September 2010


As you may know if you’ve followed my blog or know me in person, I spent a total of 7 months in an Arab-Muslim country in North Africa, Tunisia. Once was a study abroad experience to study Arabic, and then I went back last summer to teach English. Given all the religious debate and Islamaphobia in the country lately, I’d like to take a moment to just share some stories.

My first week in Tunis, our director and his two assistants were more than kind to us and made sure that we were safe at all times. Our teachers gave us lessons in basic Arabic so we wouldn’t be totally helpless, and we were escorted around the city.

My first host family was awesome. A divorcee and her two teenage sons, they took me in and literally treated me like family. She even called me her binti, or daughter, to her friends (which, needless to say, got some strange reactions since we definitely do not look related). She even drove me into the city every morning for class for the first few weeks because she was scared of me taking the bus on my own in an unfamiliar place (not that it wasn’t safe, but she was just overprotective). The other Americans in my group had very similar experiences.

Every Tunisian I met welcomed me into their homes with open arms. They fed (and overfed) me, made sure I was comfortable, and gave me the utmost hospitality. They know that many Americans don’t like Muslims, yet they didn’t let that taint their view of me. I couldn’t even communicate with some of them and yet they still went out of their way to show me that they weren’t like the crazy Muslims I see on TV back home. They were thrilled to be able to break that stereotype to at least one American.

One time we went to the house of a friend of my host mom. I’m not sure her exact position, but she was some religious figure in the local mosque. My host mom was joking about how I have such a small appetite (especially compared to her 2 boys), so I tried to say in Arabic, “No, I like to eat!” Instead I said, “I would like to eat,” nheb nakol. This woman jumped out of her seat to go and make me dinner, even after I insisted that’s not what I meant and she didn’t have to.

The many people my age that I met were eager to talk about American culture: movies, music, Michael Jackson, and even politics (especially in the spring of 2008 during the Presidential primary). They showed me the best cafes and clubs to go to, and were eager to take me out and introduce me to people.

Last summer, I needed to find a place to stay last minute. Both of my bosses immediately jumped at the chance to host me, and my old director also helped me find a house and more teaching opportunities.

Two of my host moms were very religious, but it took me weeks to even find out, as they would pray in their rooms with the doors closed while the kids and I watched TV or did homework. When discussing their religious devotion, they said that it was a very personal thing, their personal connection between them and God. They were not about to impose it on anyone, not even their children (which is more than I can say of most Christian parents in the US). In fact, the only time I debated religion or was pressured to convert was with my American Christian friends who tried to get me to “see the light.”

My real mother, who took some convincing to let me go in the first place, came to visit for a week and absolutely loved it. Everyone treated her the same as me: with open arms, extreme hospitality, and plenty of food. All of the other Americans I met loved their experiences there and want to go back to visit. All of the Tunisians I met were the most open-minded, friendly people ever, eager to learn as much as they could. That’s not to say there weren’t a few assholes I met, but that will be anywhere. Some of my friends observed Ramadan, some merely abstained from drinking during Ramadan. Some never drank, while others rivaled the alcohol tolerance of my college friends. Some considered themselves moderate Muslims, others said they were simply agnostic and didn’t care at all for Islam or any religion. They were laid back (especially due to the heat), and I love them all and still stay in touch with many.

Now, does this sound like the type of people who want to kill us? Do my friends, my 2nd and 3rd families, do they sound like the type of people who hate Americans and want us all killed? Who want Islam to rule the world?

People ask me why I care so much about the Park51 community center in lower Manhattan. As an atheist, and someone who doesn’t particularly care for organized religion in general, I still believe in the freedom to worship. After living in a Muslim country for 7 months, I simply cannot understand why people hate them. I have never felt LESS pressured to convert to a religion as when I was over there. I have never felt LESS unwelcome or judged as when I was over there. I understand that there are extremists in every religion or group, but that has nothing to do with my friends.

Muslims as a group aren’t out to kill us. They want everything that all other Americans want for them and their families, and they shouldn’t feel pressured to sacrifice any of it due to a small fringe group. How many stories must I tell about my Muslim friends until this is clear?

Advertisements

I’m going to tell a story, a story I hope most of you already know, and I want you to pay close attention.

Back in the day in the Southern United States, a lot of white people didn’t like the blacks. They thought they were dirty, unethical, stupid and uneducated, incapable of being educated, and that they were all murderers and criminals. They felt uncomfortable being near them, and they certainly didn’t want their children to be around them, in case their bad influence rubbed off. Even though blacks technically had the same legal rights as whites did, many stores, restaurants, and other such establishments still did not cater to blacks. Blacks and whites had their own separate schools, their separate communities where they lived, and even their separate churches where they worshiped, even though they all believed in the same God. Many blacks had to fight off violence against them, such as burning crosses in their yards, lynchings by the KKK, and an unjust court system.

Then one day a law passed that said blacks had to go to the same schools as white children, and that business owners had to allow blacks equal entrance and service to their businesses. Many whites did not like this, and thought it was an invasion of their space. They thought, “We were here first!” and that these uneducated, dirty, barbaric black people were going to ruin their society. They thought it was insensitive for the blacks to force themselves upon the white community, especially because the white community wasn’t ready for them. Heck, the majority of the popular vote even said they didn’t want integration! The whites were even more pissed off that their government wasn’t listening to them! (Little did they know that many blacks, if not most, were in fact quite smart, and were good, moral people, and just wanted to have a good life for themselves and their families without doing harm to anyone else.)

