A Letter to Your Beautiful Heart: Muslims are Your Family, Too, America
A certain Middle Eastern religion is much maligned in this country. Full of veils and mystery, it is seen by many as sexist. Often violent, sometimes manipulated by demagogues, it yet has sweetness at the core, and many people are turning to it in their search for meaning.
I’m talking about Christianity.
This Muslim squirms when secular friends, tolerant toward believers in Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Native spirituality, dismiss Christians with snorts of contempt. “It’s because the Christian right wants to take over this country,” they protest.
This may be, but doesn’t justify trashing the religion and its spectrum of believers. Christianity has inspired Americans to the politics of Abolition and Civil Rights, as well as to heinous acts. Christian values have motivated the Klan to burn homes, and Christian values have motivated Jimmy Carter to build homes. You can’t say that when Christianity informs politics, only bad things happen.
This may strike you as odd, coming from a Muslim. My dears, it’s true: people of faith are not the apocalypse for democracy. And (here comes the Muslim agenda) that goes for believing Muslims as much as other religious folk. Muslims, in a very specific way, are not strangers in your midst. We are kin. Not just kin in the lovely way all humans are. We carry pieces of your family story.
I got a phone call one evening from a friend who is a lovable gossip in my hometown. “Have you read today’s paper?” she wanted to know. A letter-writing curmudgeon had mouthed off about how U.S. Muslims ought to be expelled, as worthless, dangerous, and un-American. “What are we going to do?” she said. We’d worked together on non-pork lunch options for our kids in school—we share that dietary law, as she’s Jewish.
Anyhow. I invited the letter-writer to coffee. Walter declined, but we started writing to each other, his letters bearing a Purple Heart address label; Walter had been wounded in WWII. He was the crotchety, racist American great-uncle I never had. I sent him family photos, as you do to even an ornery relative; he replied that he guessed I was Syria’s loss, America’s gain.
“Huh?” I said.
“Why, you’re a Syrian beauty queen,” the old charmer said.
One day there was a plastic baggie of asparagus tied to my door-knob. Mystified by this American vegetable, not one I cooked in my heritage cuisine, I brought it in—then noticed, sticking to it, the little address label with the Purple Heart. “Sauté in butter,” Walter advised. He made me promise to come to Veteran’s Day at the cemetery; I did.
A year later, I get a knock at my door; it’s Walter. “La ilaha illa allah!” he says, before “hello.” “You and I worship the same God. I know that now.” He limps into my living room and we finally sit down to coffee.
Muslims are the youngest sibling in the Semitic family of religions, and we typically get no respect from the older kids—Judaism and Christianity, I mean. That our elder sisters didn’t stick our pictures in the family album doesn’t make us less related, sweetheart. And our stories are no less legit, just because we have a different angle on family history. Want to know what happened to Hagar after she fades from the Bible story of Abraham and Sarah? Sit, have coffee, we’ll talk.
My cousin was president of a national student group, and reporters constantly ask her if Muslim youth turn to religion to reject their American identity. She grew up in the South, with friends who went to summer Bible camp. “Would you ask a Baptist that question?” she says, smoothing her headveil.
Does wearing a veil make you less American than wearing a yarmulke or a Mennonite bonnet? Does reading the Quran (even if it’s not Thomas Jefferson’s copy) make you less American than reading the Bible? If deploring U.S. foreign policy is un-American, half the population is guilty. What else you got? Name your favorite symbol of Islamic difference, and I’ll name you other Americans who do it. The guy on HBO’s Big Love with all the wives, does anyone question his Americanness?
Assimilation is overrated. And it’s not what minority religions do in America. Did Irish Catholics stop being Catholic when they came, generations ago? People once believed devout Catholics and orthodox Jews could never be “true Americans.” Today, I get emails with solemn lists of why Muslims, “according to their own faith,” can’t possibly be “loyal Americans.” The work of nutjobs. Yet purportedly sane people in DC seem to think it’s a valid question.
The Muslim spectrum contains many complex identities, from lapsed to ultra-orthodox. There’s this wisdom going around that only the liberal sort are worthy of existence. No, my dears. Conservative Muslims have a right to breath the air. Being devout, even if it means prostration prayer at airports, doesn’t make you a criminal—or a terrorist. And those stubborn unassimilated types may have a critique of America that you should hear.
