In 2002, Highlights magazine published an article that explained the Muslim observance of Ramadan. It happened to be the year after 9/11, but we'd been looking for a good article about Ramadan long before those tragic events. Highlights has a long history of teaching children about different cultures through stories and pictures.
To no one's surprise, we received some complaints and a few cancellations over "Hungry, Happy Ramadan" --but we received many more positive letters and e-mails from Muslims and non-Muslims alike. One of my favorite e-mails came from a non-Muslim mother who told us how her children immediately ran next door when they found this story in their magazine, delighted to show their Muslim neighbors the article and discuss what they'd read. One subscriber wrote to us and thanked us for helping her children feel less isolated. Another Muslim mother told us that she and her children made a menorah described on our craft pages, and how she used the activity to talk to her kids about Jewish customs. We felt that we'd had some success in helping Highlights readers of all faiths gain an appreciation for the ways of others.
Soon thereafter, the Ohio Chapter of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) invited me and a marketing colleague to attend a dinner at a community center with nearly two hundred American Muslims. We were among a small handful of non-Muslim guests at Iftar, the nightly feast that breaks the day-long fast Muslims observe during the month of Ramadan. The organization wanted to thank Highlights for publishing "Hungry, Happy Ramadan," which they thought helped improve relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Honored, we accepted their invitation.
But to be honest, I felt a little nervous about going. The horrific events of 9/11 were still fresh in our minds. Further, at that time, I had not personally known any Muslims. And I couldn't remember ever attending a large event where I was one in a very small minority--conspicuously different. I felt better when we were greeted warmly by the host, and led to a table of Muslims who were waiting to break their fast.
Seated next to me was a Muslim woman who appeared to feel as ill at ease as I did. A teacher by profession, she seemed most comfortable explaining the meaning behind the evening's activities: the ritual breaking of the day's fast with water and figs, the imam's call to prayer in Arabic, the prayers of the faithful kneeling on the floor facing the direction of Mecca. But after that, we struggled a bit to converse. After all, we were complete strangers with very different backgrounds.
But then her young sons, both Highlights readers, appeared on the scene. The joy and pride in her face were unmistakable as she first embraced and then introduced her children. In almost no time, she and I were easily chatting about all the things I talk about with all my friends: balancing career and motherhood, working with our children's schools, and coping with the scary post-9/11 world. After a while, I noticed that I was no longer distracted by the scarf that hid her hair and framed her face, or the traditional dress that skimmed the tops of her shoes. I was thinking only about how much I was enjoying getting to know her. We clearly shared the same priorities--faith and family--as well as a fervent hope for a better world where children can grow up safe and strong and free to become their best selves.
The experience left me forever changed.
Since then, I've had the pleasure of getting to know several American Muslims, and I am better for it. Today, I have less patience with stereotypes and more interest in understanding people who, on the surface, seem very different from me. I focus less on our differences and more on the many ways we are alike. And finally, I'm better able to role model for our children tolerance and understanding--important because, as one reader wrote to us, "The kids of today will be tomorrow's leaders, so they should know about the cultures of others." Out of the mouths of babes, as they say.
But with the recent terrorist attacks, and the resulting, widespread feelings of fear, uncertainty, and, in some quarters, suspicion of people who don't seem to be enough "like us," I'm reminded that sensitivity to others doesn't come in one big epiphany, but rather in a series of small exposures to the ideas of respect and tolerance. May we--and our children--be fortunate enough to experience the small, personal exposures that can change us--and, ultimately, the world.