On Being a Muslim in Today’s World
Posted Jan 21, 2011

On Being a Muslim in Today’s World

By Zaineb Istrabadi, Ph.D.


On the Occasion of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Service
Universalist Unitarian Church, Bloomington
January 16, 2011

Good morning, and greetings of peace to all here and beyond this sanctuary of light…. And I wish to express my thanks to Mary Ann Macklin and Bill Breedon, and the Unitarian Church for inviting me to speak this morning.

We are gathered to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the occasion of his birthday, but I would like to take a moment to honor Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who in the absence of her husband, carried on his work until her death in 2006. She is a hero of mine. In November 2001, Mrs. King said the following at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale: “I urge every one of you to become involved in nonviolent movements to rectify injustices in this country and around the world… [Let] us reaffirm our opposition to all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice, including that which is directed against Muslim and Arab people. There are extremists and fanatics who claim to be members of every religion. Terrorists do not represent the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arab people who are good and decent human beings.”  Let us, please, take a moment to remember Mrs. King.

Though this day is in remembrance of Dr. King and what he represented, I would like to take this time, since I have so big an audience, to indulge myself….. so bear with me…. And lend me your ears for a few minutes, in the name of Martin Luther King and in the name of what he stood for, for I intend to say some immodest things in praise of myself. What I shall say in a moment is not inspired by anything Dr. King said, but rather, by what a
few of our candidates in the 2008 presidential race said, or did not say, and the inspiration continues to this day from other sources.

Let me say a few words about myself: I am a Muslim, and I am decent! I am a Moslem, and I am decent. I am an Islamic, and I am decent! I am an Arab, and I am decent! I am an Ay-rab and I am decent! I am an Iraqi, and I am decent! I am an Eye-raqi, and I am decent! I am a towel-head, and I am decent! I am a rag-head, and I am decent! I am a camel-jockey, and I am decent. I am a dirty Ay-rab as I wipe the spit from my face in 1970, and I am decent. I am a sand-nigger, and I am decent.

“The only good Arab is a castrated Arab,” I was told by my lab partner in Zoology class at IU in 1973. I am a castrated Arab, and I am decent!

In the late 1970s when I was the only Muslim in my Hebrew class, and when I came out of the closet about being an Arab, suddenly I was the only one sitting on one side of the class with the rest on the other side. I am an ostracized Arab, and I am decent!

During the Gulf War of 1991 a woman came out of Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan saying that she was afraid of the Arabs of the City committing a terrorist act because, and I quote, “Terrorism is the Arabs’ forte.” I am a terrorist, and I am decent!

Yes, I am a Muslim, but Mitt Romney would not have found me fit for serving this nation of ours because of my Islam! No, when asked said he, he would never hire a Muslim American to serve in high office even if that person were qualified. This, from a man whose church had been persecuted for decades as they moved across the country westtwards from New York to as far away as Utah! I am unfit to serve, and I am decent!

When a woman expressed her fears to Senator McCain that then Senator Obama is a Muslim, “No, no,” he said, as he took the microphone from her on national television, “He is not a Muslim. Senator Obama is a decent family man…….” I am a Muslim, and I am decent…..

Sarah Palin accused Mr. Obama of consorting with terrorists because he is acquainted with US-born Professor Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University, formerly professor at the University of Chicago and director of its Middle Eastern Center, just because of his Palestinian heritage. Will Rabbi Sue Shifron of Hillel one day be accused of consorting with the Iraqi enemy because, I, American by choice but London-born to Iraqi parents, have spent time with her? Or Mother Linda Johnson or Rabbi Mira Wasserman because I have had lunch with the two of them, or Mary Ann Macklin because we had coffee two weeks ago? I am an Iraqi and I am decent!

Commentators and callers on radio and television shows spoke suspiciously about the possibility of Obama being an Arab: if you replace the “b” with an “s”, well, you know…… The Arabs are taking over; the Muslims are taking over. And not a word from then candidate Obama about, so what if he had been of Arab extraction? Rather, Senator Obama protested that he was being smeared! I am a Smear, and I am decent!

Only at the eve of the election did Colin Powell chastise the media for their silence on this matter, and the bigots for raising this issue saying should not every young Arab American and Muslim American child dream of becoming president one day? I am an Arab Muslim, and I am decent.

Just as president-elect Obama had announced his cabinet, I took note that there was and is not a single Arab American (Jewish, Christian or Muslim Arab-American) who has been asked to serve in this president’s cabinet. I am invisible at that level, and I am decent!

Juan Williams, formerly of NPR now of FOX, is afraid to get on a plane with someone in so-called Islamic clothing. I put on a scarf sometimes and I am decent. And I, every time I travel by air, feel I have to call my WASP friends to tell them where I am going, and that if something happens to that plane I will not have done it. I am a Muslim and I am decent, but the outside world is NOT decent!

Congressman Peter King of New York will open investigations on radicalism in mosques in America. I am a radical and I am decent.

Now then, let me say something else about myself: I learn from Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad; “Seek knowledge even in China,” said Muhammad, so my heart is open to learn from all wise men and women, from saints and sages from all traditions: native American, Buddhist, Hindu, Confucianist, Bahai, even atheist, from any source that teaches compassion, respect, and understanding towards other human beings! It is because I am a Muslim human being that I am decent!

