I Am — Part 1
by Matthew J. Sutherland
United States tensions are high. Protests fill the streets, City council meetings no longer have enough room for their constituents, and States are suing the Federal government. The outrage in response to President Trump’s Executive Order dictating a travel ban against several countries has been massive, to say the least. Between campaign rhetoric and actions, it is blatantly apparent there is sizeable population in our own country that harbors negative attitudes towards Muslims, and brands them with labels that they do not fit while simultaneously exalting our “melting pot” culture. This has morphed into a culture of illogical fear that has been weaponized against those we decide are too different. The first attempt at a sweeping “Muslim Ban” has so far not fared well in courts (which today, is the primary defense against discriminatory policy as Congress and top executive personnel have misplaced their personal courage) but we should expect a second attempt. Muslims have been targeted by both rhetoric and policy from the leaders of the current administration.
The best way of humanizing others is to meet them, to speak with them, and know them as more than the one dimensinal archetype portrayed to us. I hope to share a positive experience of an interfaith gathering I attended a bit ago, to show how artificial the barriers we’ve created really are.
The Muslim communities I have been around have shown me nothing but love, and I want to share that experience with all of you.
* * * * *
I was quite late.
My good friend, Mohamed Salem, invited me to an open house for the local Pullman mosque and I had seen the invite later than I wish I had. I drove past the parking lot. To my surprise, there was a line snaking out of the mosque and the parking lot was packed. Walking a few blocks after finding a place for the car, I stood in this behemoth of a line that made me feel like I was buying tickets to a concert. I took my first steps inside and already I could hear a speaker’s voice echo through the hall amid the murmurs of people gathering around as they shuffled to make room for others.
I stepped from the hard wood onto the carpet and my friend came up to me to deliver an ear to ear grin and a giant hug.
“Oh man, I’m so glad you made it!”
Mohammed and I had a relationship that developed outside of class during rallies and protests. He is not shy with his opinions, and is very open about his experiences. At a Black Lives Matter rally, I recall one of the lines of his speech, “As an Arab-American, I understand what it is like to be discriminated against” and pointed out the intersectionality of the people that movement could help. He has often described to me that he sometimes has felt like an outsider. Sometimes he has felt alone. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to have what seemed like an entire city crammed into this mosque, in a show of unity, love, and support.
I was about to step off and maneuver myself through to see the speaker but Mohamed stopped me, and informed me I needed to take my shoes off. I look back and of course I missed the entrance having two walls of shoe racks on it. I wasn’t supposed to have stepped onto the carpet yet.
For what felt like ages, I struggled to take my tightly fitted, high top converses off. I wrestled with a knot, and remembered the giant line that was being held up behind me. Oh man, did I feel like a jackass.
I, however, didn’t feel judged, and a woman with a giant smile, wearing a majestically decorated dress and head covering, delivered me a small Styrofoam box, and assured me I was okay. Inside this box were some of the most magical pastries I’ve ever eaten. The Egyptian dessert, Baklavah, was a flakey pastry with nuts, drizzled with a rich orange flavored honey that instantly sent me to heaven. I was dazzled by another treat that was a sweet bread with what tasted like a cream cheese filling and I swear I will never feel complete until I track down that recipe.
Everyone greeted me like a member of a family.
The mosque was relatively small, or perhaps the crowd was abnormally large. The main area was like a small conference room, and there were tight rows of chairs and people sat in empty spaces like sand finding its way through a bowl of rocks. An upper balcony seated others.
“I want to feel like a Muslim in this country can do anything, and be anything.”
I caught the tail end of a speech by Dr. Asif J. Chaudhry, a retired U.S. Ambassador and current Vice-President of International Programs at Washington State University.
He was right in the middle of an anecdote. Through teary eyes, and a small crack in his voice, he told us about how much it meant that leaders of Jewish organizations had said to him that if it ever came down to it, and a registry of Muslims became a requirement, that they would register, too.
If any show of unity was ever timely, this was it.
End Of Part 1