want to re-create the culture of Texas in the 1950s.

And that brings us to this story from Farmersville, Texas, a town of 3300 people about 20 miles east of where I live in McKinney, in one of the remaining rural areas of Collin County (population 782,000).  A group of local Muslims is trying to establish a cemetery to serve their growing community.  It would be a place to bury their dead and nothing more.  It would comply with the same regulations as Christian, Jewish, and secular cemeteries.

Muslim Cemetery - Denton Texas.  Thanks to Debbie Griffin for the photo
Muslim Cemetery – Denton, Texas. Thanks to Debbie Griffin for the photo.

Yet to listen to some of the local residents, Al Qaeda is moving in to create a training center.  One resident threatened to pour pig’s blood on the land.  Another thinks we’re at war with Islam, or at least wishes we were.  This Dallas Morning News editorial summarizes – and ridicules – many of the complaints.

This response is representative of the worst of Texas (and much of the rest of the country):  fearful and bigoted.  And so in the fine old tradition of Texas progressivism, I offer this to my Farmersville neighbors.

Religious diversity is a reality.  The days when Protestants ran the show, Catholics and Jews played along, and everyone else kept their heads down is long gone.  Your neighbors may still be Baptist or Methodist, but they might be Buddhist or Hindu, or Wiccan or Druid.  Or atheist.  There are almost a half million Muslims in Texas.

Muslims have the same rights as Christians.  Do I really need to say this?  Apparently I do.

Islamic Association of Collin County - Plano, Texas
Islamic Association of Collin County – Plano, Texas

Islam is not monolithic.  The Christianity of the Southern Baptist Convention is different from the Christianity of the Roman Catholic Church, and both are different from the Christianity of the United Church of Christ.  Likewise, there are many forms of Islam, even beyond the Sunni / Shia split… and most of them don’t like the so-called Islamic State any more than you do.

“Love your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Not my religion.  Still a good idea.

What do you want American Islam to be?  Islam in the United States is largely a religion of immigrants.  The process of immigration in this country has been remarkably consistent since the days of Ellis Island:  the children of immigrants have a foot in both countries but their grandchildren are thoroughly American.  Most of those grandchildren will speak only English, but given the growing religious diversity in the United States, they are unlikely to change their religion (though some will for political purposes, like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley).

Islam in Turkey is different from Islam in Indonesia and both are very different from Islam in Saudi Arabia.  Over the next 20 to 50 years, an American Islam will evolve.  Do you want it to be developed by Muslims who have been welcomed into American life and who have friendly Christian and Jewish and Pagan neighbors?  Or do you want it to be developed by Muslims who’ve been told they’re unwelcome and should keep to themselves?

How you treat your Muslim neighbors will help determine whether American Islam is a religion infused with your culture or if it’s a religion that fears your culture.

Hospitality is a religious obligation.  I grew up in Tennessee experiencing Southern hospitality.  As a Pagan, hospitality has gone from a cultural expression to a religious obligation.  When we practice good hospitality, our actions tell our guests “you are valued” – not because they may someday join our group but because they are living, breathing, sentient beings who possesses inherent dignity and worth.

We have an obligation to be welcoming to immigrants of all religions and to treat them as individuals.  Saying “all Muslims” is no more accurate than when people from other parts of the country say “all Texans.”

Compassion and decency are human obligations.  The death of a loved one is a traumatic experience for anyone.  In addition to the emotional and spiritual stress caused by the loss, there are a myriad of mundane arrangements to be made – including finding a suitable burial site.  A group of Texas Muslims is trying to make that experience a little less stressful by establishing a nearby cemetery for their community.  Opposing that out of fear and bigotry is inexcusable.

Fellow Texans, you’re better than that.

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