Some white people didn’t just hate the blacks for no good reason (although many did). Some had very good reasons to hate black people, such as, maybe a black person killed one of their friends or family members, or maybe a black person did them wrong in some other way. Therefore, they thought, if you allow ANY blacks into schools with young, impressionable white children, the entire American way of life will just go to hell. Sure they can legally go to the same schools, but because the whites just weren’t ready for an integrated school system, it was insensitive for the blacks to force their rights upon the white people, to shove black culture in their faces, and they should just step back and wait. Wait another 100 years, maybe more, until the community was ready to let them exercise their Constitutional rights.

I hope you all vehemently disagree with that story, and if you don’t then don’t bother to continue reading. If, however, you realize how utterly ridiculous that story was, yet how true it is, let’s look at the same story but just change around a few key words (which are in bold):

Today in the United States, a lot of people don’t like the Muslims. They thought they were dirty, unethical, stupid and uneducated, incapable of being educated, and that they were all murderers and criminals. They felt uncomfortable being near them, and they certainly didn’t want their children to be around them, in case they tried to convert them to be terrorists. Even though Muslims technically had the same legal rights as non-Muslims did, many stores, restaurants, and other such establishments still did not cater to Muslims. Muslims and non-Muslims had their own separate schools, their separate communities where they lived, and even their separate centers where they worshiped, even though they all believed in the same God. Many Muslims had to fight off violence against them, such as harassment at work, attacks at home, and even crazy cab riders who stabbed them.

Then one day a law passed that said Muslims were allowed to build a mosque in the non-Muslim community. Many non-Muslims did not like this, and thought it was an invasion of their space. They thought, “We were here first!” and that these uneducated, dirty, barbaric Muslim people were going to ruin their society. They thought it was insensitive for the Muslims to force themselves upon the non-Muslim community, especially because the non-Muslim community wasn’t ready for them. Heck, the majority of the popular vote even said they didn’t want a mosque in downtown Manhattan! The non-Muslims were even more pissed off that their government wasn’t listening to them! (Little did they know that many Muslims, if not most, were in fact quite smart, and were good, moral people, and just wanted to have a good life for themselves and their families without doing harm to anyone else.)

Some non-Muslim people didn’t just hate the Muslims for no good reason (although many did). Some had very good reasons to hate Muslims, such as, maybe an extremist, terrorist Muslim killed one of their friends or family members on 9/11. Therefore, they thought, if you allow ANY Muslims to worship near the 9/1 site, the entire American way of life will just go to hell. Sure they can legally go build a mosque wherever they want, but because the non-Muslims just weren’t ready for an integrated system, it was insensitive for the Muslims to force their rights upon the non-Muslim people, to shove Muslim culture in their faces, and they should just step back and wait. Wait another 100 years, maybe more, until the community was ready to let them exercise their Constitutional rights.

Can we see the parallel yet? Can we open our eyes and our minds just a teeny, tiny bit and see the relationship between what happened with the blacks during the Civil Rights movement, and even after that, and what’s happening with Muslims now? They are a minority group, and prejudiced people don’t like them and don’t want them in certain areas of this country. One of those areas happens to be a few blocks away from the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, but others include Tennessee, Kentucky, and even Staten Island. Most opponents of the Muslim community center near the “ground zero” site, formally called Park51, say that it is simply too close to where Muslim terrorists attacked our country, and that it’s insensitive for them to build there, they’d be happy if they just built it somewhere else. Tennessee and Kentucky are too close, too? All the other mosques in the middle of Manhattan that haven’t caused terrorists to spark up after decades, they’re fine, but the middle of the country is too close, too? Where CAN Muslims exercise their 1st Amendment Rights then? Why don’t we let the majority once again horde the people they want to oppress into a specific area and tell them what they can and cannot do and where they can do it?

It’s only insensitive to have anything to do with Islam near the 9/11 attack site in NYC because the majority of the public apparently still think that all Muslims are terrorists. (Bigoted whites thought it was insensitive for blacks to “infringe” on their territory, too, but did we let them win?) People thinkĀ  that all Muslims have some connection with the 9/11 attacks. If that’s true, then I say that every Christian in America is responsible for the murder of Dr. George Tiller, for the Oklahoma City bombing, and for Waco, Texas, just to name a few. Just read my other blog post about how there are plenty of white, Christian terrorists in our own country that we don’t bat an eye over.

I lived in a Muslim country. I am friends with many Arab-Muslims. Many of them don’t even practice their religion, just as many Christians don’t ever go to church or have never read the Bible, let alone follow it strictly (although Evangelicalism is drastically rising in this country). My Muslim friends are nice people, nicer than many Christians I know. I know I sound like a broken record when I say this, but it really needs to be emphasized: all Muslims are not terrorists. Terrorists come in all shapes, sizes, creeds and colors. We want to be able to target one specific group to scapegoat, to say, “Yes they are the problem, we see them, they’re a small group and easy to target, now let’s get rid of them so we can be safe!” It’s much easier than facing reality, which is that we don’t know who a terrorist is, it could be your wholesome Christian neighbor who one day decides to go on a killing spree for Jesus. The world’s a scary place, and infringing on the rights of a particular group so that you can feign a sense of security doesn’t make you more American. It just makes you less human.