Last night, I was offered an extraordinary opportunity to do something I, a formerly rural, small-town, Methodist-turned-Catholic girl, would never have thought I’d do: I sat in the women’s section of my local mosque and watched as the women engaged in their final prayer session of the night.
This unexpected gift came about thanks to a community forum I attended entitled “How to Oppose Hate,” sponsored by our local Maryland State Delegate Eric Luedtke, our local Muslim Community Center, the Association of Black Democrats of Montgomery County, CASA de Maryland (a local nonprofit serving low-income immigrant communities), the Muslim Democratic Club of Montgomery County, Maryland State Senator Craig Zucker, Maryland Delegate Anne Kaiser, and Maryland Delegate Pam Queen.
Aside from the obvious appeal of the topic, the diversity of the speaker panel is what interested me most; it included Imam Mohamed Abdullahi, Rabbi Ari Sunshine, Reverend Mansfield Kaseman, and community leaders Gabriel Acevero, Hamza Khan, and Delegate Eric Luedtke.
The panel proceeded much as one would expect, with a moderator posing a set of five prepared questions and passing the mic from speaker to speaker, giving each the opportunity to respond. There were many moments of great profundity in their thoughtful, heartfelt replies; below is a sample of what they had to say. With one notable exception involving a speaker using a quote from Audre Lord, which I’m including, I am deliberately not providing individual attributions for these words, because I sensed throughout the evening that these individuals were united in the hope of speaking with one voice:
- Indifference is not morally neutral. Indifference is the ally of hate.
- We need to have more uncomfortable conversations. Hate isn’t solved by hate. Hate is solved by love, and by difficult conversations rooted in love.
- “There’s no thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not lead single-issue lives.” – Audre Lord
- When you don’t vote, you end up on the menu.
- Don’t hate me without knowing me.
- Everything we need to do begins with asking, “How can I help?”
- There is no enemy worse than ignorance.
In all honesty, that last sentence about ignorance–and its polar opposite, curiosity–is what drew me to the forum last night. I have spent nearly four years now, driving past the Muslim Community Center, without ever going in, and judging from comments by other attendees, I was not alone. The MCC sits smack in the middle of a long stretch of numerous faith communities, so many concentrated in this one area, in fact, that Delegate Luedtke referred to the street as the “Highway to Heaven.”
There has been so much media coverage about the administration’s recent attempt at a Muslim travel “ban,” that the plight of the Muslim community has been weighing heavily on my mind. Before anyone gets their undies in a bunch, puffing out their chests with “What about the illegal immigrants’ plight? What about the women’s plight? What about the scourge of anti-Semitism? What about etc., etc., etc.?” Please, refer to the third bullet above.
So–when I saw that the community forum would be held at the Muslim Community Center, with an actual imam on the panel, I knew I wanted to hear what the panel would say.
So how did I, then, wind up watching a prayer service later that evening? Simple: The imam extended a gracious, loving invitation to all those present, and I, curious, accepted. Ignorance may be the enemy, but curiosity is its greatest foe.
But now, I must engage in a little truth-telling, in the vein of that second bullet above, the one about difficult conversations. I learned a lot about myself during my evening at the mosque, and it’s not all stuff I was happy to learn. It’s not ever easy to learn awful truths about yourself, but sometimes, those most difficult conversations are precisely the ones you need the most.
- When I walked to the door of the MCC, my heart was beating harder than it should have been. I was actually nervous. Ignorance is the enemy.
- I arrived a few minutes early, before the room started to fill. As I took my seat in an empty row, I felt unbearably white, as if I had stumbled into a space where I didn’t belong. That discomfort lasted until a member of the mosque, an older gentleman with a broad, loving smile, took my hand and welcomed me, told me how very grateful he was to see me there. Ignorance is the enemy.
- When Imam Abdullahi greeted the crowd—far larger than they’d anticipated, and incredibly diverse—in Arabic, and I heard “inshallah,” I was, I’ll admit, unnerved for a moment. Let me repeat that: A faith leader using a phrase that translates into “God willing” unnerved me. Why? Because it was said in Arabic. Did I know the phrase as an expression of faith? No. Thanks to our post-9/11 culture, where Muslims have been so successfully demonized as our #1 enemy, the only reason I even recognized the phrase was thanks to movies and TV shows where Muslims are so often depicted as terrorists. Ignorance is the enemy.
- When Imam Abdullahi first invited those present to observe the community’s final prayer of the day, I stayed in my seat. I thought horning in on their prayers like the worst American tourist would seem rude and patronizing—would I want a Muslim or a Jew or a Baptist or even another Catholic to come sit next to me during Communion and just sit and watch me pray? It’d be creepy. Ignorance is the enemy.
- But then they extended the invitation a second time. I looked around me and saw others following the faithful out of the community center to the mosque itself. A woman with a lovely floral scarf and one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen beckoned to me to follow her to the women’s area; she seemed so eager to share the experience with us, so gracious and hopeful, I decided to follow her. (I will never know your name, dear woman, but I hope somewhere you hear me thanking you now for your hospitality.) Ignorance is the enemy.
