Getting to Know My Muslim Neighbors
While driving today, I passed a banner outside a Muslim mosque promoting an “Open House” later in the day. As a graduate student in counseling with courses in Diversity and Religious Perspectives as part of my program, I decided to visit to learn more about Islam directly from the source, especially amid the current national environment of fear, misinformation, rhetoric and propaganda about the religion based on the 1,400-year-old Qur’an.
I’m glad I did.
Non-Muslims came to talk to the mosque’s Muslim “guides,” ask questions and observe a prayer session. It was encouraging just to see the interaction and effort toward greater understanding at the Dar Al Taqwa mosque, which, translated, means “The Home of Consciousness” or “The Home of God-Fearing People.”
My “guide,” a Baltimore pediatrician and Pakistan native, explained that Muslims pray five times daily, as a way to observe their belief that their God (Allah) sets the path and that their mission in life is to act as servants of God. Even during his medical training, he found the time and space he needed to observe his prayer ritual – it was that vital to his life.
My shoes left outside the sanctuary, I watched a group of about 35 males in a line, led by one man, in silent prayer for about 10 minutes, except for the brief utterances of the leader. The males alternately stood, bowed and kneeled with their heads near the floor. My guide later told me that the males were mentally reciting verses from the Qur’an.
After the prayer session, I asked my guide some probing and sensitive questions. Why were there no women praying with the men, I wondered. My guide explained that it was true that Muslim men and women were separated in some ways and roles in Islam, including in the ritual of prayer. However, separateness was not an indication of superiority or inferiority, the doctor said. American Muslim women have professional lives just like the men, and are relied upon to determine the future of their families and serve in other specific roles.
I asked his view of the typical American’s lack of understanding of Islam. He responded that Muslims take it as a challenge to try to educate Americans of different religious backgrounds about the tenets of Islam, which he said can be described in three words: peace, love and service.
The reason the mosque holds open houses every few months is to dispel misconceptions through face-to-face meetings.
We discussed whether the doctor believes that Muslims are integrated into American life and viewed as contributors to society, acknowledging that some view Muslims as a faction separate and apart. The doctor noted that he treats about 5,000 kids – the vast majority non-Muslim – in his practice, including many low-income, vulnerable children that other doctors won’t accept for insurance reimbursement reasons. His sons were born in the United States and attend schools with American, non-Muslim classmates. One son joked with me that his non-Muslim classmates would remind him and encourage him when it was time to pray. Muslims are our neighbors, work colleagues and classmates, and believe, on the whole, in giving, contributing and neighborliness, the doctor said.
Finally, we got down to brass tacks: the fear, paranoia and hatred inspired by terrorist attacks around the world committed under the guise of Islam, and the political rhetoric leading to a deep distrust, rampant misconceptions and misguided fear among many of anything Muslim. The doctor didn’t mince words. He said widespread “ignorance” is apparent. When people demonstrate “hate” toward Muslims, it is the responsibility of Muslims to “show them love and respond with compassion.” I offered that his response sounded like the teaching of Martin Luther King, Jr. The doctor and his son laughed, telling me that King incorporated ideas from the Qur’an in his philosophy.
Terrorists do not express Islam the way that he and the more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide understand and practice Islam, the doctor emphasized.
The doctor acknowledged that Muslim children have suffered at times in school and other phases of life because of perceptions and generalized anger directed toward Muslims. Girls and women who wear hijabs have been especially identifiable targets.
I have to admit: I can be influenced like anyone else by messages delivered by politicians and the media and knowledge of evil acts committed under the banner of Islam, to think there is something subversive and dangerous about Muslims. I have to fight against unfounded stereotyping.
Attending the mosque’s open house crystallized for me that you can’t paint any religion or culture with a broad brush based upon distant, hyperbolic perceptions. Real dialog, personal observation and a seeking to learn and understand is a more rational and productive way to form judgments. Americans of all cultural, ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds would be well-served to take such an approach in this era of powder-keg emotions and reactions.