When I found out people were gathering outside a mosque in a nearby city to rally in support of Muslims, I called my next door neighbor to ask if it was the same mosque she attends. She told me she goes to the one closer to our house (just five minutes away). Since it was Friday, the day of their worship, she asked if I would like to go with her. I was surprised by her invitation, assuming that only Muslims could enter the mosque. I have always been curious what it’s like inside. I remember going to a mosque in Johor Bahru in Malaysia years ago but we weren’t allowed to enter hence I’ve always assumed that non-Muslims could never enter a mosque.
I came up with an idea to organize an event, granted a permission given by the imam, to allow us to observe them during the prayer service. Given today’s political climate and anti-Muslim rhetoric used in election campaigns (also manifested from Trump’s initial executive order barring anyone coming from seven Islamic countries to enter the United States), it is imperative for Americans to gain a better understanding of Islam, perhaps the most misunderstood religion.
The following Friday, with help from three other women, the East Plano Islamic Mosque has graciously permitted us to observe their prayer service, followed by a Q&A with the imam. I was hoping this event would give us a more nuanced view of Islam and of America’s Muslim citizens.
This is my personal challenge #2
There were about 30-40 people gathered outside the mosque when my best friend, Clara, and I arrived. Much to my surprise, a reporter from the Dallas Morning News was also among the crowd. She asked who the organizer was and they pointed her over to me. In the interview, she asked what inspired me to organize this event. I told her it started from a comment on Facebook from an old acquaintance who was convinced that because of Sharia Law, it isn’t possible for Islam to be a peaceful religion. She then posted links of articles with absurd claims about Sharia Law just to validate her point. Since I wasn’t adept on this topic and I didn’t want to rely on the internet for information, I thought the best way to get first hand knowledge on the subject is by hearing it from a reliable source, someone who’s well versed on the Qur’ān, that’s no other than the imam himself.
The interview was cut short when a couple of women in hijab invited us to enter the mosque. They showed us the cubby holes where we tucked away our shoes and then asked all the female guests to follow them upstairs. The men stayed behind on the main floor where they prayed separately from the women.
The Imam appeared on the television screen. He began his prayers with a beautiful chant then spoke in Arabic for the actual prayer. After the prayer, he began his sermon by first welcoming all the visitors. He then talked about the plight of Muslims in the United States (and the rest of the world). There were three important aspects he discussed. First, despite the negative perception on Muslims, he reminded them that the backlash they have experienced in the past years is miniscule when compared to African-Americans who have lived with racism their whole lives. He stressed on the importance of keeping a stronger faith. Therefore, Muslim husbands should not be embarrassed when their wives wear hijab and to stop prohibiting them from wearing it in public. Second, he mentioned about the significance of being proactive in the community, to help out and volunteer at charitable organizations. Third, to be always appreciative and grateful of the people who are speaking out for them. And to make sure they thank those who are showing up for racial justice.
After the prayer service, we were all directed to a room on the main floor where the Q&A with the imam would take place. Everyone was very accommodating and hospitable, they even had snacks prepared for us. During the Q&A, the imam explained to us what Sharia Law meant. It means a “path to God, a way of life.” It can also be described as ‘Islamic law’. However, Sharia states that Muslims must be loyal to the laws of their country of residence (American Muslims must follow the US constitution). A Muslim who is observant to Islam will (unknowingly) adhere to Sharia Law, and surprisingly most Muslims do not know (or have heard) of Sharia Law. Not even the imam himself. The first time he’d heard of Sharia Law was from American politicians (who often referred to it to demonize Islam).
Also, unbeknownst to many of us, the Muslims in this particular community are actively volunteering in charitable causes. Many of them volunteer at the North Texas Food Bank, they also have a free clinic offering medical care to everyone (not just Muslims) who can’t afford healthcare, and also shelters battered women in the Dallas metroplex area. But we will never hear about it in the mainstream media because they are not newsworthy.
The Facebook acquaintance I mentioned in the interview still refuses to accept that Islam is a peaceful religion after I had posted my experience at the mosque and even berated my efforts. “I find it ironic how interested and tolerant you are of a faith that has produced such extremism. However you are so quick to judge those that take an alternative viewpoint in America. A viewpoint that conflicts with yours but that viewpoint doesn’t involve murder, killing cutting off heads because you’re gay, chopping off your hand because you stole something or killing your children because they dated outside the faith,”she wrote on her comments. “I would love it if you could exhibit a little more tolerance with the conservative viewpoint. We are nowhere near as extreme as you claim us to be.”
It is ironic that she demanded for me to ‘exhibit tolerance’ when she herself wouldn’t do it. I told her my objective in organizing the event was not to refute her conservative viewpoint but to shed some light on the religion and the people. Nearly half of Americans have an unfavorable view of Islam, often equating the religion with terrorism. This perception makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that the majority of mainstream Muslims hate terrorism and violence as much as we do. But my explanations fell on deaf ears. Everyone was invited to this event but unfortunately the people who couldn’t tolerate different religions and cultures, the ones who should have attended the event, didn’t. This person, in particular, would rather embrace ignorance. Sadly, you can’t open someone’s eyes when the mind is closed. I doubt it if she has any Muslim friends. Because if she did, she wouldn’t think that way. I’ve had many Muslim friends since I was in college and as I mentioned, our neighbors are Lebanese-Palestinians. Abir is a great cook and often sent us huge plates of her delicious Lebanese cooking. When my son became sick, she took care of us, sending foods to our house on a weekly basis. It was great to come home from the hospital and be fed with a delicious meal, a good break from eating at the hospital for days.
Since then my Facebook acquaintance has unfriended me on Facebook. But there was no love lost there…I haven’t missed her one bit.
A couple of weeks later, my husband, I, and approximately a hundred or more Americans, were back at the mosque to welcome refugees. As of lately, Trump has once again issued a new Executive order, halting all refugees from entering the United States. One friend had lamented that she no longer recognizes the America she grew up with.
Neither do I and this is why we need to keep fighting in bringing back the America we once knew, the one who welcomes and fully embraces immigrants. The America that has always been great!
P.S. If you are interested in showing your support to your Muslim neighbors and would like to organize an event similar to this, most of the mosques are very welcoming to outsiders. It only takes one phone call!
I wrote about some of my goals for 2017 (such as reading more books, writing more often, daily meditation, etc.) and also personal challenges that would hopefully include 12 adventures—new places and/or new experiences:
1) going to a new place, by plane, train, automobile or even on foot, and not necessarily far from where I live. AND/OR
2) by experiencing something new, something I have never done before—whether taking a class for personal growth, learning a new craft, or participating in something within the community.