Hope College of Holland, Michigan
Last fall I was invited by a close friend of mine who is a faculty member at Hope College in Holland, Michigan to speak in a series of Islam awareness programs. I made the trip out in early March. It snowed nearly the entire time I was there and the highest the temperature reached was 39, for about an hour, on a Saturday afternoon.
The city is almost completely protestant Christian. No one could tell me if there was a Catholic church in town. My friend, a professor there, who also hosted me in his home, mentioned there being a small Anglican community, though. “No mosques in town but there might be a Pakistani halal shop somewhere,” he explained. The town is predominantly Republican and socially conservative. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos grew up there.
Thursday Evening: ‘Inside Islam’ film, Q&A
The first program I spoke at was a film screening of a documentary, Inside Islam, discussing the findings of the book, What A Billion Muslims Really Think. After the movie, I introduced myself for a few minutes. I repeated some statistics on negative coverage of Muslims in the media and the results of national polls on people’s attitudes about Islam and Muslims. Then a professor moderated a Q&A. There were many questions, including “what is one good thing I could say about Islam?” and “what is shari’ah law and do Muslims want to impose it?”
I provided basic facts about the five areas that Islamic law, usually called “shari’ah”, covers, the sine qua non associated notions of maqaasid and fiqh for understanding shari’ah and the legal traditions of Islam, and I explained the parallel with Jewish law for Muslim life. The Arabic word “Shari’a” and the Hebrew word “Torah” share an etymology and meaning: “the path to life-giving water”. They occupy comparable places in the lives of Muslims and Jews.
Friday Afternoon: Keynote, Q&A
The amphitheater was full.
I started by describing my fond memories of wishing people peace during mass growing up. My mother is Mexican and devoutly Catholic. My father is Lebanese and Muslim. When they moved to America from Mexico, they decided as a matter of practicality that they would raise their kids to be Catholic and to speak Spanish and English. They feared that Arabic and Muslim identity would make us outcasts.
I spent a few minutes describing the kind of Islamophobia I grew up with. It wasn’t based on things I’d seen or heard in the news because I was too young to watch or care about the news. My fear of Islam grew out of several hostile interactions I’d had with my dad’s family after they moved to Seattle as refugees of the Lebanese civil war when I was just starting elementary school.
After discussing my conversion to Islam fifteen years ago, I cited the numbers of Islamophobic attacks in the post-election period and used that to springboard into a short exercise inspired by part of a recent article by Jordan Duffner, one of my colleagues at The Bridge Initiative. I asked people to imagine what it would be like to lose someone they loved in a crime motivated by someone’s hatred not of that individual specifically but of the ‘type of person’ that individual, in their eyes, represented. I explained that I knew the feeling because I lost my uncle in a deadly Islamophobic attack in 2005. I talked about the impacts it had and continues to have on me and my family. I described the Quranic verse written on my uncle’s tombstone over his grave in the interfaith section of a Christian cemetery in Seattle.
I closed by returning to my memory of shaking people’s hands in church growing up and wishing each other peace. I explained how Muslims do this in the mosque too and whenever we see each other. I connected it to the meaning of the words Muslim and Islam and then ended on a line of one of my favorite poems by Rumi about a field that exists in a place beyond all conceptions of right and wrong where there are just people living for one another, too busy loving each other to concern themselves with what is happening elsewhere.
I’ll admit, I teared up more than I thought I would when I talked about my uncle, God rest his soul. It was so quiet in that big room the entire time I spoke. When I finished, they all stood up and applauded for what felt like a couple of minutes.
In the Q&A, in response to a question about how Muslims are portrayed in news media, I proposed: “If you don’t like what they’re supplying, then tell them that, and demand better reporting.” By that same token, I encouraged people to write to the authors of articles they read that they like and to tell them so.
At one point I cleared up a misconception about not being able to hug a Muslim. And, so, afterward, a line of people formed of people who wanted to just give me a hug, wish me peace, and thank me for coming to their small, mostly-white (81%), mostly-Christian, mostly-conservative (the most Republican district in the state), largely-Trump-supporting (56% voted Trump in 2016), town where people admitted openly to me that they had harbored anti-Muslim sentiments.
The trip was an eye-opening experience.
What I encountered was not a group of people who had already made up their minds about the whole of Islam and Muslims and who believed Islamophobia was a liberal conspiracy. A few people did raise their hands when I asked if they thought Islamophobia was made up or exaggerated the night before, early into the evening, and after my keynote one elderly man attempted to convince me that anti-Christian phobia perpetrated by Muslims was the bigger problem and tried to convert me to Christianity on the spot, but on the whole, what I found was a community of thoughtful, concerned people. People I could get along with, have a civil discussion with about important issues, and call my friends at the end of the day. They hadn’t dug in their heels. They were there to learn and collect more data before making a decision. And many, it seemed, may have ended up more sympathetic to our work than they would have been absent the programs on Thursday and Friday of that week. They were open to what I shared and, by the end of the keynote program, wanted to do something to be a part of the solution.
I have to say, it’s corny but I left Hope College feeling… hopeful. It was an eye-opening experience for me. It reminded me once again of just how important the work that we do at The Bridge Initiative is and how privileged we are to work together on this challenge. Yes, we’re researchers studying Islamophobia. But, Islamophobia has always been and will always be about people and the work to counteract it is partly done on paper and online but it’s mainly accomplished when we meet face-to-face with other human beings and make that research real for them by connecting the facts with ordinary people’s stories.
If you would like a copy of the keynote speech I delivered and made several references to throughout this reflection, please email me at email@example.com. The views and opinions contained in this are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.