A few days ago a drama of sorts erupted around a plan to build a mosque in Mukilteo. The waterfront city located north of Seattle in the State of Washington is home to a large Boeing plant, and the population of around 20,000 residents has one of the highest median incomes in the country. The outcry from a section of the community in response to a Muslim group's proposal to build a mosque is a familiar story of fear and polarization.
The opposition appears to be headed by Peter Zieve, owner of an aerospace engineering plant with ties to Boeing. He initiated a city-wide mass-mailing campaign with a return address of Mukilteostaysafe @gmail.com. Zieve and his supporters cautioned residents to understand the dangers of a mosque in their midst, warning that mosques are known to spawn extremists.
Local Muslim organizations saw this as a case of Islamophobia and reacted angrily. They have asked Boeing to sever its relationship with Electroimpact and demanded an apology from Peter Zieve. The story is still unfolding. Stay tuned.
Within this story, there are other stories that need to be told. These are the stories that are occurring all over America. Every event of bias and prejudice is countered by actions of people of courage and goodwill seeking to create healing and reconciliation. These stories offer us inspiration, hope and challenges.
It turns out that the greatest opposition to Peter Zieve's prejudice has been mounted by his own sister, Wendy Zieve. Wendy has offered public apologies to the Muslim community and has declared her whole-hearted support for the building of the mosque. She has publicly decried her brother's history of deep-pocket financial support for extreme right-wing causes. In spite of pressures from various sources to keep a low profile, she is speaking publicly and forming interfaith alliances to block her brother's initiative. In a talk at Interfaith Community Sanctuary, Wendy explained that both her parents were lifelong progressive activists and she is devastated that her family name is being tarnished. Zieve is a Hebrew word that means "brilliant" or "splendorous" and is an adjective for Divinity. In a recent action, Wendy has challenged the ethics committee of the synagogue where Peter worships to explain why they accept his large donations when they know that he supports causes that are contrary to the Synagogue's values and principles.
Wendy's actions are a model of the moral courage that is so imperative in a time when we are beset by polarization on every front. Whether in economic inequity, political nastiness, religious intolerance, racial injustice, or environmental degradation, to mention just a few of our ills, we urgently need to stand up for justice, compassion, and right action in the face of opposition from powerful vested interests. The Quran says, "O you who have attained to faith! Always be steadfast in upholding justice, bearing witness to the truth for God's sake, even though it may be against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person be rich or poor, God's claim takes precedence over the claims of either" (4:135). How many of us have the capacity to live this Quranic injunction as Wendy Zieve is doing in her speeches and actions? I readily confess that I do not. Wendy's courage has inspired me and our community to articulate and live our truths more fully and not lapse into what Sufis call "truth of convenience."
Religious Literacy and Human Connection
Paul Kramer, a longtime resident of Mukilteo, is utilizing this situation to address two issues: the urgent need in the Mukilteo community to expand awareness of Islam and the essential work of connecting with others on a human level, especially those with whom he disagrees. He spoke recently about the need to compassionately acknowledge and embrace the fears some residents feel about Muslims and Islam. It is important not to be dismissive of their distrust. But collaboratively, he explained, we can move beyond our suspicions and uncertainties through education and human bonding. This work requires time, patience, humility, and sincerity. He has already formed a group with Mukilteo residents who are committed to creating long-term programs of education and friendship.
Paul's emphasis on community education is a powerful example of Mahatma Gandhi's insight that to create peace and harmony in a multi-religious society, it is the sacred duty of every individual to have an appreciative understanding of other people's faith traditions. I am inspired to ask myself the following: If I as a Muslim want others to learn about "real" Islam, what am I doing in my family and community to have an appreciative understanding of faith traditions of non-Muslims?
Listening to Wendy and Paul, I realize that the best way to overcome demonization is to create a sincere human connection with the other. The Quran emphasizes that God has created diversity of languages, colors, nations and religions so that we might "come to know the other" (49:13). To help us understand that this critical work is not easy, the Holy Book also reveals, "We have made some of you to be a trial for others--will you have patience?"(25:20). Maybe we can develop spiritual muscles to do this difficult but essential work by starting to connect on a human level with those in our own extended family with whom we have angry differences over politics and religion. There is no need to spar over differences. We can bond by sharing human stories. The poet Muriel Rukeyser reminds us that the universe is made out of stories, not atoms.
Graciousness and Generosity
A local Muslim woman, in a mass mailing to Muslims, insists that we deal with the situation in an "Islamic fashion." To counter Peter Zieve's postcard campaign, she suggests that Muslims send postcards to him using words that reflect graciousness and generosity. We are asked to meet fear with love. Her postcard reads, "Looking forward to a long and cordial association! Come visit the masjid after it's built--you'll be most welcome! Peace." She has challenged our community to reflect deeply on a Qur'anic revelation that we quote frequently but find it very difficult to enact: "Repel the evil deed with the one that is better. Then lo! He with whom you shared enmity will become as he was a bosom friend (41:34)."
Behavior and Being
A local Muslim leader, Aziz Junejo, a person of peace and wisdom, is currently mediating between Peter Zieve and organizers of the mosque group to create healing and solutions. In his talks with the two groups, Aziz is meticulous about not censuring Peter personally, always making a distinction between Peter's behavior and being. From a spiritual perspective, this is highly significant. Our behaviors may sometimes be unacceptable, but our being--our essence--is sacred. Each of us contains a divine spark, which the Quran describes as "breath of God." Honoring this discernment between behavior and being as we take the right action has the power to shift heaven and earth. The 16th century mystic Kabir advises us that in a hostile situation we need to do what is right. Protect yourself. Don't allow yourself to be abused. But as you take the right action, please do not keep the adversary's being out of your heart.
We are asked to seek justice but to temper it with mercy and courtesy of the heart. When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was urged by hot-headed members of his community to curse his enemies, he replied, "I have not been sent to curse people but as a mercy to humankind."
Circle of Love
The Interfaith Association of Northwest Washington based in Everett is collaborating with other houses of worship in the area, including Peter's synagogue, to hold regular suppers "to replace fear with understanding."
The key word here is "regular." A primary complaint about intermittent interfaith gatherings is that everyone is on best behavior and the talk is "absurdly nice," but once people go home, they once again begin to see Muslims as terrorists, Christians as liars, and Jews as occupiers. Only through frequent gatherings can a spark of friendship grow between people with differing theologies and points of view. Once a friendship blossoms, our differences, no matter how stark, no longer loom as a threat. Very often these same friendships lead to collaboration in projects of social justice and earth care, furthering our recognition that we are all children of the same God, caring for the Creation that we all share.
Let us leave the last words of advice to the 13th sage Rumi. He implores us to "Come out of the Circle of Time and enter the Circle of Love." He goes on to exclaim, "O God You have created this I, you, we, they, to play the game of adoration with Yourself."
We simply have no choice but to do the inner work of moving beyond our polarizing egos and find creative ways to fulfill God's plan for us to acknowledge, honor, and celebrate diversity.
View YouTube video:
Mukilteo Mosque Controversy- Wendy Zieve, Imam Jamal Rahman, and Paul Kramer