Overcoming Bigotry With Grace

I attended a gathering at Duke University last month to listen to Cemalnur Sargut's lecture about the Sufi understanding of Islam through the teachings of it's great master Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. It was a mesmerizing two-hour session of listening to the Sufi perspective of Islam on divine love with her embracing attitude and heartwarming soft voice. She explained an alternative way of life in the Sufi view and Islamic spirituality -- namely, that "knowledge is a state to be practiced and worship is a journey toward love" for solutions to today's problems.

The following morning I woke up to yet another frustrating piece of news about an incident of perceived Islamophobia in the United States. A California mother refused to let her son complete a seventh-grade history assignment on Islam and sent back a threatening message to his teacher. I'm not sure why the mother became so angry about the homework assignment as it simply asked students to name the "five pillars" of Islam and to summarize Islamic beliefs and practices. Tara Cali, of Bakersfield, uploaded a photo of the worksheet to Facebook and boom! It went viral. Thank you social media for bringing our attention to such issues and giving us a platform through which to respond.

Should I describe it as "frustrating"? Should I still be frustrated by such news? Maybe I shouldn't because these types of incidents have become so common and I have written about them repeatedly. However, right after a love-filled lecture about how compassionate and graceful Islam is, this incident was not a good surprise at all.

First, generally speaking, students in many states in the US, and not only in California, learn about different belief systems as part of world history. This has been part of the school curriculum for at least the past 20 years. I remember helping a neighbor's children in New York and New Jersey on assignments like these when googling wasn't possible. I now understand that I was lucky to have neighbors who saw this as an opportunity for them and their children to learn about different religions, faith traditions and cultures in society.

This incident shows us one more time that ignorance is not bliss all the time. It doesn't hurt to learn about one another. I am not going to question the California mother's pathetic act and shallow world view. I pity her and I'm truly sorry for her son. And I don't even want to imagine how confused he feels about the situation.

However, as a mother of another seventh grader who has chosen to live her life based on her faith tradition and raise her children with Islamic values, I feel obligated to speak up. Yes, speaking up is a moral responsibility for Muslims. Yes, we should play an active role in fighting the lack of knowledge around us. As a minority -- comprising 1.5 percent of the population -- with limited resources, Muslims nevertheless have a voice in America. That said, it is not only the responsibility of the Muslims to present themselves and their values but also of others to listen and comprehend. We are all responsible for getting to know each other, but breaking someone else's prejudices is not possible without their cooperation. As a good Christian, that mother should have known that it is her responsibility to love her neighbor. I wonder, how can she love them if she doesn't even want to get to know them?

Islamophobes are everywhere

Three years ago on a hot August day when I saw a sign saying "We are not Muslims, we are Sikhs" at a gas station in Montclair, New Jersey, where I purchase my gas from time to time, I was very shocked. When I asked "Why?" the answer was even more awful. The owner told me they did not want to be mistaken for Muslims who had become a target after 9/11. Unfortunately, they have a point: Many Sikh men were attacked by ignorant racist Islamophobes because they wore turbans and had a beard and dark skin similar to some Muslims.

On the other hand, most Americans grieve for the lives of those who have been affected by discriminatory violence. We remembered the need for that last August again because it was the third anniversary of the tragic Oak Creek, Wisconsin attack. Army veteran Wade Michael Page killed six innocent worshippers and injured several others on Aug. 5, 2012 at a Sikh temple. The attack is treated as a hate crime and is considered by the FBI to be domestic terrorism. The incident I mentioned at the gas station was after this brutal attack. At that time even Sikh authorities were making unfortunate statements such as "We are peaceful people, not militant Muslims."

Everybody talks about them but we still don't know who those "militant Muslims" are. Kelly James Clark from Brooks College and the Kaufman Interfaith Institute declares that according to the most current figures of Shooting Tracker, the most credible crowdsourced mass shooting tracker in the world, there was only one mass shooting committed by a Muslim out of the suspects who were identified. Still, somehow not only in the US but everywhere in the Western world, people firmly believe that most terrorists are Muslims.

Clark who did a study on the issue, blames the media for that false belief. In his study, Clark found that when the attackers are Muslim, the media identifies them as "Islamic terrorists" without any confirmation from the authorities, but when they are non-Muslim, their religions are never mentioned and they mostly claim the mass shooters were suffering from some sort of mental instability. He indicates that from 1980-2005, 94 percent of terrorist acts on U.S. soil were perpetrated by non-Muslims and according to Europol reports, from 2007-2009 more than 99 percent of terrorist attacks in Europe were by non-Muslims.

Love is the bridge between you and everything
~Rumi

Those incidents are good reminder of Ms. Sargut's answer when asked, "How can we still love someone whose heart is full of hate for us, who oppresses us and treats us unjustly?" Sargut narrated a hadith that we believe the Prophet Muhammad said: "Only Satan remains silent against injustice." Commenting on this, she said, "So we have to speak up and fight back, but protect our hearts from hating -- because hate will turn our hearts into a hell. But if we keep our heart loving, it will be a paradise." When our hearts are in paradise, we gain a positive energy from it, and we exude its beauty to make the world a better place. Everything happens for a reason. I think it was great timing for me to remember this principle in order to keep my heart calm and pure.

At a time when never-ending bigotry is overwhelming us, we should keep reminding ourselves and others that it doesn't matter how ugly the idea we are dealing with is, we should always do everything with grace and good manners. There will be more unfortunate incidents such as this letter, or what the young inventor Ahmed Mohamed faced last month. We'll hear more unpleasant declarations from politicians like Ben Carson, Donald Trump and others as the presidential election approaches, but we'll continue to do the right thing and in the proper manner.

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