I love interfaith dialogues. The opportunity to discuss religious jurisprudence, gain historical perspectives and most importantly create an open means of communication for healthy discussion are all reasons why I continue to participate in these types of events.
So I when I saw an interfaith being held in D.C titled “The Role of Religious Law in America: Interfaith Perspectives on Islam, Shari’ah and the U.S.,” immediately I knew I wanted to attend. The discussion was held at the National City Christian Church, an intricate and breathtaking site with an atmosphere filled with ease and comfort.
Until it was time for the Q &A.
After an hour long discussion for each speaker to present their cases, a line began to form in the middle of the alley for the audience to eagerly ask questions. “Where are the good Muslims?” the first question began.
“What legal rights do they have?”
“Why do Muslims abroad want to kill us? Do they? Or is that only what the media is telling us?
“How do extreme organizations form?”
Question after question, a pattern emerged for all inquiries pertained to the Muslim faith. However they were all valid question and none were a surprise to me. For the increased level of Islamic ignorance has been steady high. Since the post 9/11 era, those of the Muslim faith, Middle Eastern background or simply those who “looked Muslim” have become a fascination to the world. Islam has become more than just a practice of worship, but it’s formed into an ideology of the “other,” leaving a perplexing and frightening image to those who don’t know much about Islam. And in this case, particularly to those standing in line front of me.
Due to time constraint, the moderator decided we would take the next 4 questions consecutively and the panel would answer them all at once.
“How dare you bring Shari’a law into my country, how can Americans support honor killings?!” shouted the first woman into the microphone followed by a round of applause from her 3 supporters.
“You see this woman,” screaming the next woman waving a flyer in her hand with a photo of a veiled Muslim woman. “She’s oppressed, they’re all oppressed! I have it written here!”
I began to wonder if this group of people was really at the event to ask genuine questions, because so far, it didn’t seem like so. But I didn’t have much time to ponder the situation because suddenly, it was my turn to ask. Followed by a series of attacks on Islam, I had forgotten my question, what was I supposed to say after that? The room fell quiet as I felt the eyes of the audience glare, anxiously waiting for my reaction. The beautiful church that had first welcomed me with such ease was suddenly tense. The audience began to whisper while others were shuffling awkwardly in their seats. The panel stared at me sympathetically. “What perfect timing,” I thought.
“My question may be a bit easier to answer than my predecessors,” I began as the crowd chuckled. I took a moment to absorb my surrounding and looked at the surrounding audience. What did these people really think about Islam? I thought, especially after those statements. How did they anticipate for me to react? It took me a second but then I realized why I was on the mic in the first place. So I took a step forward and began.
“As humans when we don’t fully comprehend something, especially a topic that’s as notorious as Islam, we tend to create a bias in our heads,” I started. “Nit-picking events and quotes that persuade us to think a certain way. Sometimes so much, that we tend to forget the positive aspects of a situation.”
“For example, La Covivencia, or also translated into The Coexistence. This term was used to describe the time period in Spanish history when all 3 Abrahamic religions lived in relative peace during Muslim Umayyad era. This era emphasized the importance of cultural exchange, economic prosperity and most importantly, religious tolerance.”
I looked up to the panel to see them smile. They knew where I was going.
“Now my question is,” I continued, “Living in the 21st century, do you, as leaders in these 3 major faiths, believe that we may create a modern Convivencia where society can live once again in religious coexistence? If we have proven to have done so in the past, is there hope that we can now? And to those people like the organizers of this event, how do you suggest we push forward this coexistence movement?”
I looked up once more to everyone around me. I took in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim audience, some listening attentively, some pitying me and some annoyed with my spiel. I turned to the panel for the last time and added,“because, personally, I’d like to live in peace again.”
My question was never answered because time only allowed for the panels to answer the attacks of those before me. But I wasn’t upset; I wasn’t looking for a particular answer. I wanted to get a point across. I wasn’t at this interfaith to take over America. I didn’t look to implement Shari’a law and I certainly wasn’t oppressed. Like many Muslims around this country, and around the world, we are simply trying to live.
Time passed quickly as the event came to an end. The audience dispersed while others lingered around to recap. I made my way to the long line to personally thank the panel and the organizers of the event. I empathized with the representatives. Inter-faiths are not easy, let alone moderate one that is both controversial yet productively healthy. It was only right to give credit where credit is due.
“When did you come here?” a voice nearby asked firmly.
I turned around to see the woman who was still holding the “oppressed veiled Muslim woman” flyer she had printed.
