The Real Muslim Problem

There's lots of talk about the "Muslim Problem" in the U.S. and abroad. Generally, I find that framing troubling. But recently some very ordinary experiences made me realize that there actually is what I can only call the real Muslim problem.

As I was driving to work on a recent Friday, I reflected on my week and several unrelated conversations -- only to realize that they were all connected. Though each experience (an e-mail, an event and a meeting about a program) was distinct, together they provided a chilling reminder of how many people in the U.S. view Muslims and those believed to be Muslim.

Early that week, I heard about bombings in Afghanistan, yet again. The news was about how the Taliban is ramping up its annual "Spring Offensive" in that war-torn country, targeting foreign invaders, their advisors, and all who help them militarily and in intelligence. Among their targets was Kabul, near the home of Jamila Afghani.

Jamila, a woman who is very dear to me, is becoming known for her peacebuilding efforts and for being one of Tanenbaum's Peacemakers in Action. She sacrifices much to do this work, willingly taking risks to pursue a dream of peace. Despite her achievements in working toward peace, this year's Taliban "Spring Offensive" struck close to home. When I heard about the bloodshed in Kabul, I reached out to connect and offer whatever support I could, as a person living freely, and ultimately far more safely, in New York City. Jamila's e-mail response speaks for itself:

Dear Joyce,

Thank you very much for the email in this hard time and severe conditions, where once again our hearts shake and it appears how untrusted the situation in our city is. My son was on the way to home from school and was trapped in the gunfire. His school is located near a shipper where the Taliban fighters started attacks from under a construction building.

My husband was on his way to Kabul from Jalalabad where he conducted a peace and reconciliation training for the community, and was trapped in the cross fire in Pulcharki. I was on the way for a meeting.

It has really become horrible. Terrorists reached our doors and can do anything at any time -- we just depend on our luck.

We peacemakers do lots of efforts for small positive change, but these terrorists change the entire scenario in minutes. Believe me there is no peace of mind, no satisfaction of heart even for a minute.

We need your prayers.

Jamila's son is 7 years old.

Here in the United States, we hear next to nothing about people like Jamila, who are moved by their religious beliefs to seek peace. Jamila is a devout Muslim whose programs teach Imams in Afghanistan how to promote respect for women in their sermons using texts from the Quran.

We don't know the Jamilas of the world, but we do hear about the Taliban, their brutal tactics, and how they are targeting our own forces. When reading about the Afghanistan war, many people begin to conflate all Muslims with the radicals that we hear about on a daily basis. But what about this wonderful woman and her family and friends, who use Islam as a rich resource to promote peace? Don't they deserve a place in our public consciousness?

Within days of receiving Jamila's e-mail, I attended a celebration of interfaith projects. While there, I spoke with several people. In two instances, I found that the person with whom I was speaking was openly stating views different from mine, but ones that they seemingly expected me to share. One of the speakers was a member of the Jewish community. The other was a Hindu woman.

The gentleman, someone I have known for years, readily told me how there are entire regions of the world from which he had never met a trustworthy Muslim (i.e., I'm pretty sure he would not trust Muslims from Afghanistan). The woman was a stranger, and she wanted to know whether I had problems with any particular religious group in my work (I said no). She then spoke passionately about a viral video she had just seen. It showed a fully covered Muslim woman in Britain vehemently condemning Western women's immodesty. My fellow attendee went on to express fear that Muslims intend to take over and force their ways on the West. I gently pointed out that no one individual can fully represent all the over 1 billion people who follow Islam.

But, as ever, there was more to learn. The next day, I met with a woman who is organizing an upcoming Shaykha Fest being held this June in New Jersey. Because of my work, I have familiarity with a good number of religious traditions, but I had been unaware of the Shaykhas in Islam, who they are and what they are doing to change their religious community worldwide. Shaykhas are female Islamic scholars or women who study Islamic sacred texts. The upcoming Shaykha Fest honors the legacy of such women and draws attention to the future of female Islamic scholarship by bringing together contemporary female scholars, thinkers and activists from around the world. This celebration of life and learning is part of what it is to be a Muslim in the modern world.

I could not help but be struck by the contrast. One day, the conversation is about a woman in a hijab who pursues peace in the face of the Taliban. The next it is about a man who stereotypes millions of Muslims because they come from a particular part of the world and a woman in a burqa who invokes fear. And then, it is about an event that celebrates women, scholarship and faith in Islam.

As I drove into work that Friday, I thought about Jamila, the people at the celebration, and the Shaykha Fest. So many lessons learned and re-learned.

For one, I was again reminded of the vast diversity among the followers of Islam and, indeed, of every religion. Within each tradition, there are faithful who worship differently and no one individual can ever represent the breath of belief and practice within the community.

Secondly, I also saw the power of fear, the dangers of turning generalizations into stereotypes, and the perils of hatred. These are the forces of division, if we give in to them.

And finally, I saw just how much we have to learn about one another. Then it struck me: the real Muslim problem is that we're so uninformed about each other and so often swayed by misinformation Imagine what would happen if we all practiced respectful curiosity and learned about each other -- including our American Muslim neighbors.

Isn't it time to get started?

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