- As I watched the men file off separately, an unbidden and very westernized sentiment welled up in me about how obnoxious and sexist it is that men and women cannot pray together in the Muslim faith. I reminded myself of my status as a guest in their home, and shoved that reaction down where it belonged and entered the foyer. Ignorance is the enemy.
- We removed our shoes and filed in behind the women, to where a large television monitor was mounted to the wall, showing the men’s prayer area. As Imam Abdullahi began to lead the prayer, a couple of men joined the prayers late. When the men began to fumble at the waistbands of their pants, for a moment, the insidious voice of the amygdalic fear fomented so successfully in our country since 9/11, a voice I thought I’d successfully ignored, suddenly began shouting in my ear—What are those men doing? Are they fumbling for the weapons they must surely have hidden there in those very suspicious waistbands? Did they just lure us innocents here for their nefarious purposes? Thankfully, just as quickly as that feeling of fear arose, a louder voice of reason, a voice I’ve long worked to strengthen through education, began shouting the other one down: What the hell is the matter with you? What on earth are you afraid of? Open your eyes, ignoramus, look again. I did, and I saw, with deep chagrin, that the men were just hitching up their pants as they prepared to kneel in prayer, saving us all from a mass incident of plumber’s crack. IGNORANCE IS THE ENEMY.
- I looked back at the women in front of me, as they held out their open hands in prayer. One of the women looked over her shoulder and graced me with a beatific smile I will never forget. The women whispered along in prayer with the men on the monitor, their eyes closed, their faces calm and peaceful. They bowed, they knelt, and they greeted each other with the same love; the same deep, abiding faith; the same feeling of peace and unity I’d seen in my own Catholic masses and Sunday morning church services. In fact, those women praying before me suddenly seemed so familiar to me in the rituals of their faith, they might have been Catholics. They might have been Methodists. They might have been the faithful of any number of different religions around the world. The action of prayer, across all faiths, possesses an immense universality. Our faiths have so much more in common than many of us know, if we’d only take the time to learn. Ignorance is the enemy.
- When that sublime recognition of our oneness welled up in my heart, tears filled my eyes. Tears of gratitude that these gentle, loving brothers and sisters had welcomed me into their most sacred place, at a most sacred time in their day, and shared their faith with us. They didn’t have to do that. Tears also of sadness and frustration that our brothers and sisters feel they do have to justify their presence, their faith, and their traditions to non-Muslims, not simply out of the goodness of their hearts, which is no small thing, but also out of a growing, serious need to combat vicious stereotypes and unjustified fears so insidious, so pernicious, and so pervasive in our post-9/11 culture, that even a woman like me, a woman who believed herself to be completely open-minded and tolerant and accepting walked into a mosque and, no matter how fleeting it was, felt fear before love. This is what we have wrought in our culture of intolerance, and it is what we must all strive to undo. IGNORANCE IS THE ENEMY.
This is the difficult conversation I had with myself last night, and which I share with you, in hopes that it will inspire you to have some of your own. What is holding you back from engaging with others who are different from you? I participated in an extraordinary opportunity last night, offered to me and to all with love and open arms by the Muslim community. It’s easy to consider yourself open-minded and tolerant and accepting because you think you’re saying the right words, or because you can say, “I know some Muslim people, or some blacks, or some gays, or some cops, or some Trump supporters, or some undocumented immigrants, or some refugees, or some women who’ve had abortions.” It’s another thing entirely to examine your own fears and then take the necessary steps to combat them with one of the greatest weapons the human mind possesses—curiosity. Curiosity led me to attend the forum; curiosity ushered me across the threshold; curiosity drew me to witness a faithful, loving, peaceful group of women at prayer, and it changed me.
It was an extraordinary experience, one that perhaps, were we living in less extraordinary times, may not have moved me so deeply. I hope with all my heart that moments like these, where we reach out to engage with and embrace others who, on the surface seem so different, will someday become less extraordinary, become instead ordinary, unremarkable. I hope that someday we will finally understand how much more alike we are than we are different. It starts with each one of us taking that first step. If we do not now have the difficult conversations with ourselves about our own deepest fears, intolerance, and ignorance, how can we ever hope to prevail in the difficult conversations we must now have, as communities and as a nation, with others who are afraid because they are ignorant, uneducated, ill-informed, or, perhaps worst of all, incurious? This important work begins inside each of us, alone.
I urge you to follow your curiosity, to actively begin stepping outside of your comfort zone. Don’t just be a mindless sheep, following only what the media or other people tell you, not even me. Go and see for yourselves, I urge you. It will make all the difference in your perspective. Learn about other faiths, engage with people from other communities, from other backgrounds. Don’t let your fears dictate your behavior. Ask questions, show up, be a part of their world, and invite them to be part of yours–because really, it’s never been about “my world” and “their world.” It’s always been “our world.”