I grew up Islamist. That’s right, not only conservative Muslim, but full-blown, caliphate-loving Islamist, among folk who take core Islamic values, strip them of traditional accretions, and put them to work in modernist ways in education and politics, much like evangelical Christians. One of the things about America that delighted my parents, and many Islamist immigrants, is that here, through patient daily jihad, they could actually teach their children Islam. As opposed to motley customs that pass for Islam in the Old Countries.
Look, Islam never really “took” in the Arab world. Like when Christ remains outside the heart of a Christian nation, Islam’s values have remained outside the gates of Arab societies. “Islam began as a stranger, and will go back to being a stranger,” Prophet Muhammad said, peace and blessings be upon him.
The egalitarianism he preached, for example, never much budged Arab tribalism. The Quran’s sexual ethic, enjoining chaste behavior and personal responsibility toward God for men and women both, not tribal ownership of women’s sexuality, never uprooted the sexual double standard, or the pagan honor code. Honor killing, as a recent fatwa by Al-Azhar University’s Mufti reminds believers, is a pagan rite violating Islamic principles. Here, religious Muslims can practice Islam without those entrenched codes.
They are also critical of casual sex and immodesty. Such conservative Muslim criticisms of mainstream American culture aren’t unique or new in American discourse. “Unlike Muslims, we Americans believe in women’s equality,” someone will object. Really, that’s an essential American trait? Tell that to Americans who struggle for gender justice. Muslims, pious ones even, will tell you they believe in it too, and are no more sexist than you. Your sexism just takes forms so familiar they’re invisible; holding doors open for women doesn’t seem nearly as sexist as walking protectively ahead of women.
Other American values are easily in synch with the Islam of the devout. Observant Muslims have long seen meritocracy, consultation of the people by the government, and the idea that hard work should trump family name, as refreshing American affirmations of Islamic values. “America is Islam, without the Muslim ‘brand name,’” goes a refrain from the pulpit of immigrant mosques. Usually followed by, “The Old Countries are Muslim in name, without Islamic values.”
This is the Mayflower Compact of these new Pilgrims. That analogy may not sit well with African Americans, whose ancestors didn’t come voluntarily, and with Native Americans, because it links newcomers to those who devastated their lands. Nevertheless, this is one way immigrant Muslims see themselves in this land: as part of a long caravan of faiths seeking to build the beloved community. This American narrative merges with the Muslim concept of hijrah—emigration for the sake of worshipping God freely.
“How green is America!” a visiting relative of mine exclaimed, on seeing the rolling hills of Virginia. Busy-busy metropolis had not appealed to him. I hoped to dislodge his stereotype of American life as fast, crass, and dehumanizing. When my husband and I moved to a small Southern city and took him to the farmers’ market, he saw it—the other America, past the glitz, where folks have time for each other, like in the Arab world. “What church do you go to?” is the watchword in this America. Like the Arab query, “What family?” it means, “Where do you fit in?”
We fit right in to your sweet bosom. Christianity and Islam have the genetic structure of siblings. “Allah” is in the Bible. “Elohi, elohi, lema shavaqtani,” the New Testament has Jesus (peace be upon him) saying on the Cross. “Eloh,” “Elohim” of the Hebrew Bible, and “Allah” are all derived from the same root word for “God.” When I discovered that fixed-time prayer was an early Christian rite, that Christians and Jews once practiced prostration, like Muslim prostration in our five daily salat, it was like recognizing my nose on someone’s face in a photograph, then learning the picture was of my great-grandmother. Joy!
Doctrinal differences abound, of course, and each faith has its sacraments. Exploring these distinctions should be a source of delight, not one-up-manship. In difference lies blessing and abundance. The Gospels detail many moments in Christ’s life, but for Mary’s own feelings in labor, peace be upon her, you’ll want a glimpse at the Quran—and at Muslim hearts where the scene lives.
Pious Christian and Jewish values are not inherently in conflict with American civic life, as secular folk tend to forget. Devout immigrant Muslims don’t belong? That ship has sailed. Miles Muhammad Standish and Harriet Halima Tubman are here. Not as strangers out of place, either. This is a letter to your beautiful heart: We are your blood.
A shorter version of this article was published by The Washington Post on 7/22/2007
“Mohja Kahf is grateful to a poem by Rahat Kurd for the title phrase.”