SHAFAQNA – Robert Azzi lives in Exeter New Hampshire. An Arab American Muslim, he writes on Islam, identity and conflict. Information on “Ask a Muslim Anything” and an archive of his writing can be found at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.
“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land,” wrote President George Washington to Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue in 1790, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Today, as a child of the “Stock of Abraham,” as a Muslim whose faith tradition traces to Prophet Abraham and as a first-generation American, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric I see in the United States. I’ve become increasingly distressed by witnessing individual and institutional actions that attempt to marginalize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise America’s diverse community of Muslims.
To counter such un-American sentiments, and following the model of itinerant Methodist ministers—circuit-riders who journeyed from town-to-town preaching the Gospel in the 18th and 19th centuries—I’ve been traveling across New Hampshire and Massachusetts as an itinerant Muslim, from one public library, church and retirement community to the next, engaging with my neighbors in a program I call “Ask a Muslim Anything.”
I’ve been traveling at the invitation of local communities to speak about my life, what it’s like to be Muslim in America today, and how I came to convert to Islam. I talk about Islam and its history—especially in America—and about the Middle East, terrorism and associated political and social issues.
Nothing is off the table: I speak, to the best of my experience and knowledge, of faith, tradition, understanding, conflict and identity. All questions are welcome.
I’m doing this not to proselytize but to reconcile—to reaffirm and strengthen bonds of comity and faith—and I am overwhelmed by the beauty and generosity of the responses I receive, all seemingly in reflection of the belief that, as the Qur’an tells us, “We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (49:13).
We come together to know one another.
I’ve found that, when engaged in small-scale or one-one-one conversations, my neighbors—even those who are critical of Islam and fearful of Muslims—are willing to listen and engage if engagement occurs in what are perceived to be safe or neutral places: houses of worship, libraries, schools and civic organizations.
So those are the places I go to for conversation, and not a day passes when I’m not humbled by people’s courtesy and curiosity, even when they are speaking out of fear or out of not knowing what they don’t know.
They ask about ISIS and Al Qaeda, about women and prayer. They ask about Shari’ah, Sufis, Sunni and Shi’a, about apostasy, honor killings, and terrorism—about issues that Muslims as well as non-Muslims struggle with.
And I explain that the 9/11 attacks on the US—and subsequent acts of terrorism and violence committed in the name of Islam which have irrevocably scared the national psyche—are no more representative of Islam than the KKK or the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple at Jonestown are representative of Christianity.
Almost invariably, someone will ask me whether Muslims are required to practice taqiyya or dissimulation—deliberate lying to non-believers to advance the cause of Islam—and whether I’m practicing taqiyya in order to proselytize.
I tell them no. I explain to them that I didn’t even know the word taqiyya until critics of Islam introduced me to it, but maybe they think I’m practicing taqiyya about taqiyya!
Indeed, I explain to my neighbors that Islam has been part of America’s religious and political fabric for generations, and that there was little anti-Muslim rhetoric in the early days of the Republic. Tolerance was clearly articulated in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, for example, which stated:
“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation …”
I tell them that John Quincy Adams had a copy of the first Qur’an printed in America with him (by Isaiah Thomas in 1806) when he defended the Amistad Rebellion mutineers, many of whom were Muslim, and that Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography that he wanted a meeting hall built in Philadelphia so inclusive “… so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
I cannot imagine any public figure voicing such sentiments today—and neither can most of the people I talk with in my conversations—even as we recognize that Muslim Marines, auto mechanics, artists, educators, photographers, doctors, scientists, writers and students live amongst us, pay their taxes, and fight, defend and die during America’s wars.
My neighbors, most of whom have never knowingly met a Muslim before they meet me, come to understand that before 9/11, Muslims were so well assimilated that they only appeared every ten years—as part of the national census.
Together, we recognize that the anti-Muslim demons that today roil America’s domestic tranquility were first released when Barack Obama decided to run for president, demons quite distinct from those that followed 9/11.
Today’s demons emerged when truthers, birthers, and assorted conspiracy theorists, united by fear and ignorance, determined not only to disenfranchise Barack Obama but along with him anyone remotely related to “The Other”—primarily Muslims.
Obama was identified as foreign, Kenyan—and Muslim—because his opponents couldn’t use the N-word any longer. As a result, the use of “Muslim” as a derogatory term that is meant to denigrate and diminish someone’s humanity has metastasized today into “Muslim” as a code word, not just for believers in Islam but for all those who are non-privileged, non-white, and non-Christian.
As a result, for many Muslims today, hearing fellow Americans ignorantly attempt to disenfranchise, marginalize and target a faith community that’s been present in these lands for nearly 400 years for craven political purposes is not unlike waking up to see a cross burning on America’s communal front lawn.
I want to help put out that fire.
I want my neighbors to understand that, while it’s true that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, that doesn’t mean that all its contents are meant to be read literally; that Islam in not monolithic and Other; that Muslims are as fully within the Abrahamic tradition as are Jews and Christians; and like those other traditions we, too, are challenged by those who attempt to interpret scripture for privilege, profit, and power.
I answer people’s questions because I want to be able to breathe freely again.
Prophet Muhammad once spoke of a man who asked God why he was being punished. God answered, “You passed by an oppressed person but did not help him.” I travel from community to community because I want to find out how we can struggle to express solidarity with the oppressed and the occupied, and agitate for social justice regardless of ethnicity, color, gender or faith—so as to pass by no one.
And I nurture conversation so that with my brothers and sisters we can struggle to find a path through which we can serve God and humanity with dignity and respect, and where together, we can all sit in safety under a communal vine and fig-tree.