“I was actually born here,” I replied with a smile.
In disapproval, she frowned. “Well when did your parents come here?”
“My father immigrated from Egypt in the 80s,”
“Why?” she investigated.
“Because like the rest of this country, he wanted to build himself through the American dream and provide his children a better education.”
“So you take advantage of our American education,” the woman smirked. “You can’t even get an education back in your country.”
Our? I thought stunned. Was I not included as an American? Did my American citizenship not extend to my right to become educated?
“I’d like to have you know that I am a proud American,” I replied. “But I’m also an even prouder Muslim. I’m a proud American-Muslim Veiled woman.”
Her eyes glared at my hijab, looking me up and down. She wasn’t happy with my response. Before she could say any more, her friends quickly came to her defense. The one on one conversation quickly transitioned into protestors who were easily my parent’s age in their mid-40s, firing questions at my every direction.
“Why are you trying to bring Shari’a into the U.S” one of them asked.
“I’m not, haven’t you heard of separation of church and state?” I answered.
“This woman is oppressed, she’s veiled and oppressed,” the first woman said angrily.
“I’m veiled, I’m not oppressed. Ask me.” I tried to encourage a friendly conversation
“Why are people dying in the Middle East?” the other one shot back disregarding my every word.
“There’s an uprising in the Arab world, people fighting for freedom, justice and democracy,” I replied.
“Let them die,” said one man.
Silence. “Excuse me?” I asked.
He walked closer. “You know what the best part about this whole thing is. I get to watch all of you kill each other and I don’t have to do anything about it. I just get to sit back and watch.”
I was appalled. The rest of his group was silent while the others smiled.
“That’s murder,” I replied in shock. “You’re telling me you’re pro murder? What happened to thou shalt not kill? Isn’t that one of the 10 Commandants?”
The group fell silent once more and suddenly the environment seemed to change. I couldn’t tell where the rest of the audience was. I felt estranged and alienated.
“Yes. I am pro murder,” the man replied aggressively. “You guys can all annihilate each other until there’s not one of you left on the face of this earth.”
Suddenly I felt twists and turns in my stomach as I stumbled to catch my breath. His words repeated in my head. “Annihilate each other? Sit back and watch? No more Muslims on the face of this Earth?”
No politically accurate term or elaborate vocabulary could describe the overwhelming emotion that hit me. I took a moment to reflect. I was circled by 4 individuals who held such vicious grudges, extravagant misconceptions and cruel stereotypes about not just a religion of 1.6 billion people, but of a complex region of various faiths, political beliefs and cultures.
But these people clearly did not come to learn about Islam. They had an agenda and trying to partake in a dialogue was not one. The questioning turned into attacking. “Muhammad was a pedophile. He was a conquering. You’re anti-Semitic. You’ll always be oppressed.”
And not matter how hard I tried, my every answer did not suffice. “Why do you say that? “ I tried to protest. “What if told you otherwise? Can I get your contact information so that I may explain my points?”
But they didn’t care and abruptly, they “didn’t have time” anymore. They quickly packed up their flyers, their anti-Islamic books and pins and just left. They refused to exchange any information to continue dialogue. Like a high school clique, I watched them as they walked out together lost in conversation.
I staggered behind and sat down to ponder what just occurred. I looked up to high ceilings, the mosaic portraits of Mary and the abundance of the Bibles in every row.
“Thou shalt not kill,” I thought of the sixth commandant. Respectively in the Quran “he who slays a soul…shall be as if he had slain all mankind,” (5;32).
The condoning of murder was inevitably in all three major religions. Just as extremism and ignorance was as equally as prevalent across all faiths. However did these people overlook the basics? Didn’t all of us in the room believe in God? Shouldn’t we all stand up against injustice? Did they forget that I believe in Jesus and Moses too?
A good friend once told me that “the blessings in this world that bring us together are also the curses that drive us apart.” In this case, he seemed to be right. Religion can be a beautiful thing, providing people with an expression of worship, logic to the unexplainable and above all, a guide for a lifestyle. Religion can also sometimes save lives but sometimes it is used as justification for political motives and murder as well.
And although inter-faiths events are aimed for educating one another about each other’s religions, this one has provided me with quite the different perspective. Religion may be perfect, humans aren’t. And that the views of a group or a small percentage of people is not the full representation of the larger scale of a particular faith, whether that is Al-Qaeda or the Klu Klux Klan. Hopefully those individuals come across someone who may open their eyes, and maybe they never will. But for me, the event will always be memorable for I’m still learning and experiencing the world, one moment at a time.