I am speaking today as a Muslim woman, and not just as a human being. Muslims in many places all over the world are being killed, tortured, and maimed by armies of Western powers and US-made weaponry. The President goes to Cairo to address the Arab and Islamic world saying this “War Against Terror” of George Bush’s is not against Islam. No, indeed it is not, I agree; it is,, however, against Muslims, and it continues on and on claiming lives. This has been going on for decades even for a hundred years in some places of the world. For some very strange reason Americans expect these wretched-of-the-earth peoples to welcome the mayhem for themselves, that very mayhem which we as Americans would not accept for ourselves. We are perplexed when invaded, occupied, terrorized, threatened, humiliated, exploited, soul-crushingly besieged (to use comedian John Stewart’s words), hungry, thirsty, poverty-stricken people react with anger and sometimes, unfortunately, violence. We cannot understand when we take a chunk of their land and green-zone it, disallowing their presence in their own areas that they might get angry. We cannot understand the rage of a people sitting quietly somewhere when missiles out of nowhere destroy their lives in some form or another. The victims do not even hear or see the launching pads! When these peoples do not say, “Thank you” to their oppressors, then their demonization begins: they are primitive; they do not understand democracy; they hate modernism; they hate freedom; they hate our way of life; they hate our liberty; they hate the West; their culture promotes violence; their religion promotes violence; they hate life; they hate their children; it’s in their genes, as I was once asked by a reporter, “What is it in the genetic make-up of the Arabs that makes them prone to violence?”

Why do we expect peoples so wronged to welcome their being wronged? Are Arabs and Muslims not human beings? Do they not have feelings, wants, desires, and hopes like any other people?

Shylock in Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice said to the racist Christians around him: I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? With apologies to Shakespeare, allow me to say:

I am an Arab. Hath not an Arab eyes? Hath not an Arab hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as an American is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Does this mean that I am advocating revenge? Certainly not! And it is precisely here where I part company with Shylock though I actually understand his motivations, and despite my frustration and broken-heartedness if not anger at times, for being vilified almost at will in the American media and by a majority of American politicians as I feel I am whenever a mosque is built somewhere in the United States even in supposedly liberal cities like New York City. When a crime is committed by a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, a Hindu, it is not presented as a Christian crime or a Jewish crime, a Buddhist crime, or a Hindu crime. If I tell you I got a ticket for running a yellow light in downtown Chicago, which is true, will you run to the Qur’an to find out why I ran a yellow light, then sit and pontificate on my Islamic breaking of the law, how the Qur’an encourages it? Why is it that whenever a Muslim breaks the law it becomes an Islamic crime thereby implicating all Muslims? Do you know how alienating that is? And do you know how hard it is not to react to the bigotry and the suspicion? How hard it is not to lash out? How hard it is to wait when there is a shooting wondering if the criminal might have been born into a Muslim family where his crime will be attributed to his religion, therefore mine? Do you know how hard it is to live with the vilification day in and day out?

“Revenge is sweet” it is said, but truly it is not. It only satisfies a human being’s basest passions, and once that passion is extinguished one stands wondering what it was all about unless one is as callous and arrogant as Pharaoh of the Qur’an and the Old Testament. An eye for an eye and whole world is blind said Gandhi, and how right he was!

Two years ago I heard an excerpt on the radio from either a speech or sermon given by Dr. King. I had not heard it before since my family did not seek refuge in this country till 1970. It was only a line or two, but it was inspirational. Dr. King spoke about the measure of a greatness of a person saying it was in how much that person served. I was struck by that because my spiritual teachers speak often about the importance of service and that “servanthood” is the highest spiritual level reachable by a human being. It is no accident that the testimony of faith of Islam says “I bear witness that there s no deity but God, and that Muhammad is his messenger and servant.”

To serve, whether picking up a banana peel off a sidewalk, helping the homeless, visiting the sick, lending a helping hand, taking care of an animal, even giving a smile, giving of one’s self whether in small or big ways, is an act of worship. To serve, one must be hopeful; to be hopeful one must serve. Give hope to those of us who feel unwanted, unappreciated, unheard, and biased against, and vilified, by speaking up for us, by defending us as fellow human beings. Silence is not an option in these challenging times. Silence is acquiescence. Silence is not an option.

Dr. King gave us hope for change; Mr. Obama gave us hope for change two years ago, and we collectively gave ourselves hope through our action of electing a government that, I feel, with all the challenges it has to face, has already taken us from the edge of a precipice, that has already toned down the cowboy rhetoric, and that may lead us and the world, I hope, to better times. The Qur’an that God only changes people if they begin changing themselves. But the step must be taken by us: hope and service go together, and silence is not an option, silence and despair are not options.

May we be given us the strength to change ourselves an inch so that we will be changed a mile. May our lives be filled with mercy, compassion, understanding, and patience. May our lives be filled with light so that we can see “the Christ in every person” as Mother Teresa did, and do not let us forget that we are all created from the same piece of clay! Let us see beyond our differences (our colors, religions, philosophies, cultures, nationalities, sexuality) and reach out to those who are seemingly different than ourselves. When there is dispute, let us be reminded that we have been instructed to behave with fairness and justice, and to react with kindness to unkindness. And finally, may we all serve in any way we can, the least of which (as Muhammad said) is to voice a protest to injustice, unfairness, and bigotry.