*I’ve figured out at least one reason many people have this thing about Muslims: they don’t know any.
To an astounding number of people who have chosen different paths of faith, Muslims and Islam are these mysterious anomalies to which most have been introduced largely through acts of international terrorism by misguided extremists with a ridiculously narrow and caustic outlook on anything they don’t agree with.
The assumption that these people speak for the majority of the world’s Muslims and truly represent Islam, is tantamount to someone meeting their first American—who describes himself as a “God-fearing Christian” member of the Tea Party—and assuming their skewed, racist, sexist views are the thoughts of all Americans and Christians. It’s like encountering the most unbending Jew, and surmising that all Jews are so inflexible.
I don’t know any Tea Partyers personally, but I can’t believe ALL of them are delusional racists. Yet I am stupefied at the numbers of well-meaning, intelligent people who either can’t or refuse to comprehend that the extremist doesn’t represent the average Muslim.
At the risk of sounding flagrantly cliché–and perhaps a bit, I dunno, exploitative?–I dare say—here goes–some of my best friends are Muslim. I know. But it’s true.
I didn’t embark on some mission to befriend those who practice the Islamic faith, just as I didn’t screen the Christians, Jews, Buddhists and Jehovah’s Witnesses I know, or those who simply proclaim themselves “spiritual.” Or still others who say they don’t believe at all.
You simply take people at face value. You become mutually attracted by a point of interest, and you discover their perspective on popular culture, politics, the Lakers and religion. And sometimes you learn that they are Muslim.
I remember when being Muslim was considered downright exotic. When I came to L.A., in the early ‘70s, I had a girlfriend whose best friend was a young woman from Poland who happened to be Muslim. We’d go to her place and have dinner with her and her boyfriend. I’d never been to a person’s home where taking off your shoes at the door was mandatory. After dinner, there’d be wine and pot and exciting discourse about the arts, politics. Whatever. Her being a Muslim was about as pertinent to the evening as the haircut of a check-out clerk at your local supermarket.
I have relatives who are Muslim. I once dated a devout Muslim woman who is blonde and blue-eyed. Yes, Muslims, as Malcolm X said he discovered after making his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, come in all colors.
The uninformed person might be surprised at how much they have in common with the average Muslim. They both believe in the same God—there is only one, you know; Allah is simply Arabic for God–they both believe in love. And peace. And video games and pizza and hip hop, jazz or classical or country and western. And the latest fashions. And since both can back slide, both heartily believe in the power of God’s forgiveness.
My Muslim friends fear the homemade bombs of Islamic zealots as much as anyone else.
Those who aren’t Muslim might be surprised at co-workers and neighbors who are. I’ve a 30 year-old friend born in Jordan who uses a “Christian” name at his job so that fellow employees and customers aren’t uncomfortable. However, in the five years he’s been on that job, some have learned the truth. Occasionally, they tease him about blowing up the business. Sometimes he laughs with them, sometimes he doesn’t.
At a café I frequent, a 20-something waitress, here for two years from Italy in pursuit of an acting career, recently confided to me that she is Muslim. I asked her why she chose to share this with me. “I tell you out of respect for myself. I am proud to be Muslim. I don’t tell just anyone, because I don’t want trouble. “
With my Muslim friends and family, religion has never been the elephant in the room, ever. But increasingly, I hear bitterness.
My Jordan-born friend asks me if Americans understand that as many Christians have declared wars in the name of Jesus Christ as crazy Islamic extremists have committed violence in the name of Islam.
What, he asks rhetorically, about Americans who blow up abortion clinics and government buildings? “Why does no one hold their Christianity against them? Why does no one think ALL Church goers are terrorists?”
The answer is that we all want to blame somebody else; another group. When I heard about the Boston Marathon bombing, my first thought was please, don’t let it be a black person. After all, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, responsible for 2002’s heinous Beltway Sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, during which ten people were murdered and three injured, evaporated the myth that “we” don’t commit those kinds of crimes.
But then, I saw the hell my man from Jordan was catching, and I didn’t want the suspects to be Muslim, either.
The truth is that it’s not about they or them, as opposed to us, but WE. We’re in this together, all of humanity. But sometimes, it seems like we’re all a long, long way from believing that.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via: [email protected].